Reading Salaita in Illinois (part 2) – Cary Nelson, academic freedom’s agent provocateur

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Cary Nelson with a handful of offensive tweets from Steven Salaita (photo: Don Lavagne)
Cary Nelson with a handful of offensive tweets from Steven Salaita (photo: Don Lavagne)

This is the second of two articles on Cary Nelson’s involvement in the Steven Salaita affair. Part One, in which I examine Nelson’s false claims about Salaita’s tweets, can be found here.

In this second half of my study, I will focus on Nelson’s conflicts of interest when presenting himself as a professional authority on the Salaita case. I will also trace the anti-BDS origins of the current attack against Steven Salaita.


The unraveling of Cary Nelson

In order to preempt accusations of bias, Nelson points out that he has often defended the academic freedoms of people whose viewpoints he opposes:

I have defended a number of faculty members over the years who were critical of Israel, who strongly supported Palestinian rights, and I’ve defended them even when they said things that I strongly disagreed with.

But as I explained in my January 2014 article, Nelson has never been completely professional in defending academics who were attacked for being too “pro-Palestinian”—often subjecting them to condescension and backhanded insults while defending them.

Neve Gordon is fortunate to have his academic freedoms violated in Israel, where there are academic freedoms to be violated.
Neve Gordon is fortunate to have his academic freedoms violated in Israel, where there are academic freedoms to be violated.

To provide one additional example, take the case of Israeli professor Neve Gordon, who, after calling for an Israel boycott in the Los Angeles Times in 2009, faced public pressure from his university’s administration to resign.

Nelson, at the time the president of the AAUP, wrote an article defending Gordon but could not resist prefacing his defense by suggesting that Gordon was lucky to be living in Israel, “the one country [in the Middle East] that maintains academic freedom.” The claim was particularly insulting because Gordon’s academic freedom rights were being violated in Israel. Nelson explained that

every discussion of Israeli academic conduct [must] be framed with a reminder of the regional context. Otherwise, inadequately informed audiences can become victims of demagoguery and an exceptionalist fantasy of Israeli monstrosity be promoted.

Such were the contortions exercised by Nelson to shield Israel from criticism when professionalism demanded that he criticize one of its institutions.

Nelson has made no similar qualifications that US academics should be grateful for having their academic freedoms violated in the United States, nor has he done so with any other country.

And though Nelson has defended “pro-Palestinian” professors in the past, I noted that what professionalism he once maintained has dramatically unraveled in response to the growing popularity of an academic boycott of Israel.

Since then, Nelson has fashioned himself as an expert on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and has giving several talks against BDS to Jewish studies and Holocaust studies programs, including:

The AAUP distances itself from its leading voice

The result of Nelson’s unraveling are clear in his new streamlined interpretation of academic freedom that conveniently makes the case against Steven Salaita joining him at UIUC. It has also led to the AAUP distancing itself from its leading public voice.

Soon after Nelson was first quoted on the Salaita affair, AAUP Asscoiate Secretary Anita Levy informed the media that Nelson “does not speak for the association.” AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum and Vice President Hank Reichman were compelled to issue an official statement

because Cary Nelson … is quoted as approving the Illinois Chancellor’s action. Professor Nelson is entitled to his opinions … However, we wish to make clear that Professor Nelson’s comments do not reflect an official position of AAUP or of its Committee A [on Academic Freedom].

Contrasting with Nelson’s claims, Fichtenbaum and Reichhman stated that if news reports on the circumstances behind Salaita’s termination were true,

there is good reason to fear that Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and possibly that of the Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him have been violated.

Meanwhile the Illinois AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure called the UIUC termination as “ a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.”

And though Nelson is a member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has yet to issue an official statement, individual members have sided with Salaita and in opposition to Nelson’s viewpoint, such as Michael Bérubé. Joan Scott, another Committee A member, signed on to a letter that “call[ed] upon UIUC in the strongest terms to reverse its decision.” This is in addition to Committee A Chair Hank Reichman’s contribution to the AAUP official statement.

The origins of the anti-Salaita campaign

The question remains, though: Aside from providing the only anti-Salaita commentary for media and a new interpretation of academic feedom, what has been the extent of Cary Nelson’s involvement in the Salaita affair? To begin to address the question, we must look into how the anti-Salaita campaign unfurled.

