This past December, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Emeritus English Professor Cary Nelson gave a talk in Israel called “Why the Boycott Movement Threatens Israeli Security,” as part of a panel promoting his co-edited volume The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. His comments merit a response, especially regarding allegations about the campus environment in Urbana-Champaign, one with which I’ve become familiar in my 16+ years of local activism regarding Israel/Palestine.
Nelson asserts that if he were giving his talk regarding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) on the UIUC campus, he would be heckled. I am aware of no credible basis on which for him to harbor such a fear. If he is talking about an anti-BDS panel or event, there have been no such events. If he is talking about a panel discussion presenting opposing perspectives, there has been one such event, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which I attended and responded to last May (2014) in a Guest Commentary in the News-Gazette.
Nelson was also in attendance, and made a brief comment. He said, as he routinely does, that he supports a two-state solution and opposes BDS. My critical comments on this occasion were in response to Professor Richard Ross’s opposition to BDS and his accusations of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement. My comments were entirely within the limits of substantive, non-coercive discussion. This was clearly in no way an intimidating environment for any of those in attendance, most of whom oppose an academic boycott.
Nelson also asserts that the mock apartheid wall put up by Students for Justice in Palestine (under, it should be noted, administrative duress) for a few days (April 2014) was “a huge apartheid wall across central campus.” In fact, it was at the one edge of the Quad (scroll to the bottom), and didn’t obstruct or disrupt anyone. I’ve attended many SJP events over the years. I’ve never witnessed a hint of what could be regarded as intimidation or even disrespect of an overt nature at such events.
The picture Nelson paints regarding pro-Palestinian activism on the UIUC campus is false. My perception is in fact that in comparison to many other campuses in this country, UIUC does not have a very active BDS movement, whatever the industrious efforts of the SJP chapter, whose members I admire.
When Columbia Professor Bruce Robbins spoke off campus last (fall) semester at the Independent Media Center in support of Jews critical of Israel, as an expression of his support for boycotting UIUC as a response to the Steven Salaita affair, Nelson was in attendance. This was a civil and orderly event and would have been no less so if Nelson had chosen to speak, which he did not. If Nelson felt intimidated, that’s understandable. But that’s no reason to insinuate a collective attitude or intent on the part of students, faculty, and community members in attendance.
If Nelson is referring to a rally in support of Salaita at the administration building, Salaita’s speaking appearance at the campus YMCA, or statements made at a University of Illinois Board of Trustees meeting in support of him, then these clearly fail to make the case for anything other than passionate political discourse, organization, and activism, which should be seen as a healthy sign on college campuses (but of course is ridiculed by the most repressive elements on this campus and in this community).
Nelson has written nothing in the first person in the News-Gazette regarding Salaita, BDS, or Israel/Palestine in general. Instead, he has done interviews with the News-Gazette’s right-wing editor Jim Dey, who takes it as a personal mission to denigrate the “campus left.” In these interviews, Nelson has both feigned insouciance and claimed persecution, just as he did in his presentation in Israel. He has studiously avoided engaging in serious and substantive discourse on this campus and in this community.
One of Dey’s interviews with Nelson concludes: “But Nelson is doing what he can to oppose the movement. Scheduled soon to visit a series of campuses, including Yale and the University of Michigan, to speak on the subject, Nelson also plans to travel to Israel. Will he speak on the UI’s campus? ‘I think it’s the last place in the country for an anti-BDS talk,’ he said. ‘Pro-BDSers don’t want to give me an opportunity, and the others are afraid to do it.’”
My sense is that local “BDSers” would indeed welcome such an opportunity. But more to the point, those of us—including members of a newly-formed chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace—would welcome the opportunity to discuss the substantive issue of Israel/Palestine from genuinely diverse perspectives, something that rarely if ever has occurred here. In this spirit, I have recently published several letters to the editor inviting such discussion, including within the Jewish community.
