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.