Steven Salaita, Cary Nelson, and academic freedom

A letter from the ISR editors
August 14, 2014

In early August, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) rescinded its offer of a tenured professorship to Steven Salaita, a scholar of American Indian Studies.  Dr. Salaita has been an outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism and is the author of Israel’s Dead Soul. The university’s decision to rescind the job offer to Salaita, according to a report in Inside Higher Education, was prompted by “the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza,”[1] marked by spontaneous indignation against Israel’s slaughter of Gazans.

Cary Nelson, a past president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and a faculty member at UIUC, has made multiple public statements in defense of the university, condemning Salaita’s anti-Zionist comments on social media as crossing the boundaries of “collegiality and civility,” as well as crossing “the line into anti-Semitism.”[2] We, as editors of the International Socialist Review, are doubly compelled to state our position in this case, both because Nelson wrote a contribution to this journal in 2012 and because of its implications for academic freedom.

We strongly believe that Dr. Salaita’s rights as a citizen and an academic have been blatantly violated. As an August 7 letter from the Center for Constitutional Rights to UIUC chancellor Phyllis Wise condemning the university’s treatment of Salaita notes, the university’s letter offering Professor Salaita the position “expressly stressed the University’s adherence to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” The letter continues that the university’s offer meant that “Professor Salaita could rest assured that his tenured position and the foundational principles of academic freedom and expression would permit him to share his views without fear of censure or reprisal.” [3]

In the midst of Israel’s assault, which has involved the commission of war crimes in Gaza, the Twitter-sphere was filled with appropriate outrage like Salaita’s over the deliberate bombing of markets, mosques, schools, hospitals, and children at play. In one tweet, Salaita wrote, “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”[4] As Brooklyn College political science professor and blogger Corey Robin writes, if statements like these can be cause for dismissal, no professor is safe:

On Twitter, many of us—not just on this issue but a variety of issues, and not just on the left, but also on the right—speak in a way that can jar or shock a tender sensibility…. That’s the medium…. [I]t’s fairly chilling to think that a university official might now be combing through my tweets to see if I had said anything that would warrant me being deemed ineligible for a job. Or worse, since I have tenure, that an administrator might be doing that to any and every potential job candidate.[5]

Professor Nelson has expressed unqualified support for the University of Illinois’ decision, calling professor Salaita’s tweets “loathsome and foul-mouthed.” By his own admission, Nelson has been closely monitoring professor Salaita’s social media content for several months. In the fact of Israel’s actions, we find it notable that professor Nelson has found the time to denounce Salaita’s angry words but not Israel’s violent actions. We consider it unconscionable that Professor Nelson, who has in the past been an advocate of academic freedom, would contribute to a McCarthyite atmosphere in the academy toward advocates of Palestinian freedom.

Firing Professor Salaita for tweeting angry opinions is in direct violation of the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which states, “When [professors] speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Indeed the AAUP has issued its own statement, writing, “The University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.”[6]

As president of the AAUP from 2006–12, Nelson was a prominent advocate of academic freedom—except when it comes to Israel, where he, like many intellectuals in the United States, has exhibited the phenomenon of “PEP”—progressive except Palestine. He has frequently invoked the AAUP’s position, adopted in 2005, that academic boycotts restrict academic freedom by preventing the free exchange of ideas, even though the academic boycott of Israeli universities is clearly aimed at advancing the academic freedom (among other rights) denied to Palestinians by Israel. His support for Salaita’s dismissal based on his lack of civility flies, moreover, in the face of what Nelson has written in the past about such matters. He wrote, for example in his 2010 book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom:

Strategic and improper use is increasingly being made of “creating a hostile work environment” or of “lack of collegiality”…. Moreover, some institutions are beginning to invoke the hostile-work-environment charge as a way to stifle dissent….

The AAUP explicitly condemns the use of collegiality as an independent criterion in tenure decisions… Claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity.[7]

Professor Nelson’s views on the use of academic boycotts are also not entirely consistent. In 2006 he advocated an academic boycott of New York University to pressure it into recognizing striking graduate teaching and research assistants, for example. In this journal we published a March 2012 article by Nelson titled, “Welcome to the surveillance campus,” where he wrote more expansively on academic freedom:

Ferocious objections to planned speeches by politically controversial American faculty members have been given additional warrant by the post-9/11 culture. It was…much easier for the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to deny Bill Ayers emeritus status in the post-9/11 climate. And of course tenured University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill lost his job as a result of the firestorm belatedly generated by his comments on the World Trade Center attack. How much self-censorship by academics has followed upon the cumulative impact of all these and other events we will never know. But I am not willing to claim there has likely been little or none. The dominant emotion among faculty today is fear. We cannot add to that fear without suffering consequences. We work in the context of at least intermittent national security intimidation, however vague it often seems until we visit an airport. The national security state now confronts what has increasingly become the insecure campus.[8]

By supporting his university administration’s firing of Steven Salaita, Nelson has chosen to “add to that fear” that he decries.

