Tag Archives: Palestine

The Cary Nelson Standard of HireFire (Updated) (Updated again)

10 Aug

In his latest interview on the Salaita Affair with Huffington Post, Cary Nelson returns repeatedly to the claim that Salaita is “obsessive” and “obsessive-compulsive” on the topic of Israel and Palestine.

Given, as Nelson acknowledges in the interview (indeed, insists on it), that Israel/Palestine is one of Salaita’s areas of academic research, it’s a strange charge to level at a scholar.

Imagine any of the following statements:

That Einstein fellow: He’s obsessive on this relativity question. Firehire him!

That Arendt gal: She’s obsessive-compulsive about the problem of evil. Keeps coming back to it. Dehire her!

That Nelson fellow: He’s obsessive about the Salaita fellow. He even says he’s been following Salaita’s tweets for months. Firehire him!

Anyone worth her salt in academia is a little obsessive about her topics of interest.

But even if Israel/Palestine were not one of Salaita’s areas of academic research (it’s certainly not mine), in what universe is to legitimate to criticize an American citizen for being concerned—or, yes, obsessed—about grave human rights abuses in another part of the world? (Those people marching on behalf of Soviet Jewry. They’re a little obsessed, aren’t they?) Particularly when his government is funding those abuses.

But the truly revealing moment in this interview comes when Marc Lamont Hill, the host, initiates the following exchange (at 22:45):

Lamont: If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel, should that person be hired?

Nelson: No. I’ve advocated that Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and remove the settlements.

Lamont: Okay.

Nelson: So I’ve taken a position in relation to the Jewish settlers. I think the Occupation is poisonous. I think it needs to come to an end. And I’ve advocated unilateral withdrawal.

Read that exchange carefully and think about what Nelson is saying.

Asked whether a professor should be fired for his positions on Israel, Nelson says no, he shouldn’t because, well, I hold those positions, too. Instead of saying that academic freedom means that a professor should not be removed from his position because of the content of his opinions, whatever those opinions might be, Nelson says he shouldn’t be removed because the opinions he holds are perfectly respectable, and we know they’re perfectly respectable because I, Cary Nelson, happen to hold them myself. Even though Nelson had just said, seconds before this exchange, that differences of opinion should not be the basis for making decisions about hiring and firing. A mindless moment of uttering the catechism, I guess.

I thought Scott Lemieux was exaggerating when he wrote, in a critique of Nelson’s position on Salaita, that “this still doesn’t mean that ‘does the candidate disagree with Cary Nelson about Israeli policy too stridently?’ is a criterion that any responsible hiring committee should be taking into account.”

Turns out, Scott was right: whether and how you agree or disagree with Cary Nelson is in fact Cary Nelson’s standard of who should be hirefired.

Update (11:15 am)

It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter and in the comments that I may have misconstrued Nelson’s position in response to that Hill question. Give me a bit while I try to work out the mistake and will post a correction.

Update (11:45 am)

Thanks to Ari Kohen on Twitter, and two commenters on this post, I realize that I now made two fairly serious mistakes in my account of that exchange between Cary Nelson and Marc Lamont Hill. The first mistake is in the transcription. Hill does not ask “Should that person be hired?”, as I had written; he asks instead, “Should that person be fired?” So that’s my first mistake.

My second mistake is in how I interpreted Hill’s question. When he says, “If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel,” he is not referring to the Jewish inhabitants—i.e., the settlers—as I had thought. He is referring instead to the Palestinians. (And in fact, in his followup question to Nelson, after this exchange that I’ve transcribed, Hill repeats the question and makes clear that he means the Palestinians, not the Jewish settlers.) In other words, Hill is asking Nelson, if a professor believes in Greater Israel, that is, in the removal of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (i.e., ethnic cleansing), should that professor be fired? Nelson says no. Nelson then follows that up with a statement of his own position, which is that the settlers should be removed.

I think I heard the question from Hill as I did because when Hill repeated the question, he thought he had to stipulate that it was a professor advocating the removal of the Palestinians, not the settlers, on the assumption, I guess, that he (Hill) thought Nelson had misinterpreted him to mean the Jewish settlers.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I made a mistake and because of my mistake I attributed a position to Nelson that he does not hold. My apologies to Nelson, and to my readers.

