Cary Nelson, the AAUP, and the privilege of bestowing academic freedom

Cary Nelson, the AAUP, and the privilege of bestowing academic freedom

Cary Nelson (photo: Don LaVange)

One of the most prominent US voices against the academic boycott of Israel is Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 2006 to 2012, Nelson served as the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the leading organization championing academic freedom and shared governance in US postsecondary schools.

In the name of academic freedom, the AAUP has spoken out against pro-Israel attempts at campus censorship, as in the high-profile cases of Norman Finkelstein, Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El-Haj, and last year’s BDS talk at Brooklyn College. At the same time, the AAUP has taken a position against all academic boycotts, also citing academic freedom.

Nelson’s still-prominent role in the AAUP, along with his extensive writing and advocacy for academic freedom, has allowed him to speak authoritatively against the academic boycott of Israel in outlets such as Inside Higher EdDemocracy Now!, and Aljazeera, while being quoted extensively elsewhere.

Until recently, his left-liberal activism and limited commentary on Palestine/Israel has distanced him from charges of bias toward Israel in his opposition to the boycott. It was in this context that I decided to examine his viewpoint further, initially believing that his was a stance based on a genuine commitment to academic freedom, and I wanted to explore those arguments.

What I found instead was a conception of academic freedom that was contradictory and self-serving. His defenses of Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj were sprinkled with backhanded insults, passive aggressiveness, and condescension. His attempts at being neutral only slightly concealed his deference to Israel.

As this study demonstrates, Nelson wields his authority on academic freedom as a type of power with which he undermines those he disagrees, while pretending to defend their right to hold contrary viewpoints. In the process, I will also show that the AAUP itself, which has taken an absolutist position against academic boycotts, is not as principled or consistent on the issue as it may seem.

This study is broken into three parts and several sections, clickable below:

Part 1. Cary Nelson and the AAUP do boycotts

Part 2. “Pro-Palestinian political correctness” vs. “pro-Israeli opinion”

Part 3. After the ASA boycott

Part 1. Cary Nelson and the AAUP do boycotts

Boycotting universities for labor rights, but not for other human rights

Cary Nelson claims that his opposition to boycotting universities is based on the sanctity of free academic exchange. In a debate over the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott on Democracy Now!, he said,

[T]he AAUP has, for many years, opposed all academic boycotts, basically because we believe that what’s most desirable is to keep free exchange amongst academics worldwide and to do everything possible to facilitate all kinds of intellectual and cultural exchanges between academics. And we’re well aware that saying that you can simply boycott a university and not have an impact on its faculty members is really a false kind of reasoning.

However in April 2006, as the incoming president of the AAUP, Nelson called for aboycott of New York University (NYU):

Nelson said that he was planning a “personal boycott” of NYU and that he would soon be encouraging other faculty members nationally to consider steps similar to those he will take, such as refusing to serve on NYU tenure review or publication review committees, refusing to speak on the campus, advising students against enrolling at graduate school or seeking employment there, and generally having “no active relationship” with the university.

Cary Nelson (second row, left) with outgoing AAUP president Jane Buck blocking a street at the NYU graduate assistants’ strike, April 27, 2006.

At the time, graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU had gone on strike, demanding that the university recognize their union. On April 27, 2006, Nelson was arrested along with fifty-six other protesters as they blocked a street near the NYU administration offices. Also arrested was Jane Buck, the outgoing AAUP president and an ostensible opponent of university boycotts. Nelson and Buck issued a joint statement proudly declaring:

Never before in its 91-year history have the officers of the American Association of University Professors heard the call to be arrested in the line of duty.

NYU spokesperson John Beckman responded to Nelson’s boycott call with the classic “What about China?” misdirection:

Beckman wondered whether Nelson and others would apply any boycotts to all private universities, since they share NYU’s position on graduate student unions. (Nelson said in an interview after he was released by authorities that NYU was “the center of the struggle” and was an appropriate focus because its graduate students had voted for a union.)

Either that, or Cary Nelson doesn’t support NYU’s right to exist. Nelson is not averse to using Beckman’s misdirection fallacy to counter criticism of Israel, as we’ll see later.

In September 2006, five months after his NYU arrest, Nelson joined a strike at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), where faculty members of the AAUP union chapter were fighting over contract negotiations. The strike lasted nearly two weeks, disrupting the start of the school year. EMU president John A. Fallon claimed the strike was illegal and called on the faculty to get back to academia:

Our students expect their professors to be in the classroom, and not out on an illegal strike … We have every hope that the AAUP will terminate the strike and work toward a resolution without further injury to the University and our students.

At the picket line, Nelson, helped to coordinate the “turning away [of] delivery trucks” from the university:

On one occasion I persuaded a Teamster member delivering hamburger buns to call his office, which agreed to cancel the rest of the week’s deliveries. At a major university construction site, the concrete trucks had nonunion drivers. A cell phone call reached the concrete supplier, whose union loaders agreed not to load more concrete trucks.

Cary Nelson (left) disrupting academic exchange at Eastern Michigan University, along with former AAUP general secretary Ernst Benjamin, who is also a vocal opponent of the ASA boycott.

In these actions, Nelson was definitely intent on disrupting the everyday interactions of the university and therefore obstructing “free exchange” in academia by:

  1. Encouraging faculty and/or graduate assistants to not work.
  2. Preventing supplies from reaching the university.
  3. Calling for a boycott that entails having “no active relationship” with the university.

These were strikes, but the tactics employed encompassed those used in a boycott. In fact, the tactics practiced and supported by Nelson went beyond what has been called for in the ASA boycott resolution.

Nelson has since written at length about the virtues of cutting off a target campus from the outside world. In his book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, Nelson suggests useful tactics to disrupt business as usual in academia:

It is certainly easiest to prevent deliveries to a self-contained campus with its own clearly defined boundaries and with a limited number of entrances. An urban campus such as NYU, with buildings owned by multiple businesses in the same area, presents much greater difficulties, but it is still possible to map major delivery sites, loading docks, and other points where pickets can inhibit deliveries.

CN-book1Nelson approvingly cites a case in which cutting off the university’s supply line placed “long-term experiments … on the verge of collapsing”:

Decades ago, a strike at the University of Wisconsin was won in part because conservative faculty pressured the administration to settle when food deliveries to animal labs were prevented and long-term experiments were on the verge of collapsing.

He also encourages secondary boycotts to ramp up the pressure against universities by bringing a wider “zone of impact … to a halt”:

Strikers and their allies should also consider boycotting all local businesses, or at least those that refuse to support the strike, so that business owners have reason to pressure an administration to settle. That will also increase the amount of publicity a strike can generate. In a large city, it will be necessary to define a zone of impact, since one cannot expect to bring New York City or Washington, DC, to a halt. But denial of patronage can still be part of a successful strategy, especially if it is honored by all campus workers and their friends.

Disruptions must be wide-reaching and relentless:

[Y]ou have to make daily life unmanageable … [G]ive key administrators no peace. Place chanting pickets outside their homes. Disrupt every meeting they attend with sardonic or inspiring public theater. Arrange building occupations and street demonstrations every week. The goal is protest without end.

And notice here that Nelson is less interested in academic freedom when it might cut into fair wages for teachers and graduate assistants. In such cases, it is no longer “academic freedom,” but “gratuitous pet projects”:

Deny administrators the right to fund gratuitous pet projects at the expense of a principled campus salary schedule. If administrators refuse to comply, sit in their offices, sit in front of their cars, block campus streets, block access to buildings, picket their houses. Use nonviolent civil disobedience to force change.

