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Professor Salaita was fired for disagreeing too vehemently with Professor Nelson

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Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson

Steven Salaita, the scholar of indigenous peoples who lately relocated to Illinois from Virginia only to have the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana rescind his appointment to teach because of his tweets against Zionism, has gotten strong support from Robert Farley and now Scott Lemieux, at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Lemieux, a professor himself, is offended by this assertion by Cary Nelson, the Israel lobbyist and professor at U of Illinois who has supported his school’s president’s decision re Salaita:

a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole.

Lemieux says that’s a clubby criterion, making an academic appointment on the basis of who you’d like to share a drink with at your country club:

People don’t have due process protections when they’re turned down for a job, but 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. The “I would choose to have him as a colleague” line gives away the show here — this is supposed to be a professional process, not a consideration of who you’d like to be sharing cognac with at the 19th hole of the country club.

Most of Nelson’s bill of particulars consist of tweets, that while they sometimes express ideas I don’t agree with in language I would be disinclined to use, can’t possibly be firing offenses. To add to this, he asks whether “Jewish students in his classes [will] feel comfortable” with his Tweets. At least here we’re talking about something (teaching) that is relevant to whether someone should be fired, as opposed to something that isn’t (whether someone disagrees with Cary Nelson’s political views too vehemently.) But leaving aside his obviously erroneous assumption that no Jewish student could agree with the substance of Salaita’s views, this is again a remarkably poor argument. First of all, as many people have pointed out, this proves too much; it’s just an argument that no faculty member should ever express a view on a controversial topic. And, second, it’s not as if this was Salaita’s first job out of a British PhD program; if he had any record of treating students who disagree with him about Israeli policy this would, presumably, come out in the evaluation of his teaching. If it didn’t, it’s not relevant.

Sensible arguments. We can only hope that this disastrous decision, such blatant evidence of the Israel lobby’s corrupting touch, is soon reversed.

Iymen Chehade, a victim of this blacklisting himself, makes a similar point in supporting Salaita:

“Academic freedom entails that professors have the right to express their knowledge about the plight of the Palestinians both inside and outside of the classroom despite the fact that it currently deviates from the dominant narrative in the United States.”

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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20 Responses

  1. Jim Holstun on August 10, 2014, 12:17 pm

    It would be useful to consider the difficulty corollary. Suppose there were a Zionist professor tweeting furiously this summer, cheering on the IDF assaults on Gaza, writing off the beach killings as an unfortunate accident ultimately traceable to Hamas, retweeting a call to have, say, Ali Abunimah harmed, and offering clear, fact-based classroom defenses of Israel’s right to exist as an ethno-theocracy, with special rights (of return, land use, etc.) reserved for Jews, while respecting students’ rights to challenge her and present alternative opinions

    Would we argue forcefully that her preliminary conflict be honored? I hope so, and I think we would. Palestine and its supporters have the facts and the justice on their side, so that silencing the opposition is a much smaller arrow in the quill. It’s a sign of Zionist desperation that a frequently honorable man like Cary Nelson tosses his belief in academic freedom out the window when it comes to Israelis murdering Palestinians, as he himself admitted ion his interview with Ali Abunimah. And he trembles cravenly behind the inequitable iniquities of the capitalist work contract, proposing to enforce a “civility” that he himself is hardly notable for practicing with his colleagues, students, and others.

    To add to the hypocrisy here: Mr. Nelson is a frequent leftist who has published important semi-marxist studies of fully marxist cultural work, and for him suddenly to start talking like craven university counsel deserves peals of derisive laughter.,

    • Mooser on August 10, 2014, 12:44 pm

      ” frequently honorable man”

      ‘They are all frequently honorable men.’

    • tokyobk on August 10, 2014, 1:12 pm

      Jim, Salaita’s “un-hiring” is unfair, perhaps illegal. And as I mentioned before I once asked him about a tweet he made and on reflection he amended it, so he is obviously is a reasonable person who does care how he sounds and what he says. Moreover, the speed of his dismissal reflects political power, and I also don’t doubt Nelson’s hypocrisy.

      But you are dreaming if you think anyone who is reacting this way to Salaita would similarly act on behalf of your hypothetical pro-Israel tweeter. In fact someone who tweeted something like “9/11 making Islamophobia honourable since 2001” would be rightfully pilloried here.