If you’re wondering why I’m not simply taking this post down, it’s because I don’t believe in hiding my mistakes and wouldn’t want to be construed as doing so. Better to just cross out the errors and own up to them publicly.

But for the boycott there would be academic freedom

6 Feb

When people say that the ASA boycott violates academic freedom they seem to assume that academic freedom in Israel/Palestine exists. But for the boycott, goes the argument, there would be academic freedom. But as this fact sheet by the Institute for Middle East Understanding suggests, that is not the case for Palestinians.

One of our most minimal definitions of any kind of freedom, academic or otherwise, is the absence of external impediments to the physical movement of our bodies. What Palestinian students and scholars routinely face is the presence of external impediments to the physical movement of their bodies.

Here are some highlights:

Due to Israeli restrictions imposed in cooperation with the government of Egypt, it is extremely difficult for any of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians to travel abroad to study, attend academic conferences, or to leave for other purposes. Entry into Gaza by foreign academics has been similarly limited.

Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships.

In 2010, amidst great fanfare during a visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a program to provide scholarships for students from Gaza to study in the West Bank. In 2012, after Israel refused to issue travel permits to the students, the Obama administration quietly canceled the program.

While Israel does not specifically prohibit the importation of books into Gaza as part of its blockade and siege, doing so is extremely difficult, leading to a shortage of books on all subjects. At one point, Israel barred the importation of writing paper, notebooks, and pencils (leading to a shortage of the latter two) into Gaza.

It’s useful to compare these forcible restrictions on the physical movement of Palestinian bodies to the entirely voluntary ASA boycott. Is there any comparison?

Peter Beinart Speaks Truth About BDS

5 Feb

Peter Beinart is a liberal Zionist, a firm believer in the State of Israel, and a staunch critic of BDS.

And this is what he has to say in Haaretz:

But the tactical brilliance of BDS becomes clearer with every passing month.

At a time when their leaders are bitterly divided and their people are geographically fragmented, BDS has united Palestinians like nothing else in recent memory. For the many young Palestinians fed up with both Fatah and Hamas, it offers a form of political action untainted by corruption, theocracy, collaboration and internal repression….And by relying on international activists—not Palestinian politicians—it universalizes the Palestinian struggle…

But there’s one more factor that makes BDS so tactically shrewd: It exploits the mendacity of the “pro-Israel” establishment. Let me explain.

Many BDS activists oppose the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. Some might reluctantly swallow one if a viable Palestinian state were born alongside it. But what unites virtually everyone in the movement is their disgust with an American-led “peace process” in which they believe Palestinians lack the power to achieve their minimal demands. The best way to equalize the scales, they argue, is through economic and cultural pressure.

Were the mainstream Jewish organizations that reject BDS in the name of a negotiated two-state solution actually promoting a negotiated two-state solution, their strategy might have merit. But they’re not.

In truth, establishment American Jewish groups don’t really support the two-state solution. Or, at least, they don’t support it enough to risk a confrontation with the Israeli government. Which is why they are more an obstacle than an asset to the American-led ‘peace process.’ And why they can’t stop BDS.

What unites BDS activists, despite their divisions, is their fervent belief that someone must challenge Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights. Were establishment Jewish organizations to pose that challenge—even just rhetorically—their opposition to BDS might carry some weight. But they’re not, and BDS activists know it.

Remember Abba Eban’s famous quip that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” These days, that’s what Palestinian activists say about us.

Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!

3 Feb

About 75 Nearly 100 members of the Columbia University faculty have issued a forceful response to the New York State Legislature bill that would make it illegal for universities and colleges to use public money to fund faculty involvement in organizations like the ASA.

Signatories include such noted scholars as Lila Abu-Lughod, Eric Foner, Akeel Bilgrami, Jean Cohen, Victoria de Grazia, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mae Ngai, Todd Gitlin, Judith Butler, and Patricia Williams. Signatories also include prominent opponents of the ASA boycott, who nevertheless understand the threat this bill poses.