The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom
William Jacobson giving a talk on “The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom” at Vassar College, May 5, 2014, hosted by the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union.

The Salaita affair can be traced back to William A. Jacobson, who runs the Tea-Party conservative blog Legal Insurrection. Although the blog has been around for almost six years, it has only recently begun to receive greater recognition among conservative circles, having won the award for “Most Underrated Blog” at the CPAC 2012 Red Carpet Blogger Awards and the National Blogger Club’s “Blogger of the Year” award during CPAC 2014.

Jacobson’s writings had focused primarily on Obamacare and other Tea-Party issues, with occasional reports of the growing BDS menace. He became more active in opposing BDS in late 2013, when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

At that point, Jacobson became one of the leaders in the organized backlash against the ASA, calling on institutional members to drop their memberships and contacting university administrators to issue public statements against the ASA. The Legal Insurrection website became the primary source for updates on the number of school administrations denouncing the boycott.

Jacobson also filed a spurious complaint with the IRS, alleging that the academic boycott violated the ASA’s tax exempt status.

In late January of this year, Jacobson announced “Phase 2 of the pushback against the anti-Israel academic boycott,” where he explained:

Legal Insurrection tends to take a fairly active approach to issues. We don’t just write about them; we actually pursue them. And we’re going to be pursuing them for the coming months and maybe the coming years.

Around the same time that William Jacobson was becoming more focused on academic boycotts—which was also the time Cary Nelson was becoming unhinged—ASA boycott organizer Steven Salaita was becoming a prominent voice for the academic boycott movement, writing several articles on the subject for Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss.

On July 19 of this year, Jacobson published an article titled, “U. Illinois Prof: Zionists Partly to Blame for Recent Outbursts of Anti-Semitism.” Jacobson’s article claimed that “Twitter has opened a window into the soul of the anti-Israel boycott movement,” and singled out Salaita as “one of the leaders of the anti-Israel academic boycott movement in the United States.”

At the time, Salaita’s alleged offense was in tweeting the following statement:

Jacobson added:

Salaita’s Twitter feed is crudely anti-Israel and has been since long before the recent Gaza conflict. Maybe that will be an issue for a later day.

The Daily Caller article on Salaita featured an anti-Semitic graphic that had no relation to any of Salaita’s tweets.
The Daily Caller article on Salaita featured an anti-Semitic graphic that bore no relation to any of Salaita’s tweets.

Two days later the story was picked up by the conservative website The Daily Caller, under the headline, “University of Illinois Professor Blames Jews For Anti-Semitism,” and carrying the lead:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has continued its bizarre quest to employ as many disgusting scumbags as possible by acquiring the services of Steven Salaita …

The article referred to Salaita as “a world-class Israel hater on Twitter” and “an obnoxious, obscenity-hurling, black-belt jerk on Twitter.” It also claimed that

Salaita’s Twitter feed has been a parade of foul-mouthed, Israel-bashing tweets for many moons now, observes William A. Jacobson, the Cornell University law professor who runs Legal Insurrection … “This is a sad reflection of what the academic boycott movement actually represents,” Jacobson told The Daily Caller.

The Daily Caller piece also reproduced several other tweets from Salaita’s Twitter timeline. The following day, July 22, the story entered the mainstream when the News-Gazette of East Central Illinois reported that

An incoming University of Illinois professor has drawn the ire of a conservative website after posting angry commentary on Twitter about Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in recent days.

This of course leads one to question the state of local news when the fact that a conservative website is upset constitutes a story. Regardless, as reported by the Electronic Intifada, the news report set off alarms for mainstream Jewish organizations. On the same day that the News-Gazette article was published, the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation sent an email stating that

By now, many of you have read the article in today’s News-Gazette about the University of Illinois’ recent hiring of Steven Salaita, whose inflammatory comments on social media are drawing attention from both the media and the Jewish community. I would like to take this opportunity to let you all know that leaders in the CU Jewish community take this issue quite seriously and are addressing this matter to the best of our abilities. Several of you have called to express your concern–please know that we are doing what we can, and we will keep you informed every step of the way.

Ten days later, on August 1, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise emailed Saliata to inform him that “We … will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty.”

[Correction: The August 1 date was based on documents released by the university and initially seen by the Chicago Tribune. Documents later obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act revealed that Wise’s letter was dated August 1 but not sent to Salaita until August 2.]