Such actions and endorsements—expressed while Nelson was the president of the AAUP—completely invalidate his charge that boycotting a university crosses a red line. It also demonstrates that academic freedom has a limit at which point other needs take priority.

One might argue that in the examples Nelson provides, it is necessary to temporarily limit academic freedom in order to promote greater academic freedom in the long run. If so, then it only reinforces the same claims being made in support of the ASA boycott.

However, this argument has already been rejected by current AAUP first vice-president Henry Reichman, who wrote that

the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded. Violations of academic freedom can be found anywhere.

Still, some may argue that securing labor rights in the university is necessary to uphold academic freedom. It is true that certain aspects of campus labor disputes are intertwined with academic freedom, such as issues of job security (when it may be susceptible to political pressure) and shared governance. However, these are not always the disputes that compel a university strike. In the case of Eastern Michigan University, the dispute focused on a proposed pay package and unacceptable out-of-pocket health insurance expenses.

Under such circumstances, evoking academic freedom does a disservice to the many other workers who are fighting for labor rights outside of academia. They are just as deserving of fair wages and benefits but cannot stake a claim to the supposedly higher calling of academic freedom. To say otherwise is to sell them down the river in the interests of securing one’s own profession.

Indeed, as Nelson makes the case for labor justice, academic freedom is not in the bigger picture:

No employee group, it must be clear, acts simply out of self-interest in such struggles … The issue is the worldwide exploitation of workers in all industries. The call is to rise up and take possession of economic justice … a campus that exploits its labor force educates all its students in the logic of exploitation and sends them forth to practice it with untroubled consciences.

Nelson also assigns an important role to academia that is so pointed that others may find it inconsistent with academic freedom:

How higher education does or does not perform its commitment to human decency, how it does or does not enact community responsibility, now has the power to shape worldwide standards in all industries. Collective action is the one and only way we can guarantee that the academy’s impact will be salutary, rather than malicious.

To be sure, the AAUP, while rejecting academic boycotts, does permit strikes against universities. From its 2005 report, “On Academic Boycotts”:

Under AAUP policy, chapters that engage in collective bargaining can participate in a strike. Moreover, while AAUP policy states that strikes and other such actions are “not desirable for the resolution of conflicts within institutions of higher education,” it also states that in certain cases “resort to economic pressure through strikes or other work actions may be a necessary and unavoidable means of dispute resolution.”

However, the report acknowledges that the tactics involved in a labor strike are not limited to “economic pressure” and may interfere with academic freedom:

A strike is an economic boycott … but it often involves pressures that are not exclusively economic, such as the local faculty union’s asking outside speakers not to come to a campus during a strike or the refusal of faculty elsewhere to attend conferences held on a campus where a strike is in process. So, while the AAUP insists on action that conforms to its principles, practical issues sometimes produce dilemmas that must be addressed…

The AAUP report’s way of addressing these “dilemmas” is reductive: It labels AAUP-endorsed actions, such as strikes, as “economic boycotts” because they primarily mean to hurt a target economically. In the course of a strike, academic freedom may be inconvenienced, but that’s just a side effect and not an aim.

This is a self-serving argument. A strike is meant to disrupt business as usual, not just cause economic damage. Nelson said so himself:

It’s time to interrupt business as usual on these campuses across the country.

Any economic damage caused by NYU grad students going on strike would have been negligible. As Nelson wrote,

the withdrawal of teaching labor never wields sufficient force to bring an administration to the bargaining table.

The goal in blocking the street was to draw attention to their cause. At the University of Wisconsin strike, halting “food deliveries to animal labs” was intended to interfere with long-term experiments.

As we shall see, the AAUP report’s equivocation is a retroactive attempt to bring in line its support for labor organizing and South African divestment with its pious portrayal of academic freedom.

South African divestment as “collateral” damage to academic freedom

In No University Is an Island, Cary Nelson attempts to square the AAUP’s opposition to an academic boycott of Israel with its history of supporting South African divestment:

In 2005, the AAUP issued a statement condemning all academic boycotts, which essentially formalized what had long been the organization’s practice. The AAUP had endorsed a general economic boycott of South Africa years earlier, a boycott that had collateral effects on higher education, but consistently rejected boycotts singling out universities.

Nelson, in justifying the AAUP’s support for “a general economic boycott of South Africa” during apartheid, admits that such a move “had collateral effects on higher education”—a muted acknowledgment that the economic boycott obstructed academic freedom in South Africa.

Divestment efforts against apartheid, such as the kind that the AAUP supported, compelled foreign businesses to cease transactions with South Africa. One such company that complied was University Microfilms International (UMI).

In early 1987, UMI was “the only available microfilm service to [South African] universities” when it announced that it would cease doing business with South Africa. This was described in the press as

the most drastic development to date in the growing international boycott of South African faculties …

Shocked lecturers at Johannesburg’s multiracial Witwatersrand University warned that they would have difficulty keeping abreast of research done abroad and that even their status as academics could eventually be called into question by the international research community.

University librarians and academics said the microfilm service was the only information conduit from the US on unpublished dissertations and doctoral theses. (Irish Times, Feb. 4, 1987)

The 2005 AAUP report rejects the UMI action as part of the academic boycott campaign against South Africa, which the AAUP never supported, as opposed to the “economic boycott” campaign, which the AAUP did support.

However, that distinction is not accurate. UMI was a subsidiary of Bell & Howell (now known as ProQuest). In a letter addressed to South African customers, UMI president Joseph J. Fitzsimmons wrote,

[I]t is the policy of our parent corporation, Bell & Howell Company, to discontinue selling to or buying from the government of South Africa or any South African businesses or institutions. As a Bell & Howell subsidiary, we must comply with this policy completely.

UMI never signed on to the academic boycott, but its contribution to the academic boycott was a consequence of its economic withdrawal from South Africa. It is therefore frivolous to claim that an “economic boycott” is preferable to an academic boycott by claiming that the goal of the former is not to obstruct academic freedom, even though it may have that consequence. Because ultimately, both forms of boycott shared the same goal.

UMI letter to South African customers

The reason why the AAUP classifies the UMI action as an academic boycott rather than an economic boycott is to isolate divestment advocacy from the consequences of that advocacy.

In both South Africa and Israel, economic boycotts and academic boycotts are tactics, not principles. Boycotts are the means to an end, not an end to itself. The goal is neither to destroy an economy nor academia, but rather to enact the forms of popular pressure readily available, which may cause a regime to take notice that its actions are unsustainable in a globalized setting.

To the extent that we entertain a distinction, economic and academic boycotts work toward the same goal and complement each other rather than compete with each other.

Thus claiming that an economic boycott created “collateral” damage to academic freedom in South Africa is essentially saying that an economic boycott of South Africa was—dare I say—an academic boycott “in effect, if not in intent.”

One could even make the case that the economic boycott of South Africa—including Bell & Howell’s withdrawal from South Africa—had a greater potential impact on academic freedom on the whole of South African academia than the “formal” academic boycott.

The AAUP’s resolutions on South Africa: too little, too late

Along those lines, we should question whether the AAUP really “endorsed a general economic boycott of South Africa,” as Nelson claims.

The AAUP’s first move against South Africa was in June 1985, when it passed a resolution calling on “colleges and universities to decline to hold securities in banks which provide loans to the government of South Africa.” By that time, thirty major US banks already had policies prohibiting loans to the South African government. And less than two months later, Chase Manhattan even ceased issuing loans to private firms in South Africa.