Nelson’s betrayal of a fellow academic is particularly galling given his reputation as an advocate of academic freedom. What can possibly explain it? “Nelson’s views are important because his former role at AAUP means he is often cited as an authority on academic freedom issues,” writes Electronic Intifada founder and prominent author Ali Abunimah, “though his own anti-Palestinian biases are rarely examined.”

Nelson’s inconsistencies are a product of his support for Israel and its Zionist project. In siding with those attempting to silence campus criticism of Israel, Nelson’s claim to oppose the academic boycott of Israel based on a principled support of academic freedom is exposed as a hollow gesture scarcely concealing the Zionist motivations that lay underneath.

Immediately after the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to support an academic boycott of Israel at the end of 2013, Nelson launched an attack on the boycott, not only on the grounds that it violated academic freedom, but also that it was “part of a long-term effort to delegitimate the state of Israel.” His support for Israel has led him to narrow down his conception of academic freedom, opposing, for example, professor Judith Butler’s argument that “our struggles for academic freedom must work in concert with the opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance, and the systematic devastation of everyday life,” a clear retreat from what he states in his ISR piece quoted above.[9]

In what Ali Abunimah describes as “frank comments to The Electronic Intifada revealing the extent of his own pro-Israel views,” Nelson, calling himself a Zionist, “defended Israel’s attack on Gaza as part of its ‘right to self-defense,’” and denied that Gazans have a right to resist, writing: “I don’t know where that right would come from,” he said. “I don’t view Gaza under as under occupation so I don’t see a right to resistance.” [sic][10]

In a response to Purdue University professor (and ISR contributor) Bill Mullen, who curated and wrote an introduction to the 2013 edition of AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom on the academic boycott of Israel, Nelson’s support for Israel becomes clear:

Bill Mullen introduces the section of essays about academic boycotts by declaring that Israel was created through “ethnic cleansing”: “The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 on land home to generations of Arab Palestinians is the contemporary world’s most egregious instance of settler colonialism.” He is opposed not just to the occupation of the West Bank but to the very existence of the Israeli state. Later one encounters sentiments like Omar Barghouti’s call for “a just and durable peace anchored in the fundamental and universal right to equality.” Of course that sounds fine, but not for some of us if that rhetoric hides the aim to abolish the Israeli state. An effort to make one state encompassing all of Palestine a reality—an alternative some support—would, I believe, usher in an era of massive bloodshed. My own view is that the record of the Holocaust justifies the creation of the state of Israel, but not the unending extension of Israeli settlements into new territory.

….The right to return to some place you have never been seems rather chimerical, mainly a form of political combat by other means, designed to undermine or eliminate the religious character of the Jewish state. I do not believe I would want to live in a theocratic state, but I respect the right of Israelis to create one. Yet there is little space in the academic Left today to sustain such a position.

Nelson, in short, reveals himself to be a staunch supporter of Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish (“theocratic”) state, and its right to maintain this theocracy by military means. He puts the “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs during the Nakba in quotes, as if it is merely an allegation rather than a well-established historical fact, and he opposes the right of Palestinians to return to the land from which they were expelled to create this “theocracy.” Nelson’s only apparent criticism of Israel here is that its theft of Palestinian land (which he does not consider “occupation”) should not be “unending”—a backhanded admission that Israel has created itself through the occupation of other people’s land.

Nelson’s statements regarding Steven Salaita’s dismissal reveals the deeply contradictory cul-de-sac that progressives who support Zionism find themselves in. Their progressive values run up against a project based upon the creation of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine through the expulsion of the indigenous Arab population. In the end, one cannot claim to promote academic freedom and at the same time support a state that systematically suppresses it. At some point the contradiction will blow up, and in Nelson’s case that moment has come. We at the ISR condemn the dismissal of Steven Salaita and demand that UIUC reinstate him. We also condemn the statements of Cary Nelson, and disassociate this publication from him.


1. Scott Jaschik, “Out of a job,” Inside Higher Education, August 6, 2014;

2. Cary Nelson, “An appointment to reject,” Inside Higher Education, August 8, 2014;

3. The letter can be found at

4. Phillip Weiss, “Steven Salaita– unremitting in criticism of Zionism and Gaza slaughter– loses a job at University of Illinois,” Mondoweiss, August 6, 2014;

5. Corey Robin, “Another Professor punished for anti-Israeli views,”

6. “Illinois AAUP Committee A Statement on Steven Salaita and UIUC,”

7. Cary Nelson, No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 117.

8. Cary Nelson, “Welcome to the surveillance campus, “ ISR 82, March-April 2012;

9. Judith Butler, “Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedom,” Radical Philosophy 135 (January/February 2006); see Cary Nelson, “Academic boycotts reconsidered: A response to the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 4.”

10. Ibid.

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