In a new interview with The Electronic Intifada, Cary Nelson, past president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has revealed that he is directly advising national Zionist organizations in their campaign against Steven Salaita. This included a proposal to directly lobby the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Last week it was reported that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Chancellor Phyllis Wise had abruptly terminated Salaita weeks before he was due to start teaching in a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program.
This followed a media campaign against Salaita, a prominent advocate for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, over tweets he made condemning Israel’s massacre in Gaza.
Nelson, a professor of English at UIUC, also spoke frankly about his affiliation with the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Zionist advocacy group funded by an extreme anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim ideologue.
Nelson also revealed his own ties to the editor of a far-right website that has been monitoring Salaita.
Nelson denies “monitoring” Salaita
I based this on his statement that he had first read Salaita’s tweets months ago, and that “There are scores of tweets. I have screen captures … The total effect seems to me to cross a line.”
Also, Nelson wrote in an essay on 8 August, that “I have been following his tweets for some months.”
But now, Nelson explains, “I first looked at Salaita’s Twitter page a few months ago. I’ve been there a total of three times and I’ve read his tweets. I read occasionally things on The Electronic Intifada website. While I read The New York Times every day, I wouldn’t say that I monitor it. Monitoring suggests like the FBI monitors your phone calls continuously.”
Nelson also says he did not make the “scores” of screenshots himself. Rather, he says, “they were emailed to me by the person who edits legalinsurrection.com … he sent me a collection of them.”
Legal Insurrection is a website managed by William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University with hardline anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim views who rails against fellow educators who support the academic boycott of Israel.
His site attracts writers with similarly extreme positions. In one recent posting, for instance, a contributor praised Egyptian dictator Abdulfattah al-Sisi’s crackdown which has involved killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands more suspected of the slightest sympathy with the elected Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew in a military coup last year.
“It will be interesting to see if the ‘Sisi Doctrine’ of blending religious reformation with a full frontal assault on terrorist groups is effective and exportable,” the post says.
Now Jacobson sees Salaita’s predicament as a sort of well-deserved comeuppance, pointing to the “hypocrisy” of those who refuse ties with Israeli universities:
Many of those rushing to Salaita’s defense on the ground of academic freedom, however, themselves are among the worst violators of academic freedom through the anti-Israel academic boycott. They would turn away a Dean or representative of an Israeli academic institution, would bar joint programs and research, and even cooperation in journal publications.
Nelson’s revelation of the role of Jacobson in providing him with ammunition against Salaita certainly exonerates Nelson of making “scores” of screenshots himself. But it also underscores the role of far-right activists in targeting Salaita, as well as Nelson’s alliance with them.
Zionist groups planned to target Illinois trustees
In both of my conversations with him, Nelson insisted that he has never spoken to anyone in the UIUC administration about Salaita’s case. But he did acknowledge that he has given advice to off-campus Zionist groups since the Salaita story broke.
“I’ve had at least fifty emails from people about the [Salaita] tweets and some of them are from people who I’m sure have a role in one organization or another,” Nelson said.
“I had a call from someone who does represent an outside organization asking for my opinion about whether that organization or other organizations should approach the Board of Trustees to make some statement against Salaita’s appointment and I advised that they should not,” he added. “I said that the academic process should run its course and that while it was fine for people outside the university to comment negatively about any faculty’s work, they shouldn’t attempt to influence university decisions.”
Nelson’s advice is disingenuous to say the least. The Zionist group or groups he is counseling on strategy hardly need to intervene directly when Nelson is effectively doing their dirty work for them.
Instead of allowing the academic process to run its course, Nelson has himself waged a high-profile media campaign against Salaita, which includes spurious accusations of “incitement to violence,” impugning without any evidence Salaita’s teaching record, and putting forward pseudo-legal arguments for why the University of Illinois is under no obligation to honor its contract with him.
Nelson has served as self-appointed public prosecutor, offering a tweet-by-tweet exegesis of Salaita’s words in an article for Inside Higher Ed. This includes the canard that some of them are “anti-Semitic” – a charge based on misrepresentation that no one who has engaged in good faith with Salaita’s history of ethical scholarship and advocacy can take seriously.