News of the termination went public when Inside Higher Ed reported on it on Aug. 6. William Jacobson posted the story the same day on Legal Insurrection. Jacobson indicated that he had been “following [Salaita’s Twitter] account for months now” and “thought something was up when he stopped tweeting on August 2”—which indicates how closely Jacobson had been monitoring Salaita’s timeline. Jacobson’s post also included a number of Salaita’s “hateful tweets,” dislayed as screenshots. Some of the “hateful tweets” were simply political tweets with naughty words:

Others had no profanity at all but were still deemed by Jacobson to be “hateful”:

One of the most ridiculous “hateful tweets” was a tweet that Jacobson explained was “trying to stoke racial tension” by drawing connections between the recent water shutoff crisis in Detroit, Michigan, and US financial aid to Israel:

Presumably Jacobson’s implication was that Salaita’s tweet would somehow agitate malleable African Americans in Detroit, who were no doubt existing in a state of total passivity until primed by Salatia’s tweet for “racial tension.”

In fact, the connections between the Detroit water crisis and the oppression of Palestinians were already being made by local organizers in Detroit who—rather than stoking racial tension, were finding ways to bridge racial and ethnic divides in cross-movement solidarity.

Detroit-based organizers Will Copeland and Dawud Walid, at the Detroit rally in solidarity with Gaza, 13 July 2014
Detroit-based organizers Will Copeland and Dawud Walid, at the Detroit rally in solidarity with Gaza, 13 July 2014. Photo from Dawud Walid’s Twitter.

But such concepts are foreign to Legal Insurrection, which, like any good right-wing blog, has a subject tag for the “race card.”

Such examples demonstrate that Jacobson’s list of “hateful tweets” were merely an attempt to frame as “hateful” whatever was available and then hoping a few would make impact.

Nelson’s ties to William Jacobson

On the same day that Jacobson published his list of “hateful tweets,” Electronic Intifada published its first article on the Salaita affair, quoting Nelson as saying that there were “scores of tweets” that were incriminating. “I have screen captures.”

I was drawn to this quote. Nelson did not have a Twitter account, and he did not strike me as someone who had the technical knowledge to do screen captures on his own.

Jacobson had already admitted to “following Salaita’s account for months” and had screen captures of Salaita’s tweets that—based on the number of retweets and follows per tweet—were clearly captured prior to the announcement of Salaita’s firing.

Cary Nelson declined to answer questions from me by phone, so I asked him by email whether he had taken the screenshots of Salaita’s tweets himself. He responded,

No. They were sent to me. I do not know how to do screen captures.

I also asked him if he had been in contact with William Jacobson over Salaita. He simply answered, “Yes.”

In a follow-up email, I asked Nelson if he had received the screenshots from Jacobson. His response:

The screen captures merely gave me a permanent visual record of what I had independently seen on [Salaita]’s tweet page and typed out in my notes. They provided stronger permanent backup evidence for what I was writing about, which is why I wanted them. So it really doesn’t matter who did them.

Although Nelson remained evasive with me, I later learned that he had spoken to Ali Abunimah by phone earlier that day and had already told Abunimah that the screenshots had come from Jacobson.

Nelson’s claim that “it really doesn’t matter who” provided the screenshots was a deflection. The fact that he had received the screenshots from the instigator of the Salaita affair puts his alleged professional impartiality into question, and it raises additional questions about what communications the two had prior to the announcement of Salaita’s termination.

Nelson’s ties to the Israel on Campus Coalition

Another point which Nelson has failed to disclose when he offers a professional assessment of the Salaita affair is his role as a faculty fellow in the Israel on Campus Coaltion.


The Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) is a coalition of major pro-Israel organizations in the US. With a budget of over a $1 million, it’s goal is “to advocate on behalf of the State of Israel” and “strengthen[] the pro-Israel movement on campus.”

In 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described the ICC as fighting “an additional front” in Israel’s war: “the front of Israeli hasbara—explaining Israel’s positions” on college campuses. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson further explained that the ICC was created because “Jewish organizations in the US have marked Israel’s image in the academic sphere as an issue of extreme strategic importance.”

Faculty fellows are overseen by Sam Edelman, the executive director of the ICC’s Center for Academic Engagement in Washington DC. Edelman also happens to be featured on the Israeli Embassy website as an expert available to speak about “The Arab Israeli Conflict: Warfare on the Campus.”