The same AAUP resolution called on “colleges and universities to endorse the Sullivan principles,” a corporate-sponsored scheme that promoted better working conditions as an alternative to corporate withdrawal from apartheid South Africa. By then, however, fifty-three US colleges and universities had already partially divested, and four months later Columbia University’s board of trustees agreed to afull divestment.

In June 1988 a second AAUP resolution called on TIAA-CREF to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. By then, the Sullivan Principles had already expired, Secretary of State George Schultz had already announced that “constructive engagement” was a failure, Congress had already overridden Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, and TIAA-CREF was itself calling for a complete withdrawal of US companies from South Africa.

At that time, the Ivory Tower’s guardian of professional values was trailing behind General Motors, Ford, Dow Chemical, IBM, Barclays, and the State of California, all of which were already cutting financial ties with South Africa. By August 1988, 155 US colleges and universities had at least partially divested, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions reported that some 188 companies had divested from South Africa.

On South African apartheid, the AAUP was neither taking principled stands nor leading the way; it was playing catch-up.

AAUP censure as a form of boycott

Let’s look at another at another AAUP non-boycott that could just as well be considered a boycott.

The AAUP maintains a list of institutions that it has “censured” for violating standards of academic freedom and tenure. There are currently fifty-two institutions on the AAUP’s censure list. Grove City College has remained on the list since 1963.

When an institution is censured by the AAUP, it is essentially a non-binding call for a boycott against that institution. AAUP first vice-president Henry Reichman, in criticizing the ASA boycott, insists that the AAUP censure list is not a boycott or a blacklist:

that list is not a boycott list. We do not and will not ask our colleagues to boycott institutions that violate academic freedom or that support policies we abhor. Instead we call on people to organize and struggle to effect change in such institutions, both from inside and out.

But the official wording, as published in every issue of the AAUP’s Academemagazine, says otherwise:

Members of the Association have often considered it to be their duty, in order to indicate their support of the principles violated, to refrain from accepting appointment to an institution so long as it remains on the censure list. Since circumstances differ widely from case to case, the Association does not assert that such an unqualified obligation exists for its members; it does urge that, before accepting appointments, they seek information on present conditions of academic freedom and tenure from the Association’s Washington office and prospective departmental colleagues. The Association leaves it to the discretion of the individual, possessed of the facts, to make the proper decision.

That is, the AAUP “leaves it to the discretion of the individual” to decide whether to follow the “considered … duty” of AAUP members and reject appointment at a censured institution in order “to indicate their support of the principles violated.”

This language has been in place since 1965. According to a history of AAUP’s censure list, the language was meant to “hint … that the list of censured administration is a list of institutions that faculty members should shun.”

Originally, faculty at censured institutions were not even allowed to join the AAUP. This was overturned in 1943 because it “might imply that the AAUP was advocating, albeit indirectly, the boycott of an institution.” In other words, the AAUP was making a distinction between targeting an institution along with its faculty, which would imply a boycott—and targeting the institution but not its faculty, which would somehow not imply a boycott.

Compare the AAUP’s censure to the ASA’s boycott: both are non-binding, and both are directed at institutions, not individuals. Perhaps if the ASA were to call theirs a “censure” instead of a boycott, the AAUP might be more amenable to it.

To give another AAUP boycott example, in October 1977 the AAUP National Council approved a motion to boycott states that “have not yet ratified the Equal Rights Amendment” by withholding organizational meetings from those states. It was approved despite concerns that “the motion penalized institutions rather than state legislatures,” and a move to reconsider the ongoing boycott was rejected in 1978.

The AAUP singles out Iran

AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum, first vice-president Henry Reichman, and past president Cary Nelson are three of the highest-ranking AAUP officers.

On December 12, Reichman wrote an article in which he faulted the ASA for singling out Israel while ignoring

Iran, China, North Korea, Singapore, Zimbabwe, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Russia, to mention but a few examples.

Yet a week earlier, Reichman and Fichtenbaum together issued an open letter to the ASA in which they implied that the AAUP was morally superior because, unlike the ASA, it did not concern itself with foreign affairs:

As the principal and oldest organization of American college and university faculty defending academic freedom, we understand that we do not have the organizational capacity to monitor academic freedom at institutions in other countries, nor are we in a position to pick and choose which countries we, as an organization, might judge.

Returning to No University Is an Island, Cary Nelson suggests that the mere mention of Israel demands that one name-drop random third-world countries:

[I]n singling out universities, comparisons between institutions in different countries become critical. Israeli universities have unquestionable problems, but none rises to the level of what takes place at both Arab and non-Arab institutions in other countries in the Middle East. Syria is a police state; the complete absence of academic freedom there compares with conditions in North Korea, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe … in Egypt the security presence at universities is pervasive … In Morocco … no one can dispute Islamic doctrine or criticize the king.

Nelson does not explain why, when discussing an academic boycott of Israel, it is “critical” to talk about Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Morocco—other than for reasons of deflection. (Elsewhere, the mention of Israel causes Nelson to blurt out “Tibet.”) At no point does he suggest that civil society in any of those countries is proposing a global BDS campaign to address their particular issues.

It is particularly strange for Nelson to follow up his geography lesson with a statement saying it doesn’t matter anyway:

The AAUP meanwhile generally cannot take up individual cases abroad in the absence of involvement with American students or faculty or potential impact on U.S. practices or policies.

If Nelson or Reichman want to argue that one cannot go after “The Not–Worst Country in the World” until one goes after “The Worst Country in the World,” they certainly can’t turn around and claim any right for the AAUP to single out academic freedom in the United States.

Though I found little mention of Myanmar, North Korea, or the Republic of Kiribati in AAUP archives, I did find multiple criticisms of Iran under Nelson’s term as AAUP president—a few of which had tenuous connections to US academia, and some had little connection to academia at all:

  • May 2006: AAUP general secretary Roger Bowen issues a letter to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to protest the high-profile jailing of Iranian academic Ramin Jahanbegloo.
  • October 2006: Bowen writes another letter to Khamanei expressing concern over reports that the Iranian government might institute a purge of liberal and secular academics from its universities.
  • May 2007: AAUP executive director Ernst Benjamin writes a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to protest the jailing of Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program.
  • June 2007: At the AAUP annual meeting, a resolution is passed calling on Iran to release Esfandiari along with three other detainees with academic ties.
  • June 2008: At the AAUP annual meeting, a resolution is passed criticizing Iran for discriminatory acts against its “religious or ethnic minorities,” and in particular, the Iranian Baha’i community. Although the resolution mentions of access to education, it is primarily a general call for equality.
  • October 2008: AAUP president Cary Nelson issues a letter to Iranian officials expressing concern over the jailing of California State University grad studentEsha Momeni.
  • June 2009: During Iran’s “Green Revolution,” Nelson issues a statement expressing

grave[] concern about state sponsored or state encouraged violence in Iran. In particular, the AAUP fears that such violence has the potential to undermine further the already fragile status of academic freedom in Iranian universities.

All these actions are commendable—and I concur with Nelson that violence can be bad for academic freedom. But I could find no other foreign country in recent years targeted for AAUP criticism the way Iran has been, and it undermines the assertion that the AAUP is not “in a position to pick and choose which countries we, as an organization, might judge.”