Nelson has done all this when Salaita has had to remain silent, in accordance, one can reasonably infer, with legal advice designed to prevent any further damage to his rights and position.
Israel on Campus Coalition fellow
Nelson also spoke to me about his role as one of about two dozen national “Faculty Fellows” of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC).
The group has established the ICC Academic Network which it describes as “a national community of pro-Israel professors who are dedicated to mentoring students, forging new ties between US and Israeli academics, and combating the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement in academia.”
It focuses its “recruitment efforts on professors who teach at schools with a high risk of anti-Israel activity and whose fields of study [are] targeted by the anti-Israel BDS movement.”
It also provides “Israel Solidarity Grants” to “campus initiatives that demonstrate visible public support for the State of Israel.”
Nelson himself states that he receives no payment for his role with ICC, which he said includes advising pro-Israel faculty and students on campus.
While he didn’t mention it in our conversation, Nelson is scheduled to speak on an ICC-sponsored panel at this December’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The panel is titled “Boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education abridges academic freedom.”
None of the panelists or the chair is a member of the American Anthropological Association, according to a search of the group’s membership database. The all-male panel is to be chaired by the ICC’s Sam Edelman.
While it is obviously within Nelson’s rights to participate in such promotional activity for the benefit of a foreign state, it is notable that ICC board member, West Coast chair and donor Adam Milstein is notorious as a “pro-Israel Muslim basher.”
As Alex Kane has reported for Mondoweiss in a story on Milstein’s alleged financing of an anti-Palestinian candidate in student elections at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA):
Milstein has quickly become a lightning rod for criticism because of his outspoken, often anti-Muslim political views and his funding of controversial groups who share his ideology. Since 2009, Milstein’s foundation has given StandWithUs, a right-wing pro-Israel group, about $738,000. He has also given, since 2009 over $260,000 to Hasbara Fellowships, which promotes anti-Muslim films and speakers; $40,000 to Christians United for Israel in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years; $10,000 in those same fiscal years to the virulently anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center; and in 2012 $5,000 to the Central Fund of Israel, a US-based non-profit that funds illegal West Bank settlements and other projects, including, the organization says, in Israel proper.
Since 2010, Milstein has given $40,000 to the Israel on Campus Coalition.
Other beneficiaries of Milstein’s largesse include a who’s who of Israel lobby groups including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, AIPAC subsidiary The American Israel Education Foundation, The Israel Project, CAMERA, MEMRI and NGO Monitor.
Kane notes, however, that it is “Milstein’s tweets that have many students at [UCLA] upset.”
A look at Milstein’s Twitter feed reveals a stream of strident anti-Muslim invective. On 16 May, for instance, Milstein celebrated the victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP party in India’s general election, tweeting that its leader Narendra Modi was Israel’s “best friend” as well as being a “pro-Hindu anti-Muslim nationalist!”
In an 8 June tweet, Milstein, a property magnate, lamented: “More than ever, Pres. Obama makes public his policy of cuddling up to Islam and abandoning the State of #Israel.”
Milstein’s sectarianism is embodied in his foundation’s mission which aims “to protect our Judeo/Christian values,” as well as donating money “to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity.”
Nelson pleads ignorance about ICC and its most high-profile board member Adam Milstein.
Asked what he thought of Milstein’s strident positions, Nelson said, “I don’t think I know anything about his views. I’ve encountered the name before. I just can’t recall what I read about him.”
Pressed on whether Milstein’s extreme anti-Muslim views would disturb him, Nelson replied, “I’m not going to comment on him. I just don’t know enough to comment on him.”
Asked what due diligence he had done on ICC before allowing it to use his name, Nelson stated, “several of my friends are part of that group, so I did talk to my friends, to people that I trust about the role of the organization and whether my playing these kinds of roles on campus would be useful.”
He said that at the time he was asked to join ICC, the group’s website was down and so – unlike Steven Salaita’s Twitter page, The New York Times and The Electronic Intifada – he had never looked at it.
Now that he knows, it will be interesting to see if Nelson cancels his affiliation with the Israel on Campus Coalition, or keeps up his public association with it as a more honest reflection of the strident Zionist and anti-Palestinian views that evidently motivate his current campaign against Steven Salaita.