      Would that person have their job offer yanked? That seems to be a better way to examine a double standard.

      • Jim Holstun on August 10, 2014, 1:34 pm

        No, I was unclear: I was trying to say that, while people in the anti-Occupation community would certainly attack the violent Zionist opinions, they almost certainly would not take the extra Cary Nelson step of trying to get my imaginary malfeasant fired and silenced. That’s a difference between us and them.

        And no, I don’t think her job offer would be yanked. And Cary Nelson admitted to Ali Abunimah that he wouldn’t be raising any objections–i.e., that his defense of “civility” is purely partisan strategy.

        In other words, the contemptible behavior here may indicate that the Zionist haters are at the end of their rope.

      • aiman on August 11, 2014, 4:12 am

        “And as I mentioned before I once asked him about a tweet he made and on reflection he amended it, so he is obviously is a reasonable person who does care how he sounds and what he says.”

        An example of your condescension toward the advocates of human rights and freedom from continual torture for the Palestinians. Am I to suppose your own refusal to amend your bigotry, many times expressed and which includes false charges of antisemitism which you haven’t withdrawn, is proof that you are unreasonable? You should correct your bigotry before correcting others and congratulating them for not toeing your line.

        “But you are dreaming if you think anyone who is reacting this way to Salaita would similarly act on behalf of your hypothetical pro-Israel tweeter.”

        Compare response to Joan Rivers with that of Gibson — excluding the fact that Rivers’ rant was far worse — and you’ll get an insight into your boilerplate, disingenuous comparisons. It’s proof of how warped Zionism makes its supporters even if they claim to be rational non-Zionists (aka gatekeepers) — as anti-Zionism is too morally heavy for them.

    • bilal a on August 10, 2014, 4:41 pm

      How about a McCarthy blacklist of all marxist ethno-supremacists?

      David Sheen– #IfTheJewWasOnTheOtherFoot

    • JeffB on August 10, 2014, 7:29 pm

      @Jim —

      We had a test like that with an even milder case: Scarlett Johansson. The general feeling here if you read the threads was she should be subject to a lifetime employment ban and tried by the ICC for pillage (I kid you not) because she wasn’t opposed to the settlements.

  2. Citizen on August 10, 2014, 12:26 pm

    Old country club, new country club, next country club?

    • Mike Northern on August 10, 2014, 12:48 pm

      Problem is this is not a country club. This is against our Constitution “Freedom of speech”

  3. a blah chick on August 10, 2014, 12:31 pm

    Nelson has got to be a BDS double agent. Nobody can be against the academic boycott and be this clueless.

  4. jayn0t on August 10, 2014, 1:38 pm

    By the way, why does it always say Your comment is awaiting moderation? How does Mondoweiss know what my comments are thinking about?

  5. Blownaway on August 10, 2014, 1:44 pm

    The Zionists know they are losing the battle where it counts most…on college campuses. That is why they are fighting so hard there. The strategy of taking over student governments with Jewish students backing them with money and resources disproportionately to their representative numbers worked in congress so why not on campus.

  6. Stephen Shenfield on August 10, 2014, 2:53 pm

    When I was on the faculty of Brown University I was on a hiring committee a number of times. The question of how pleasant or unpleasant it would be to have a certain candidate as a colleague was always part of the discussion. Sometimes the “clubby” criterion was crucial to the outcome. I expect it is much the same everywhere.

  7. W.Jones on August 10, 2014, 3:08 pm

    Isn’t there a basis for a lawsuit if an organization makes a promise to someone, breaks it, but the one who was given the promise had relied on that promise to their detriment?

    For example, if you promise to sell someone your boat and they buy a motor for your boat, then aren’t you responsible for their loss?

    In this case, Prof. Salaita was promised a college job and then the university retracted their promise, but it’s reason for doing so – his human rights objections to war – should not be good enough to fire him, and they should already have been aware of his politics before they hired him.

    • lysias on August 10, 2014, 5:03 pm

      It’s a question of what the law of contracts on detrimental reliance is in Illinois, but I would be very much surprised if Salaita does not have a cause of action.