Here are some excerpts from their letter:

These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally, and specifically target the viewpoint expressed by that speech and association. Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.

These proposed laws have been cynically misdescribed as protecting academic freedom, when in fact they do just the opposite – if the Anti-Boycott bills become law they will threaten constitutionally protected academic speech and debate by punishing political speech and action by academics on matters of public concern.

A key component of academic life is membership in professional organizations, such as the ASA. Indeed it is the exceptional faculty member who is not a member of one or more professional organization. Membership in professional academic organizations, attendance at annual meetings, and participation in committee work provide important opportunities for professional development, intellectual exchange, and the evolution of knowledge in the field. Columbia University, in keeping with our peers, supports faculty research and professional development by reimbursing faculty for the costs of membership in relevant professional organizations, and covers the reasonable costs of travel to official meetings of those organizations.

Frequently the governing bodies and/or the membership of professional academic organizations take positions on matters of public concern, such as climate change, the military dictatorship in Honduras, apartheid in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to deny a visa to Professors Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to visit the U.S., the detention of scholars in Iran, President George W. Bush’s administration’s treatment of foreign prisoners – calling such treatment torture – and the Pentagon’s previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Finally, the proposed anti-boycott bills specifically target a particular form of First Amendment expression, the boycott. About this the Supreme Court has also been clear: boycotts “to bring about political, social and economic change” are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment. This form of political action has been used in countless contexts through time and across circumstance, but it has a particularly important history in the United States as a tactic to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, including the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1982 Supreme Court case N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. recounts the civil rights movement’s use of boycotts to challenge racial segregation in Mississippi and cements this political tactic as one clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not. Regardless of whether one supports the cause to which this particular boycott is responding, we all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts. A law targeting the boycott of academic institutions in countries such as Israel, Hungary, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. Simply because a cause or political viewpoint may be unpopular with elected officials does not, and cannot, justify a law censoring speech by academics in connection with that cause or viewpoint. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has clearly stated that the purpose of these bills is to cut state aid to academic institutions that fund membership in professional organizations such as the ASA. These bills thus embody exactly the kind of retaliatory action undertaken by public officials who dislike the content or viewpoint of certain speech activities that courts have consistently found unconstitutional.

An Unoriginal Thought About the Israel/Palestine Conflict

2 Feb

We seem to be entering a new phase of the Israel/Palestine conflict, in the US and perhaps elsewhere. As Israel loses increasing control over the debate, its organized and institutional defenders have to resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate. As they resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate, they lose the hip, politically tolerant, embodiment-of-social-justice aura—the Middle East’s only democracy, the country is one big kibbutz, etc.—that traditionally helped them control the debate. Historically speaking, that’s not a good position for self-described liberal democratic regimes to be in.

Jewfros in Palestine

31 Jan

Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman.

Shokin writes:

I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory.

Shokin does a wonderful job describing how her hair was caught up with her feelings of awkwardness, shame, and exclusion, how difficult it was as an adolescent to contend with images of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera from the vantage of “frizzy brown hair and glasses.” This was no simple matter of teenage angst, Shokin makes clear; it cut to the heart of her Jewish identity, not to mention a long history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, Jewish looks, including hair, have been a dividing line between the drowned and the saved. As that simple line from Paul Celan reminds us: “your golden hair Margarete/ your ashen hair Shulamit.” So it’s quite clear in Shokin’s piece that she’s not simply describing her personal insecurities. She’s tapping into a wider conversation, familiar to members of other ethnic minorities, about how particular conceptions of beauty become markers of status and inclusion—and, concomitantly, inferiority and exclusion. It’s no wonder that when Shokin goes to Israel and sees so many dos like her own, she feels at home.

But there’s something to be said about stepping into a hair salon and not feeling like a piece of work, just as there is about stepping into crowd of people and not feeling like a stranger.