There are a couple of other interesting forays into foreign affairs:

  • July 2006: the AAUP issues a joint statement with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to “express continuing concern about the dangers facing academic life in Iraq today.” And contradicting the recent claim that the AAUP does not “have the organizational capacity to monitor academic freedom at institutions in other countries,” the statement declared:

we also pledge our collective determination to take steps, together and with sister organizations, to promote programs and policies in Iraq and on behalf of the international community of scholars and researchers that will positively address this disturbing situation.

  • January 2008: AAUP president Cary Nelson writes a letter to Turkey’s justice minister expressing concern over the case of Atilla Yayla, a Turkish professor who received a suspended jail sentence after he violated a 1951 law that prohibited insults against Atatürk.

But it’s when the AAUP considered the issue of Palestine/Israel that things got a little funky:

In November 2006, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure expressed “great concern” over the IDF’s banning of Palestinian students from Israeli universities.

Then in May 2008, US media reported that the State Department had revoked Fulbright grants for seven Palestinian students who could not attend university in the US because Israel had been prohibited them from leaving Gaza.

In response, the AAUP issued a statement expressing “great concern” over the grant withdrawals. However, unlike other AAUP letters, statements, and resolutions, the tone of this statement was strangely conciliatory, almost apologetic.

The statement, addressed to no one and signed by no one, noted that some Israeli officials “are reported as criticizing Israel’s action.” It stressed that the AAUP opposed academic boycotts against Israel. And then it portrayed the statement as one which the AAUP regretfully had to issue due to circumstances beyond its control:

The AAUP has repeatedly opposed efforts to impede the free flow of knowledge, as, for example, with regard to academic boycotts directed against Israel. The same concern about the need to protect the free exchange of ideas and the opportunity for scholarly study and collaboration require us to call upon the Israeli government to lift the travel restrictions it has imposed on these and other Palestinian students who seek to study abroad. [emphasis mine]

In contrast, the American Anthropological Association and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) joined with Human Rights Watch to issue a more forceful letter to the State Department on the same subject. This letter expressed skepticism over the State Department’s account of events and urged the State Department to

call on Israel to allow all students in Gaza, except where there are legitimate security concerns specific to particular individuals, to exercise their right to freedom of movement and access to education. At a minimum, the United States should clearly and publicly disassociate itself from Israel’s policy of collective punishment as it affects students seeking to study abroad.

Two weeks later, at the same 2008 annual meeting in which the AAUP passed a resolution calling for Baha’i equality in Iran, a separate resolution calling on Israel to allow Gaza students to study abroad failed to pass because it “proved too controversial”:

[C]ritics questioned why Israel was being singled out when there are many countries in the world that do not have open borders, and that there are many countries where higher education is denied, for example, to women, but which the AAUP has not condemned. Amid talk of amending the resolution to be more general, removing all references to Israel and Gaza, a motion passed referring the entire matter back to the AAUP committee for review.

In other words, it was easier for the AAUP to pass a resolution calling for equality in Iran than to pass a resolution calling for Israel to allow Fulbright grant recipients from Gaza to attend university in the United States.

23-year-old software engineering instructor Hadeel Abukwaik (standing) initially lost her Fulbright grant because Israel refused her exit from Gaza.

Nelson on the MLA: Yesterday it was “academic freedom”; today it’s “process”

Keeping the AAUP pronouncements on Iran in mind, let’s look at how Nelson dealt with the recent Modern Language Association (MLA) resolution on Israel. In its original wording, the resolution

urges the US Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by US academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.

This resolution appeared to promote academic freedom, so one would assume that Cary Nelson supported it. Instead, he was so opposed to it that he wrote an articlein opposition—this time on the grounds that the process for passing the resolution was wrong:

The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed…

When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities…

[The] MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.

None of Nelson’s proposed steps were taken when the AAUP under Nelson’s presidency passed resolutions on Iran—one of which simply called for equality—and issued several letters, including one that expressed concern over state violence in Iran.

Ironically, Nelson called on the MLA to look to the AAUP’s procedures as a guide.

Later, after attacking the process and claiming that that the MLA needed to “conduct site visits,” “give Israelis an opportunity to respond,” and “concentrate instead on … its own country,” Nelson changed rationales yet again at the MLA convention on January 11, this time claiming that

I would strongly support a resolution looking into refusal of visas for all countries … This is a biased resolution.

Part 2. “Pro-Palestinian political correctness” versus  “pro-Israeli opinion”

The fourth chapter of Cary Nelson’s No University Is an Island is entitled “Barefoot in New Zealand: Political Correctness on Campus.” In introducing the chapter, Nelson explains that two opposing forces are at play on campus: “pro-Palestinian political correctness and pro-Israeli opinion.”

Thus, before the chapter even begins, Nelson plays the role of wise and dispassionate observer, while expressing more contempt for those who would assert Palestinian rights.

In the chapter, Nelson laments the “reactive rejection of moderate, independent views” in Middle Eastern studies:

As major fractions of the Left have grown increasingly hostile and unforgiving toward Israel … The only socially and politically acceptable stance for some people in academia is that Israel has no right to exist, has no moral or political legitimacy, and must be dissolved into a larger regional nation-state. The grave risk to Israeli Jews in a one-state solution should not be an unacceptable topic of discussion.

It is odd for the champion of academic freedom to call for more “moderate views” in a field that he does not teach and especially since the term “moderate” has no independent meaning. Its virtue is as a rhetorical trick casting all contrary views as “extreme.”

Nelson stoops lower as he attempts to dismiss the relevance of history in Middle Eastern politics:

[H]istory does not often warrant unqualified moral legitimacy for any major nation-state. Both the founding of the United States and the country’s subsequent expansion were, after all, grounded in the genocide of Native Americans, and imperialist episodes have repeatedly marked American history. Power and international agreements have more relevance to the matter than a blameless or morally unblemished national history, the latter being difficult to find or certify.

Here he attempts to defend Israel’s “moral legitimacy” without mentioning Israel. According to Nelson, the mass crimes in history that paved the way for the creation of the United States do not invalidate that country’s “moral legitimacy.” Then again, it also doesn’t make the case for an existence of a thing called “moral legitimacy”—such a concept having been conceived by apologists for Israel rather than by political scientists who employ the same term in a very different context.

That Nelson would even introduce as unquestioned such contrived and self-affirming concepts into Middle Eastern studies evokes the creationist injection of “intelligent design” into the academic freedom debate into the sciences. After all, intelligent design is a framework formulated to cast an unacademic concept, creationism, into one that must be debated academically but on its own terms. And so it is with the terms of debate that Nelson draws upon (“moral legitimacy,” “right to exist”). Even the reference to a “grave risk to Israeli Jews in a one-state solution” is an allusion to the racist “demographic threat” canard.

I am not saying that such terms are beyond debate—only that they must be recognized as self-affirming arguments designed to uphold a specific political position. And as with creationists, those who employ such terms cannot pretend to do so dispassionately or in the name of greater academic exchange.

Ironically, after the ASA boycott resolution passed, Nelson accused boycott supporters of dismissing history in the manner that he had previously encouraged:

They appear to think either that history is irrelevant and only present-day power differentials matter, or that only one group’s history counts.

Nelson spends the bulk of “Barefoot in New Zealand” discussing the campus wars over Palestine and Israel. His focus is on what he considers wrong with Middle Eastern studies, as perpetrated by those he considers too critical of Israel.