      • W.Jones on August 10, 2014, 6:48 pm


        I think you are right, and generally the state laws are pretty similar in principle to the Common Law that you are familiar with. Normally if a college agrees to hire someone and announces it, and then it changes their mind after he quit another job, the plaintiff could sue.

        The Defense would have to say that the reason for breaking their contract was “compelling” or “necessitated” their retraction and out of their control and expectation, right? Or would it just have to say under the Common Law that it’s a “reasonable” basis to rescind their agreement? I guess it would have to be the former.

        The college would have to say that his statements on behalf of Palestinians were so troubling that he could not reasonably be allowed to teach students at their school, right? In turn, how compelling the school’s reason was would become an issue for a jury to decide.

  8. JeffB on August 10, 2014, 9:05 pm

    FWIW here is my take. My gut is the media isn’t covering this quite right. Generally dean’s offer appointments the board of trustees is needed for tenure not hiring. So likely here is what happened.

    1) Salaita is offered a position by the dean, since he is already tenured the dean implies the new track would be tenured.

    2) He agrees and a contract goes out. The contract has some language that the school will forward his name onto the board of trustees for tenure. The dean can’t promise tenure and the contract likely reflects this. There may be letters of intent but those are probably carefully worded to fall short of a promise.

    3) Salaita signs the contract and quits his current job.
    4) The dean does forward to the chancellor (Dr. Phyllis Wise). Wise decides Salaita is unfit and decides not to forward to the board. So what is usually a rubber stamp becomes not so rubber.

    5) So at this point Salaita does have a position but it is an untenured position and he is unlikely to get tenure if he takes it. Which means that he would be very unwise to accept the position, not that it was rescinded.

    I don’t have any inside information but I think the media is getting this wrong. The above version of events fits the most facts since some of them conflict.


    In terms of what can he do now he could accept the position and then ask for a tenure review. The review can probably force the chancellor to forward to the board but it would be going forward with a “not recommended for tenure” by the chancellor and the board is unlikely to grant tenure. My guess is there was no breach of contract here. What Salaita could argue is that the tenure offer was supposed to be a given but I would bet the actual documents he signed indicate his acknowledgement that it wasn’t a given. So if he sues he likely loses.

    Remember in a suit the burden is on Salaita not on the University. It is hard to imagine a court requiring the defendant to offer Salaita lifetime employment. I think the best he could hope for would be to have the contract for employment treated like a letter of intent for employment with tenure, in which case Salaita would be able to collect for enabling acts (moving…). And frankly I doubt he’d win even that because I suspect the actual contract and other documentation was quite explicit about the process.


    As for the moral situation on the surface it is pretty questionable. I think Salaita Tweet’s were definitely way over the line of civility. He most certainly engaged in misconduct. I don’t think he quite rose to threats (ex. “Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.”) and incitement of religious harassment (“All of Israel’s hand-wringing about demography leads one to only one reasonable conclusion: Zionists are ineffective lovers”, “All life is sacred. Unless you’re a Zionist, for whom most life is a mere inconvenience to ethnographic supremacy”), though I could see someone disagreeing. If the chancellor does disagree then I think she’s within her right to believe his conduct deserves review prior to granting tenure.

    I support free speech. I think there is a difference between pulling a gun and saying “bitch give me your f* money” and “I’d like to see HR 217 amended to include the following clause so as to redistribute property”. And that difference is civility. There was no simply no need for the tone Salaita choose to present whatever views he wanted to express.

  9. Jim Holstun on August 11, 2014, 10:44 am

    While working at AAUP, Nelson worked long and hard to defend Norman Finkelstein’s tenure, as Finkelstein himself told me. But his is very much a guild-based vision, directed toward university professors alone. Thus he

    1. Opposes BDS since it moves outside the guild toward the guild actually taking a position on something outside of it: Israeli apartheid. Better to support fully members of the guild in their work to continue fabricating munitions to blow up Palestinian babies than to exercise strictures on their academic work, and their alliances with other babykillers who are members of the guild’s Israeli affiliates.

    2. Attempts to destroy somebody between jobs, and therefore not quite in the guild: the Salaita case.

    Where he contradicts himself is in phonying up his own eminently Zionist and pro-massacre beliefs as somehow bearing on the guild: “Salaita might discriminate against Zionist students. . . . He is potentially uncollegial toward potential future colleagues in the guild,” etc.

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