I asked Nelson whether his association with an organization that attempts to regulate campus criticism of Israel would be a conflict of interest worth disclosing when speaking about the Salaita case, which is ostensibly about tweets critical of Israel. He responded:

I have been an elected leader of the national AAUP for 20 years. I am coauthor of 5 of its Redbook statements—based on the new edition. I have written widely on AAUP’s academic freedom policies. Before commenting on Salaita’s case I spoke with other long-term AAUP leaders and staff—by which I mean people with more than 30 years of experience with the organization. I did not ask ICC for advice. There has been plenty of ICC and other organizational list serve conversation about Salaita, but it didn’t begin until AFTER the news about the Chancellor’s decision broke in the news.

Yet no long-term AAUP leader or staff has publicly supported Nelson’s comments on the Salaita case and in fact have publicly distanced themselves from Nelson.

Moreover, whether Nelson asked the ICC for advice does not change the fact that his affiliation and participation with the ICC poses a conflict of interest. An affiliation does not have to be one of receiving orders.

Nelson’s ties to the Third Narrative

In a subsequent unsolicited email to me, Nelson tried to emphasize his involvement in an organization called the Third Narrative over his ICC affiliation:

By the way, I am Co-Chair of the Academic Advisory Council of The Third Narrative, whereas I am simply one of more than 30 ICC fellows. As you know the Third Narrative seeks a middle way that honors the rights and needs of both Palestinians and Israelis, promoting empathy for both sides. I also remain on the AAUP Executive Committee. It is notable that you prefer to cite my ICC affiliation, rather than my leadership role in TTN.

The final sentence, in which he found it “notable that you prefer to cite my ICC affiliation, rather than my leadership role in TTN,” appeared to accuse me of attempting to discredit him for his involvement in the ICC. This suggests that Nelson knew his ICC affiliation was a liability to his authority on the Salaita case.

Yet Nelson emailed me this message on the same day that he spoke to Ali Abunimah, telling Abunimah that he was unaware of anything controversial about the ICC.

The reason I did not consider citing The Third Narrative (TTN) was simply because, unlike the ICC, it is a very new organization with little presence outside of its website and the occasional press release.

Although ostensibly described as taking a middle ground between “two competing narratives on the Middle East—Israeli and Palestinian,” TTN was launched a year ago and designed to “counter anti-Israel bias on the far left.” Thus TTN is geared primarily toward attacking the pro-BDS left and rarely critiques the pro-Israeli right. TTN even distributes a booklet called “Progressive Answers To The Far Left’s Critiques of Israel.”

This is a common anti-BDS tactic that I discuss elsewhere, where the goal is to drive “a wedge between progressive values and the BDS movement,” in the words of a guidebook from the Israel Action Network (another organization that Nelson has worked with).

TTN’s Academic Advisory Council (herein AAC), for which Nelson serves as co-chair, was only founded in March of this year. The council professes support for academic freedom and opposition to academic boycotts, although the stance is not totally clear.

Claire Potter, who is listed as an AAC member, had previously opposed academic boycotts but eventually voted in support of the ASA boycott initiative. She has also expressed preliminary support for Salaita.

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Moreover, one must wonder what Cary Nelson would make of his fellow AAC founding member Eric Alterman, whose tweets against his political opponents are particularly nasty, referring to BDS supporters as “dipshits,” Mondoweiss readers as “Mondoweiss dipshits,” opponents on Twitter as “self-identif[ied] dipshits,” and Phil Weiss as someone Alterman knew “when his beat was his dick.”

Is Nelson concerned with Alterman’s own “repeated profanity, with a high degree of anger,” as he is with Salaita’s?

Ultimately, The Third Narrative is an insignificant organization whose strong anti-BDS stance nevertheless compounds the conflict of interest for Nelson.


In a comment left on the Electronic Intifada, Nelson defended the Legal Insurrection website as

an extremely useful and responsible source of factual information about the struggle against the movement to boycott Israeli universities … It also provides political commentary, but in a far more rational style than a number of sites speaking for the opposition.

It is ironic that Nelson, whose main nemesis in the battle for academic freedom has been David Horowitz, was now praising a website that has called for David Horowitz to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for exposing “the ugly truth behind the anti-Israel campus movement.”