However, with the exception of a single vague anecdote which I describe later, every example relating to Palestine/Israel that Nelson documents is a case of the campus being attacked by “pro-Israel” forces, namely:

None of these attacks can be described as instances of “pro-Palestinian political correctness,” and calling it “pro-Israeli opinion” would understate the organized and at times well-financed nature of the attacks. Nevertheless, Nelson claims the problem is that “American universities harbor significant anti-Israeli constituencies.”

Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj: Academic freedom as charity

While making the case against an academic boycott of Israel, Nelson reminds readers that the AAUP stood up for professors Norman Finkelstein, Sami al-Arian, and David Robinson—all of whom were accused of being too critical of Israel.

What I demonstrate here, though, is that even when Nelson defends the academic freedom of critics of Israel, he is unable to refrain from engaging in baseless accusations and underhanded, passive-aggressive attacks against them, thus exploiting his power as the president of the AAUP to serve another agenda.

In “Barefoot in New Zealand,” Nelson frequently evokes the cases of Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj—whose rights to academic freedom he defends.

He points out that “[f]alse, inexcusable characterizations of their work were widely distributed and endorsed.” Yet Nelson indulges in unwarranted accusations against them himself:

For Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, Columbia professor Joseph Massad, former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein, and some of their advocates, the pro-Israeli lobby is all powerful; there is no other force of consequence.

Nelson does not qualify this statement and cannot because it isn’t true. BothMassad and Finkelstein have written at length against the concept of an all-powerful Israel lobby and against the idea that the Israel lobby is the sole “force of consequence.” Abu El-Haj may not have done so, but she is not known to write about the “pro-Israeli lobby” either way.

Later on, Nelson writes:

I might disagree at many points with El-Haj, Finkelstein, or Massad, but as I said earlier, I would support their tenure. Would they do the same for me? I have no idea.

Again, this is a backhanded dig. Nelson, at the time the president of the AAUP and arbiter of academic freedom in the US, “graciously” defends the three professors, despite the possibility that they might not do the same if the roles were reversed. However:

1. The roles were not reversed. As the president of the AAUP, Nelson held the power, while the three professors were the ones under fierce attack for their alleged beliefs.

2. As the one with the power, Nelson has the ability to insult and misrepresent the three professors, and yet they must still be grateful for the powerful assistance provided by Nelson in doing his job.

3. Nelson doesn’t know that the three professors would not defend his academic freedom if the roles were reversed, but he can float that possibility, thus positioning himself as morally superior regardless.

4. Nelson doesn’t describe where he “might disagree” with the three professors. After all, how much does he know about Abu El-Haj’s work on the sociological consequences of Israeli archeology? He just floats the idea that the three professors may be wrong about something and that their detractors might be right, without having to prove his case.

5. And while he rhetorically states that he “ha[s] no idea” whether they would support his academic freedom, he somehow knows that they believe in an all-powerful Israel lobby.

Benny Morris: Academic freedom as a bonus

Let’s turn now to the one instance in “Barefoot in New Zealand” in which Nelson details an attack against an academic supporter of Israeli actions:

On yet another major research university campus, a faculty member was severely chastised and financially penalized for arguing on behalf of Israeli scholar (and admittedly polemical public intellectual) Benny Morris for a position in a Middle East studies department and against the less widely published pro-Palestinian scholar whom the search committee had recommended.

The story is potentially alarming, though Nelson provides no details with which to judge the incident. How could someone be “financially penalized” for simply supporting Benny Morris? Were there legitimate factors that made the alleged “pro-Palestinian scholar” a better candidate? Did the AAUP investigate this case and issue a finding?

We know neither the name of the campus nor the names of any of the parties other than Morris. Thus the most we can say is: Once upon a time, there was Benny Morris, and then this thing happened at this place, and then he got passed over by this other person, and then someone who liked him got in trouble and lost money. Therefore, “pro-Palestinian political correctness.”

How can this possibly compare to the extensively documented cases (both for and against) of Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj? As I shall demonstrate later with another of Nelson’s anecdotes, his stories cannot be trusted without verification.

Historian/sleuth Benny Morris has deciphered the Arab Muslim mind using ordinary household objects and Israeli police statistics.

For the moment, however, I will focus on two sentences that were appended to the version of “Barefoot in New Zealand” that appears in No University Is an Island, for they do not appear in the original article from which the chapter was adapted:

While Morris’s increasing conservatism is not in doubt (Morris), neither is his status as a major historian in question (Gorenberg). His appointment would be a coup for any university.

Between the original 2008 publication of the article and its 2010 reproduction inNo University Is an Island, Nelson added these two sentences as an endorsement of Benny Morris, while providing no further details of the alleged incident involving him.

What Nelson considers to be Morris’s “increasing conservatism” could better be described as overt racism and unabashed support for ethnic cleansing. In his infamous 2004 interview in Haaretz, Morris spoke of the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians as such:

[I]n certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands…

There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide—the annihilation of your people—I prefer ethnic cleansing.

Lest anyone believe that Morris only supports ethnic cleansing in order to avert genocide (and legally speaking, genocide may encompass ethnic cleansing), Morris made it clear:

Yes, even the great American democracy couldn’t come to be without the forced extinction of Indians. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds.

And to justify “terrible, cruel deeds,” Morris bestowed upon his preferred targets the same attributes previously assigned to Native Americans:

[Palestinian society] is a very sick society. It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers… Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another…

There is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien … Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions.

I think the [Muslim] values I mentioned earlier are values of barbarians—the attitude toward democracy, freedom, openness; the attitude toward human life. In that sense they are barbarians. The Arab world as it is today is barbarian.

CN-One StateThese are instances of what Nelson refers to as “increasing conservatism.” Such sentiments were not confined to the 2004 interview. Morris reiterates them, with endnotes, in his most recent book, One State, Two States, where he obsesses over the supposed “alien” nature of the “Muslim Arab mindset.”

In one passage, Morris derides Palestinian calls for “democracy, majority will, and one man, one vote,” because such “catchphrases and norms … in fact, were completely alien to their history and social and political ethos and mindset.”

In another passage, Morris writes,

The idea of sharing Palestine is alien to the Muslim Arab mindset.

Three sentences later, he repeats himself:

[T]he notion of sharing power or being a minority … is alien to the Muslim Arab mentality.

And this is only two paragraphs after having written:

The mindset and basic values of Israeli Jewish society and Palestinian Muslim society are so different and mutually exclusive … The value placed on human life and the rule of (secular) law is completely different—as exhibited, in Israel itself, in the vast hiatus between Jewish and Arab perpetration of crimes18 and lethal road traffic violations.19Arabs, to put it simply, proportionally commit far more crimes (and not only ones connected to property) and commit far more lethal traffic violations than do Jews. In large measure, this is a function of different value systems (such as the respect accorded to human life and the rule of law).

This claim is supplemented by a page and a half of endnotes detailing “Israeli police statistics”—thus employing a tired and cheap fallacy that posits a direct relationship between police procedures and a cultural, racial, or ethnic propensity toward crime. (After all, police reports on drug possession arrests in the United States do not give a remotely useful demographic map of drug use in the country.)

And when Israeli police statistics give a proportionally equal accounting for Jewish and Palestinian Israeli sex offenses, Morris overcomes this hurdle by explaining that sex offenses among Arabs are underreported due to taboos around sex crimes—as if they aren’t underreported in every other conceivable demographic for the same reason.

This is the Middle East scholar who would be such a “coup for any university,” in Nelson’s words.