That said, the piece suffers from an obliviousness I can’t help flinching at. Nowhere in Shokin’s discussion does she even give a hint that she’s aware that her feeling at home comes at a cost to someone else. How might a teenage Palestinian girl in the West Bank—undergoing not only the adolescent angst that Shokin once endured but also the facts of the Occupation—read this piece? Might she not respond, “I have to suffer all of this, just so you can feel at home with your hair?”

I’m being tendentious. But it’s a tendentious situation. And articles like this don’t help. They speak instead to a larger cluelessness among Jewish Americans about what they’re doing when they go to Israel and find themselves at home.

I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had over the years with Jewish defenders of the State of Israel whose position is entirely fair and eminently reasonable—so long as you forget that there are actual Palestinians living there. People I love and respect mount air-tight arguments and make genuinely moving cases to me about the Jewish need for a refuge from persecution; about the desire to live somewhere—anywhere, say some—where they are not a minority; about the stirring feeling of hearing Hebrew spoken in the street; about the longing to feel at home. About wanting to be a teenager who loves her hair.

All of this I hear, and think, yes, of course, how could anyone not understand and empathize with that? But all of these heartfelt and legitimate claims rest upon a simple omission: the Palestinians. For these claims to obtain their intended force, we have to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t there—or that they don’t exist.

Shokin’s piece is a microcosm: its adolescent sense that my problems are the only problems that matter in this world sound all too much like Zionist arguments for a Jewish homeland. Not Zionist arguments at their weakest, but Zionist arguments at their strongest.

The New McCarthyites: BDS, Its Critics, and Academic Freedom

8 Jan

As the attacks on the BDS movement and the ASA boycott escalate, the arguments grow wilder.

It’s no longer enough, it seems, to make unfounded claims that the academic boycott violates academic freedom. The new line of march is that mere advocacy of the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.

What’s more, it’s not crazies who are peddling this claim; as Haaretz reports, it’s coming from the heart of the academic establishment.

“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past Modern Language Association president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”

If it’s true that merely calling for a boycott shuts down the free exchange of ideas, it seems logical that such calls should be prohibited. Not only prohibited, but punished.

One prominent critic of the BDS movement, Edward Beck, makes just that argument in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Beck begins from the premise that the successful vote for the ASA boycott demonstrates that defenders of Israel can no longer wait for its opponents to act; Israel’s defenders must go on the offensive, preventing the virus from spreading further.

To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.

What does that mean in practice?

It means that every academic who opposes academic boycotts for any reason, whether it be purely academic terms or political or other reasons, must work within his or her own institution, discipline and professional society to develop the codified organizational and institutional policies that state in language that is clear and bold that the group will not entertain any proposals for academic boycotts based on national origin or institutional affiliation because such resolutions are discriminatory, may violate legal and tax statutes and are based on the notion of collective punishment, and such, are disruptive to the flow of academic discourse and research and anathema to the basic concept of academic freedom.

The policy also has to state sanctions for individual members engaging in such behavior, as this would be a violation of institutional or organization policy and regarded as academically unethical.

Read that language carefully. No academic institution is to entertain or consider a proposal for a boycott. Presumably this is to be codified in a set of bylaws or a faculty code of conduct, though Beck does not say. What he does say is that it is not the boycott itself that violates academic freedom; it is the “resolution” for a boycott. The vote for a boycott, in other words, interferes with the basic campus activities of research and discussion.

That policy must be enforced with sanctions—Beck doesn’t specify the sanctions but presumably these could include anything from a reprimand in one’s file to being fired—on any individual faculty member “engaging in such behavior.”

But what exactly is “such behavior” that would warrant the sanction? At first, I thought Beck meant an individual faculty member engaging in a boycott. So my personal refusal to attend a conference in Israel, because it is in Israel, would qualify.

But the antecedent for “engaging in such behavior” is not the boycott itself but “such resolutions.” Beck, remember, wants the defenders of Israel to move beyond reacting to boycotts that are happening; in fact, he wants to move beyond successful votes for boycotts.  He wants to head those votes off at the pass, to prevent them from becoming votes at all.

The only way to make sense of what Beck is saying is that he thinks individuals who advocate for boycotts ought to be sanctioned by their universities and professional associations.