And just as David Horowitz is a former radical turned hard-right polemicist, Nelson seems to be following the path, at least when it comes to Palestine/Israel.

An immediate consequence of this turn is that any media seeking to quote Nelson should disclose his conflicts of interest and his partisan affiliations. But more importantly, an attempt to cast Nelson’s voice as an authority on the Salaita affair for the sake of balance is misleading.

Nelson’s opinions constitute a singular opinion not reflected within the AAUP or with any other known authority. The fact is there has been no credible authority at all taking a professional stance in support of the UIUC administration and against Salaita.

We must also note that no individual or organization has actually come forward to take responsibility for waging the campaign against Salaita that has resulted in his termination.

This should tell us something about both the campaign against Salaita and the credibility of Cary Nelson.

I would like to conclude by offering the final words to Steve Salaita, who has been unable to comment on his case. In offering him the final words, we must first revisit the initial tweet that Salaita’s detractors employed to defame him:

Salaita has actually written at length on the topic of this tweet.

Cary Nelson claims that the “main context for [Salaita’s] tweets … are his published writings, both in print and on line.” In this case I agree, and we can find meaning for this tweet from the following two passages of Salaita’s book Israel’s Dead Soul, which I reproduce at length to deny detractors another opportunity to misrepresent.

Since Cary Nelson holds tweets in such high regard, perhaps we should think of this as a book to supplement a tweet:

There has not been enough close reading of the rhetorical and discursive features of the conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. We must think about the conditions in which Israel supposedly inspires anti-Semitism. The conflation in question is framed mainly by the popular construction of Israel as a state coterminous with an ethnic group. Most of Israel’s supporters are adamant that Israel is a state for all Jews, and thus an entity that cannot be detached from ethnicity. This condition is common to most nation-states, but in the case of Israel the juxtaposition of national belonging and ethnic background is explicit juridically and rhetorically. It is not Israel’s enemies but its advocates who juxtapose Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity. In other words, if it is true that Israel evokes anti-Semitism, then according to their own logic it is primarily the fault of Israel’s most passionate supporters.

It is not my goal to assign the blame for the existence of anti-Semitism to anybody. Racism, a category in which anti-Semitism belongs, is a complex phenomenon, dynamic and multivalent. The blame for racism ultimately rests in the existence of injustice from which individuals or groups benefit economically, psychologically, or politically. Individuals, governments, and corporations also play a prominent role in its survival. I want to be clear that I am not blaming anti-Semitism on Jews, then. I am, however, making the crucial distinction between the existence of anti-Semitism as a historical affliction and the ardent defense of Israel as necessarily Jewish and how that sort of discourse facilitates its dissemination. More important, that sort of discourse places a type of onus on Israel that its supporters would surely consider unsavory, which is to act as an emissary for Jews throughout the world. In defending Israel’s eternal and inherent Jewish nature, its supporters have no choice but to reinforce that onus. This defense isn’t so much a Faustian bargain as it is a starkly utilitarian choice that has far-reaching consequences for the many people whose lives are affected by Israel’s comportment and identity. [pp. 15–16]

If Israel is the embodiment of Jewish culture, then it is being entrusted with a sort of authority that no nation-state can execute favorably. Herein lies the main problem of conjoining culture and national character. Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness. Moreover, they perform a nonconsensual appropriation of all Jewish people into the service of state policies that render the culture indefensible along with the state policies that are said to arise from the culture. It is never a good idea, even through the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable. [p. 23]

[Special thanks to Isaiah Silver for some useful leads.]

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Wait, so what you’re saying is that someone who presented himself as an academic-freedom-defending former President of the AAUP was actually fronting for a radical right Zionist blogger, and that in concert they induced a major university to strip a professor of his job? Why I never would have guessed that’s how this story would end.

Very good two part article! Phan Nguyen, you’ve become a master at dismantling the talking points. No stone left unturned. It’s often long but always worth it!

It’s sad that it takes two extraordinarily well written articles to deconstruct a couple of baseless and malicious accusations that were enough to promptly get a good man fired.

“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”

I hope Mr. Salaita doesn’t rule out standup comedy if things don’t work out otherwise.

Phan Nguyen,
These two articles made for riveting reading and were meticulous in research illuminating…thanks for your hard work.