Note that I am not suggesting one standard of academic freedom for Morris and another for Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj. Rather I am pointing out that Nelson, in defending academic freedom for the latter three, nevertheless indulges in insults, mischaracterization, and condescension—as if his defense of their academic freedom is an act of charity (“Would they do the same for me? I have no idea.”) and that they are granted academic freedom in spite of their scholarship.

Yet in defending academic freedom for Benny Morris, Nelson brushes aside Morris’s support for ethnic cleansing and his overt racism—which clearly compromises his scholarship—and praises his value as self-evident (“his appointment would be a coup for any university”).

The emphasis here is the manner in which Nelson wields his magic wand bestow upon his subjects the gift of “academic freedom.”

The AAUP’s conception of academic freedom demands universal and nondiscriminating application, but Nelson applies it with favoritism and with a particular agenda for the Middle East.

Justifying Israeli closure of Palestinian schools


Nelson has not said much about the situation of Palestinian academia under Israeli occupation, but he does make one passing mention in his 2004 book Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy.

The first chapter deals with what he calls the “diaspora of the teachers”—concerning the precarious positions held by teachers in higher education. He begins the chapter with an anecdote:

The year was 1975. Just west of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, … There, atop a tractor, churning along furrows owned by the local garden supply center, was one of my former university colleagues … [S]he had been turned down for tenure the previous year because she hadn’t published enough. Unable to find an academic job, there she was, in the Midwest’s longest running occupation … Yet in actuality she was gone again in a few months … She had answered an ad to teach at Birzeit University on Israel’s West Bank. It was neither a destination nor a culture she knew much about in advance, but she would learn. Or so her occasional letters to friends suggested. But then the letters stopped. The Israelis had closed down the Palestinians’ notoriously politicized campus—it was at the very least an organizing site for the intifada—and she was unemployed again. This time innocence and industry combined to make a still more risky move possible. She took a job teaching in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, vanishing for a time into one of the world’s notorious police states. When she resurfaced again it was to teach in Jordan. [emphasis mine]

Note Nelson’s offhanded explanation for the closure of Birzeit University in “Israel’s West Bank”: it was a “notoriously politicized campus—it was at the very least an organizing site for the intifada.”

Nelson does not explain from whose viewpoint Birzeit was “notoriously politicized.” Most popular organized resistance during the first intifada was nonviolent and took various forms of civil disobedience and civil resistance. But even that assumes that Birzeit was indeed “an organizing site for the intifada.”

Birzeit University

Let’s look at the record:

The first intifada began on December 9, 1987. By that time, Birzeit had already been forced to close over a dozen times since 1973, one year before it was upgraded to a university.

Just thirty days into the spontaneous uprising of the intifada, Birzeit was forced to close again. By February 3, 1988, less than two months into the intifada, all 1,194 schools in the West Bank, including kindergartens, had been forced to close “until further notice.” All West Bank postsecondary schools remained closed for four years. Birzeit would not open again until April 9, 1992.

According to A Nation Under Siege, the 1989 Al-Haq annual report:

[T]he implication that institutions of higher learning contributed to “anti-Israel protests” … simply contradicts the reality that all of them have been closed throughout the uprising…

Even schools in remote or isolated areas … were included in the collective closure orders issued by the Israeli authorities. In areas such as these, schools cannot be said to threaten Israeli security because there is no regular army presence…

The closure of universities, for example, has not just meant the end to classes on campus. Rather all university facilities, including libraries, laboratories, and even private offices have been closed off from use, even by individual professors and campus administrators…

On 24 April 1989 … “Major Micha,” Deputy Director of the West Bank civil administration [an apparatus of the Israeli military] arrived at the Ramallah YMCA, where Bir-Zeit University has temporarily relocated its academic department offices. “Major Micha” and another soldier searched the premises … [T]he only question asked was, “Where are the classrooms?”

Major Micha then informed Birzeit public relations director Albert Aghazarian that

“Under no circumstances can you teach, in houses or anywhere else. If we find anyone teaching, or any students carrying books we will take appropriate measures against them.”

The Israeli military also prevented homeschooling and makeshift schooling efforts:

[T]he Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed UNRWA on 28 March 1989 that due to reasons of “military security,” the Israeli authorities would not permit UNRWA to distribute learning material to first, second, and third graders for home-study…

Earlier attempts by teachers to distribute homework packets for home-study, in October 1988, were also prohibited…Make-up classes for students of all ages have been declared illegal and raided by the Israeli military. In some instances, students and teachers have been arrested.

So if we revisit Nelson’s claim:

The Israelis had closed down the Palestinians’ notoriously politicized campus—it was at the very least an organizing site for the intifada…

We find that is a preposterous explanation that, aside from being inaccurate, places the onus on Birzeit for its closure by a foreign military.

But there’s more: Carey’s account begins in 1975, jumps a few months ahead, and suddenly ends up in the first intifada in 1987. Suspicious about the time span of events, I tracked down Nelson’s unnamed former colleague for clarification. She confirmed to me that she had taught at Birzeit University from 1981 until 1984, three years before the start of the intifada.

Thus, in order to excuse the Birzeit closure in the story, Nelson had falsely blamed it on the intifada, which had not yet happened.

The circumstances behind the Birzeit closures of the early 1980s has its own story. In 1980, the Israeli authorities enacted Military Order Number 854, which placed all West Bank postsecondary schools under Israeli military control. The order

gave the Military Government the right to regulate the appointment of faculty, the admission of students, the selection of textbooks, and the development of curricula. (Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict)

To be clear: In 1980, the “notoriously politicized” Birzeit University, as well as all other West Bank postsecondary schools, had been placed under Israeli military control. Subsequent protests against the military takeover of the school led to the forced closure of Birzeit for months at a time.

In 1982, the same order called for all “non-resident” teachers—those without military-issued identification—to sign a statement

whereby they would deny any support, “direct or indirect,” to the PLO or any other “terrorist” organisation. The implications of this “loyalty oath,” if signed were far reaching: they could include the duty to report on students’ and colleagues’ conversations inside and outside the classroom, as well as on the presence of literature or cultural exhibits which could be deemed to be in support of a “terrorist” organisation… (Raja Shehadeh, “Occupier’s Law”)

Cary Nelson’s former colleague recounted how she and some others at Birzeit were able to circumvent the “loyalty oath.” After refusing to sign the statement,

it seemed certain that we would be expelled. However, we received word that our colleagues from An-Najah [University] in Nablus had folded the sheet from the Israeli Occupation in such a way that the paragraph about the Civil Administration was out of sight. They then photocopied the sheet and signed it. We were encouraged by our Palestinian friends to pull the same trick. We were released and the Israelis at first thought they had co-opted us and they were quite happy. Soon, however, they realized they had been tricked and were quite upset.


Having refused to sign the statement, at least 25 lecturers from An-Najah University in Nablus and 19 from Birzeit University were barred from teaching or summarily deported. (“Occupier’s Law”)

Nelson’s former colleague pointed out additional errors in the story about her:

1. She was never “turned down for tenure” because she never applied for tenure, despite being encouraged to by her department chair.

2. She considered Birzeit “a wonderful university,” but returned to the United States for personal reasons, not because of the frequent Israeli closures.

3. Although Nelson depicts her as, due to “innocence and industry,” “vanishing for a time into one of the world’s notorious police states”—“Hafez al-Assad’s Syria”—she was actually awarded a Fulbright grant to teach there. As she told me,

I taught happily [there] for three years. The President of the University gave me a list of great books including Dante’s Divine Comedy. I loved the students and made many friends in Homs. It breaks my heart to see Syria smashed to bits.