But I’m not naïve; informed, honest, and open discussion and debate will almost always be avoided or undermined by the defamatory tactics of those who claim to be supporters of Israel. Such tactics have been assertively employed by Nelson and his 30 collaborators in The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel: claims of anti-Semitism and persecution by Kenneth Marcus, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Richard Landes, and many others, accompanied by an ethnocentric and simplistic chapter on “The History of Israel,” co-authored by Nelson, Rachel Harris of UIUC, and Kenneth Stein of Emory University.
The tone that pervades Nelson’s comments in Israel reflects that of his book, but Nelson’s spoken performance is uniquely graphic and telling. It clearly invokes the mentality of 1950s anti-communism: the cunning but clueless BDSers are going to lure, convert, and exploit our innocent and impressionable children. In short, Nelson seems paranoid.
I must also address one particularly outrageous comment that Nelson made in Israel, suggesting that the study of Israel has been “cast out of the Jewish Studies program” at the University of Illinois. Again, this is simply (and bizarrely) false. The Program for Jewish Culture and Society is not a university department; it does not schedule courses; it enlists faculty members whose interests intersect with Jewish Studies, and offers a minor program of study to undergraduates.
A course on the Israel/Palestine conflict was once taught (and quite well) in the Political Science Department, using Charles D. Smith’s admirable text. It is now taught in the History Department. The woman teaching it, a Canadian-Israeli named Rhona Seidelman, was originally brought to UIUC as a “Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor.” Even though these are two-year fellowships, she is still here five years later as a visiting professor; it’s fair to say that she was originally hired by what can be accurately called a branch of the Israel Lobby.
Seidelman’s course on the history of Israel embodies the “third narrative” approach promoted by Nelson and other nationally-known liberal supporters of Israel like Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin. This course and this general approach do not, however, provide an adequate account of the settler-colonialist movement that has resulted in the dispossession of the Palestinian people.
The Program for Jewish Culture and Society has for 10 years sponsored the Israel Studies Project, with funds from Jewish Federations of Metropolitan Chicago (again, an aspect of the Israel Lobby). I have in the past been critical of its choices for scholars in residence on websites such as Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada, and in the News-Gazette. The ISP is currently, however, hosting a Palestinian-Israeli writer named Sayed Kashua, who had some rather incisive things to say about “democracy” in Israel to Nelson’s collaborator Rachel Harris on a recent occasion that can be viewed through the website of PJCS. Given her reaction, however, I fear that Kashua’s perspectives on being a Palestinian citizen of Israel will not be the topic of future appearances.
But all of this begs the question, whether in relation to PJCS, ISP, or BDS: What is Nelson talking about? If you listen to his remarks in Israel, note there are exactly two references to things specific enough to be verified: the mock apartheid wall and the elimination of Israel from Jewish Studies. I’ve addressed those above; the rest of 15 minutes takes us into an abstract and self-referential world of assumptions and innuendo, with the specter of anti-Semitism always in the background. It’s a world in which privileged individuals claim to be victimized and persecuted by those engaging in non-violent activism and struggle for the human rights of a dispossessed people.
I would conclude be referring to the allegations regarding the potential for Jewish students not to feel “safe” in Steven Salaita’s classroom. Without conceding the point about Salaita, I would suggest that Nelson and many of his anti-BDS colleagues are also responsible for providing both a safe and stimulating environment for a group of students whom they clearly see as either threats or potential targets of persuasion and manipulation. In light of Nelson’s comments, the concern about “civility” by Chancellor Phyllis Wise of appears even more hypocritical.
Nelson condescendingly concludes in his talk in Israel that supporters of BDS can be “reached, are accessible, and their feelings can be changed.” But for supporters of justice in Palestine, there should be no illusions about “reaching” anyone inclined to be persuaded by Nelson’s rhetorical antics. There continue, however, to be tactical issues concerning the relationships among consciousness raising, organizing, and activism among those who have begun to question our own government’s complicity in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people; and how that complicity manifests itself on college campuses.