Thus, if I push my college or professional association to adopt a BDS resolution, or publicly proclaim my intention to vote for one (with the clear purpose of persuading others to do the same), I am “engaging in such behavior.” If I merely call for a boycott, to use Professor Berman’s language, I am “engaging in such behavior.”

Berman says he’s not willing to go as far as sanctions: “But I don’t think I would want to elevate the principle that political statements should be grounds for academic sanctions.” It’s not clear why he thinks this: given what Berman said about mere advocacy impinging on academic freedom, it would seem entirely appropriate to punish such advocacy. After all, if I walk into the classroom of my colleague next door, shouting and screaming nonsense, being needlessly disruptive and preventing her from teaching her students, I would be subject to disciplinary action. For the very reason that my activity prevents the free flow of ideas and communication that is the essence of campus life. So if the mere call for a boycott does essentially the same thing, why shouldn’t it be punished?

Who knows? But the mere fact that we’re even having this discussion at all should tell us how far down the road of repression the opponents of the ASA boycott are willing to go—all in the name of academic freedom.

These bizarreries of freedom being squelched in the name of freedom remind me of nothing so much as arguments that were common during the McCarthy era.

Deploying similar chains of extended causality, anticommunists—including a great many liberals—argued that the problem with the Communist Party in the United States was not that it had attempted a violent overthrow of the US government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized an attempt to violently overthrow the government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized a movement that would attempt to violently overthrow the government; it hadn’t even done that.

No, the real crime of the Communist Party, as the Supreme Court put it so beautifully in Dennis v. United States, was that it had organized a movement that advocated, and sought to teach its members, the notion that when the time was right, at some completely undefined point in the future, it would be entirely justified and appropriate, indeed necessary and obligatory, to attempt a violent overthrow of the government.

In making this argument, the Supreme Court drew from a particular definition of political speech crimes, which were found in the Smith Act,  the 1940 statute upon which the leadership of the Communist Party was tried and convicted in 1949. The relevant sections of the statute do not criminalize the violent overthrow of the government or even advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. Instead, they criminalize the following:

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence….

Notice just how many steps removed from actual violence these speech crimes are, how many discrete actions must be engaged in before we even get anywhere near something like a violent overthrow of the government: “attempt”….”to organize”….”a group”….”that advocates”…”the violent overthrow of the government”…at some undefined moment in the future. Talk about six degrees of separation!

Here’s how the Supreme Court interpreted that language in the Dennis case, which upheld the conviction of eleven leaders of the Communist Party.

Obviously, the words cannot mean that, before the Government may act, it must wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited. If Government is aware that a group aiming at its overthrow is attempting to indoctrinate its members and to commit them to a course whereby they will strike when the leaders feel the circumstances permit, action by the Government is required….In the instant case, the trial judge charged the jury that they could not convict unless they found that petitioners intended to overthrow the Government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” This does not mean, and could not properly mean, that they would not strike until there was certainty of success. What was meant was that the revolutionists would strike when they thought the time was ripe.


The mere fact that, from the period 1945 to 1948, petitioners’ activities did not result in an attempt to overthrow the Government by force and violence is, of course, no answer to the fact that there was a group that was ready to make the attempt. The formation by petitioners of such a highly organized conspiracy, with rigidly disciplined members subject to call when the leaders, these petitioners, felt that the time had come for action, coupled with the inflammable nature of world conditions, similar uprisings in other countries, and the touch-and-go nature of our relations with countries with whom petitioners were in the very least ideologically attuned, convince us that their convictions were justified on this score. And this analysis disposes of the contention that a conspiracy to advocate, as distinguished from the advocacy itself, cannot be constitutionally restrained, because it comprises only the preparation. It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger.

It’s that kind of repressive language and logic of containment, of nipping the threat in the bud, of suppressing speech before it becomes action, of holding that the speech itself is a crime, that we see in opponents of BDS and the academic boycott.

Like their predecessors—I’m thinking now of Sidney Hook, who argued that members of the Communist Party should not be allowed to teach in schools, also on the grounds of academic freedom—our latter-day McCarthyites throw around the word of freedom as they slowly and steadily destroy it.


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