Clearly Nelson had refashioned the story to reinforce his thesis. The more mundane truth was inconvenient to his argument.

2012 Birzeit University graduation ceremony (photo: Issam Rimawi)

In support of the “politicized campus”

One final comment must be made about Nelson’s claims. The designation of a school as “notoriously politicized” is appalling coming from a person who is viewed as a defender of academic freedom and promoter of campus activism, and who himself was a student radical in the 1960s.

It does a disservice to the campuses worldwide that have served as major sites of dissent against their oppressive governments. We can see this legacy in Mexico City in 1968 when the military closures of the “notoriously politicized” Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional precipitated the Tlatelolco massacre.

We can also see it in the repressive measures against South African student protests, particularly after demonstrations waged by black South African students against Conor Cruise O’Brien’s violation of the academic boycott in 1987. In response, the apartheid regime threatened to cut funding to universities that could not control its students.

The same goes for France in May 1968, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Spelman College during the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. “Notoriously politicized” campuses paved the way for change, against the repression imposed by the government or by their own administrators.

Sadly, no similar culture of dissent exists at Israeli universities in a country where the price of cottage cheese elicits more protest than the ongoing campaigns to ethnically cleanse the land of various non-Jews—indigenous Palestinians, Bedouins and non-Jewish Africans—and where support for BDS has been effectively criminalized.

Under these circumstances, the status quo must be rocked.

But let’s look closer at Cary Nelson’s own past:

In 1967 Nelson was completing his undergraduate studies at Antioch College, where he was also working part-time as a draft counselor. “In the midst of the Vietnam War and at America’s most progressive college,” writes Nelson,

draft counseling really meant draft-avoidance counseling. My main task was organizing student access to a group of increasingly politicized psychiatrists willing to write letters for people, saying they were unfit to serve [in Vietnam].

Thus we have a student and employee of a politicized college, paid by the college to conspire in illegal activities, working with “politicized psychiatrists” who were violating their own professional ethics, in order to subvert the needs of the state military in its execution of a war.

As Nelson states elsewhere in recounting these events,

neither my publication history nor my activism could be said to break with this past … these are the affirmative continuities that brought me where I am today.

Would the Cary Nelson of today find it justifiable for the US military to have shut down the “notoriously politicized” Antioch in 1967? Would he scold the “politicized psychiatrists” for violating their professional code of ethics? Or are such ethics only inviolable in academia?

But perhaps it is not academic freedom that is inviolable. Perhaps for Nelson what is inviolable is the sanctity of Israel from the coupling of criticism with action.

Part 3. After the ASA boycott

ASA boycott vote more legitimate than any AAUP election

When the results of the ASA boycott referendum came in, critics attacked the seemingly low voter turnout. The AAUP released a statement that not only criticized the ASA on academic freedom, but also played election monitor:

We note, however, that while nearly two-thirds (827) of the 1,252 ASA members participating in the vote supported the boycott proposal, less than a third of those eligible actually voted.

Cary Nelson took the snarkier route:

While participation in election and resolution votes by academic organizations is often relatively low, it still seems remarkable that only one-third of ASA members participated in the online balloting. For one, it is unlikely that many thought they had elected their national council to develop a foreign policy. It is also surprising that two-thirds of the members were willing to see a controversial resolution adopted in their name without weighing in on the matter. Perhaps they were too busy grading papers or doing Christmas shopping.

It is difficult to identify the arguments within the sarcasm, but they seem to relate to the ones made by other boycott critics:

  • The voter turnout was too low to be considered legitimate.
  • Non-votes should be considered abstentions, and abstentions are essentially no-votes.

Both charges are ridiculous.

1. The voter turnout was too low to be considered legitimate.

First, critics fail to mention that with 32.5% of the electorate voting, the ASA special referendum had “the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.”

Compare this rate to the AAUP’s recent election history. Although numbers available on the AAUP website are incomplete and some details are contradictory, this is what I could find:

Year    Eligible Votes Rate Format Notes
2006   ≥5811   mail  Nelson elected 1st time
2007       mail  
2008       mail  Nelson elected 2nd time
2009   ~8,000   electronic  “highest turnout in recent years”
2010     14%    Nelson elected 3rd time
2011 38,143 3,763 9.9% electronic  cited for voting irregularities
2012 38,499 3,979 10.3% mail  Fichtenbaum & Reichman elected
2013 36,951 3,714 10.1% mail  

Despite being general annual elections, none of the reported voter turnout percentages reached even half of the ASA’s single-referendum vote.

Assuming that the number of eligible voters did not vary drastically between 2006 and 2013, it is doubtful that the highest turnout of the period exceeded 25%. (Membership was reported as approaching 50,000 in 2008, but it is unclear how many would be eligible to vote.)

Thus, according to the AAUP’s standards, the ASA boycott is more legitimate than any of the AAUP’s own elections.

2. Non-votes should be considered abstentions, and abstentions are essentially no-votes.

ASA members had the option of choosing “ENDORSE,” “NOT ENDORSE,” or “ABSTAIN” on their ballot. Therefore, a true abstention is someone who voted to abstain, and a non-vote is simply a non-vote. It is deceitful to imply that an abstention or a non-vote is the equivalent of a no-vote.

For example, saying that 94.2% of the AAUP membership didn’t vote for winning candidate Rudy Fichtenbaum in 2012 (which is true) is not the same as saying that 94.2% of the AAUP membership voted against him (which is false).

Nelson abandons the academic freedom argument

Since the ASA boycott had been approved, Nelson’s regularly calm demeanor has been unraveling.

On December 16, Nelson left a comment on the Minding the Campus website that stated:

The ASA had no plausible disciplinary dog in the BDS hunt. Israel’s policies have no significant bearing on American higher education.

Strange assertions coming from someone who, as the AAUP president, praised his organization’s legacy of supporting “economic boycott” against South Africa and issued a letter criticizing state violence in Iran.

Nelson also falsely claimed that the AAUP, as a registered 501(c)(3), was not allowed to engage in political advocacy:

Consequently, now that the ASA is clearly a political organization, I wonder what its tax status will be?

Surely Nelson knows that registered 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in political advocacy, as the AAUP regularly does so on behalf of collective bargaining (even participating in a potentially illegal strike). The AAUP has endorsed and opposed legislation and, under the guise of “academic freedom,” has taken positions on gun control and campus military recruitment. From 2006 to 2011, the AAUP reported $239,917 in lobbying expenditures.

For Nelson to suggest that another academic organization’s tax status should be revoked for taking a political position is not only unprofessional and hypocritical but is a direct affront to academic freedom.

As well, most pro-Israel organizations in the United States are 501(c)(3)s, including groups that Nelson is now collaborating with: the Israel on Campus Coalition, Hillel, and the Israel Action Network (through the Jewish Federations of North America).


On December 18, two days after the boycott announcement, Nelson appeared onDemocracy Now! to debate the ASA boycott decision. There, he admitted that the main issue was not academic freedom, but for that he blamed the ASA:

I think, to some degree, the AAUP was boxed into making an argument that the ASA members really didn’t care about. It’s not fundamentally about academic freedom. It’s not even fundamentally about boycotting Israeli universities. This effort within the ASA is part of a long-term effort to delegitimate the state of Israel.

That’s something the AAUP really wasn’t prepared to address, because we don’t talk about—you know, we don’t officially talk about those kinds of political issues.

If the AAUP isn’t “prepared to address” the issue of the ASA boycott outside of academic freedom, it is precisely because the AAUP has declared that outside its mandate. Therefore it should not care whether the boycott “delegitimate[s] the state of Israel,” whatever that means. The AAUP officially has no position on that.

However, that has not prevented high-ranking AAUP officers such as Cary Nelson and Henry Reichman from combining a defense of academic freedom with a defense of the Israeli status quo.

Nelson’s is frustrated that the discussion veers from academic freedom because it grants him less authority, and hence less control, over the debate. Yet it is the realm outside of academic freedom that the boycott pains him the most. It is there that he cannot pretend to be objective.

Nelson’s admission on Democracy Now! was a signal that he was preparing to abandon the academic freedom pretense and to make a greater commitment to defending Israeli status quo.

Without the ostensibly nonpartisan principles of academic freedom to fall back on, Nelson’s reasonings sounded even more of a stretch:

But, you know, looking at the one-state option, I think, is to look at large numbers of dead Arabs and dead Jews. And that’s been behind the arguments that the—many of the advocates within the ASA and elsewhere for the eventual political solution to the crisis, the ongoing, decades-long crisis in the Middle East.

From the AAUP to the Israel Action Network

Before, Cary Nelson would speak from the mantle of the AAUP and academic freedom. Now he was joining forces with unabashed apologists for Israel with histories of attempting to silence campus criticism of Israel.

On January 7, Nelson spoke in a conference call organized by the Israel Action Network, expressing opposition to the MLA resolution that criticized Israel for turning away US academics from Gaza and the West Bank.

Where previously the AAUP had criticized the US for denying entry to foreign academics and activists—accusing the government of “censoring political dissent on the border” and engaging in “ideological exclusion”—Nelson was now finding such tactics acceptable for Israel:

Are MLA members qualified to judge whether Israel had valid security concerns about particular visitors?

Where previously the AAUP argued on behalf of foreign visitors on grounds of academic freedom and intellectual exchange, Nelson was now dismissing these issues as mere “travel rights” and a matter of a state’s “travel policy.”

Two days later, Nelson spoke against the ASA and MLA resolutions on an “alternative panel” sponsored by Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition.

Cary Nelson becomes unhinged

Along with his new alliances came stranger arguments.

In an opinion piece published on Aljazeera on December 23, Nelson echoed Benny Morris, with his fear of an Arab planet:

[N]othing in decades of Middle East history suggests Jews would be equal citizens in a state dominated by Arabs or Palestinians.

… wherein Nelson managed, in light of “decades of Israeli history,” to make the case against Israel’s “right to exist.”

Nelson also injected the Holocaust into the discussion:

What happened to Palestinian families in 1948 was unquestionably a tragedy. So too was the Holocaust. There is tragic history on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And speaking to the Forward, Nelson compared the MLA panel on boycotting Israel to a bris:

Nelson says MLA leadership assured him that dissenting voices would have an opportunity to speak at the MLA roundtable, but he is skeptical. “Are they going to leave one chair for Elijah and give him a seat if he shows up?” he asked.

Later, Nelson would describe the MLA delegate assembly as a “circus with a surfeit of clowns,” leaving one to visualize clowns occupying the chair of Elijah at a bris.

Contrast such remarks with his prior call for empathy, “modest interpersonal restraint,” and “performative civility.”

In No University Is an Island, Nelson offered a recommendation for diffusing the combative atmosphere of campus discussion on the Middle East:

Campus relations over the Middle East first of all need greater self-awareness and collective honesty about the impact of identity on political debate … One curative move would be to accept Michael Rothberg’s wise analysis throughout his book Multidirectional Memory that neither experience nor representation of collective suffering is a zero-sum game in which acknowledging one group’s suffering has to trump another’s … Rothberg argues persuasively that coming to understand one historical injustice can in fact make us more receptive to understanding others. On campus that would mean agreeing to stop seeking to be agents of the victims of first rank and instead negotiating as strategic, though not historical, equals. I am not foolish enough to imagine that people would not rank Jewish and Arab victims in their heads; rather, I am hoping for modest interpersonal restraint. As claims, accusations, and counterclaims escalate, the need for this kind of campus diplomacy only increases. Nothing in this prescription assumes that the parties are equal or that their arguments should be carefully “balanced” against one another. It does not presume that they need actually to respect one another’s positions. Rather, it argues for a purely performative civility.

It has become evident that Nelson’s previous measured tones on Palestine/Israel have been “purely performative”—not just in civility, but in personal reasoning.

Nothing has made this more clear than on January 8, when the self-proclaimed “tenured radical” was published in the neoconservative Wall Street Journalopinion section—a section whose positions on academia run directly counter to Nelson’s, with its disdain for postmodernism, leftist campus activism, and labor rights—well, its disdain for academia in general—as well as its support for David Horowitz’s so-called “Academic Bill of Rights.”

Yet there was Nelson, having finally decided to drop his “purely performative civility” with an article sounding no different from any other Wall Street Journalop-ed. Under the headline “Another Anti-Israel Vote Comes to Academia,” Nelson complains that the humanities are “increasingly politicized and unserious,” with faculty members “blinded by hatred of Israel,” “indulg[ing] their hatred of the Israeli state,” participating in a “movement against the Jewish state” and even “offering lessons in contemporary demonology.”

Is “lessons in contemporary demonology” covered under academic freedom?

He cites for authority the “100 university presidents” who rejected the ASA boycott resolution—the same presidents whose authority he used to ridicule when he called them “Mafiosi” and “jackbooted university managers.

By the end of the awkward, cliché-ridden screed, the formerly restrained Nelson becomes totally unhinged, warning that BDS will kill Jews:

The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel. One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.

It’s time that Nelson apply some of that “self-awareness and collective honesty about the impact of identity” that he likes to promote.

Conclusion: Academic freedom becomes a restraint for its biggest advocate

Cary Nelson (right) debating David Horowitz (left), back when they had something to debate.

The day after the MLA approved the resolution on Israel, Cary Nelson began targeting for criticism MLA first vice president Margaret Ferguson, who had presided over the discussion and vote of the resolution.

Ferguson had previously endorsed the boycott call issued by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). According to Nelson, this generated a conflict of interest. Aside from the fact that the resolution was not a call for a boycott, it is difficult to understand how simply having expressed an opinion in the past signaled a conflict of interest.

According to Nelson, Ferguson’s prior endorsement of USACBI signaled an interest in “stigmatizing Israel”:

A conflict of interest gives reason to believe that a person’s judgment in exercising a primary responsibility (running a meeting in a neutral and disinterested fashion) may have been affected by a secondary interest (stigmatizing Israel). It is not proof that someone’s judgment is affected—that is a matter of interpretation. But it raises the possibility and calls the assembly’s results into question.

Such a standard is more appropriately a call for Nelson to recuse himself from ever representing the AAUP on matters concerning Israel or Palestine again. Nelson has made that clear enough when he claimed that the AAUP was “boxed into” discussing academic freedom.

Academic freedom is supposedly the AAUP’s calling. If that to Nelson is being “boxed in,” then Nelson should keep his pronouncements outside of the box, rather than simultaneously occupying positions both inside and out.

About Phan Nguyen

Phan Nguyen is a Palestine solidarity activist based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @Phan_N

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