Is criticizing Israel worse than murder at the University of Illinois?

Palestinians gather around a commercial center which was hit in an Israeli air strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 24 August.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

There is a very good case to be made that Cary Nelson’s inability to place discussion of Israel — particularly discussion of any strong and committed criticism of Israel — within the bounds of rational thought is merely symptomatic of the double standard the most extreme defenders of Israel employ on a regular basis.

Though Nelson, a past president of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP), has been vocal in the campaign against Steven Salaita, it is also important to try to resist concentrating too much energy on someone who daily recedes into insignificance.

Yet it is impossible not to comment on the latest and perhaps most dramatic instance of Nelson’s weird ability to live comfortably in contradiction, especially as his “logic” has now been endorsed by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

This week the board was faced with the task of deciding on the fate of not one but two scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where Nelson is emeritus professor of English.

The Salaita case has been much commented on — in a piece I wrote for Salon I outline the parameters of the case and draw attention to the fact that Nelson had defended Ward Churchill’s academic freedom while he refuses to now do the same for Salaita.

Essentially, Salaita was offered a tenured appointment at UIUC, but it seems that after outside Zionist groups, students writing as part of an organized campaign and donors complained about the appointment, drawing attention to several tweets Salaita posted that were sharply critical of Israel, Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita that she was revoking his job.


The controversy has by now resulted in more than three thousand scholars declaring that they will boycott UIUC and some sixteen thousand others protesting the firing.

The AAUP has criticized the university’s actions, as has the Center for Constitutional Rights.

A letter to Wise composed by distinguished legal scholars, drawing out the illegality of her actions, has been posted online.

Yet Nelson has remained a staunch defender of the university’s actions, saying that, yes indeed, those tweets, regardless of all legal reasoning, can and should be used to fire Salaita. In my Salon article I contrast this to the Churchill case, where Nelson was perfectly okay defending a scholar who had made equally if not more offensive comments:

As president of the AAUP Nelson actually defended (albeit belatedly) a professor who, after 9/11, wrote a manifesto declaring that the bombing of the World Trade Center was the proper retribution for America’s past deeds, and that those who perished there deserved to die because they were “little Eichmanns” working in the “techno-corps.” Yes, Cary Nelson argued for Ward Churchill’s reinstatement. So if he can do that for Ward Churchill, why can’t he for Steven Salaita? Easy — it’s simply because Salaita’s target is not US foreign policy or global capitalism, it is Israel. One might forgive Nelson his base hypocrisy, if it were not for the fact that it comes at the expense of another person’s career and livelihood.

Outrageously, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees has agreed that voicing opinions critical of Israel in an “uncivil” manner (whatever that is) are grounds for dismissal. Now it is crucial to see past their alibi for dispensing with First Amendment protections of free speech — the trustees claim it is not a matter of what he said, but how he said it. But so far not a single piece of evidence or statement of methodology as to how they determined he crossed the line has been offered.


Contrast this with how they, and Cary Nelson, have treated another case brought before the trustees at the very same time as Salaita’s.

The other case is that of James Kilgore. As Inside Higher Ed explains, in 2011, “two years out of prison for his involvement with a 1975 bank robbery in which a woman was killed,” Kilgore applied for a position at UIUC (“Professor With a Past,” 8 May 2014).

Kilgore fully disclosed his conviction for second-degree murder, possession of an explosive device and passport fraud. He had served his time and was a fully rehabilitated member of society. The university employed him, and things would probably have remained the same had it not been for the fact that in February the News-Gazette, the same newspaper that publicized Salaita’s tweets, published a series of articles exposing Kilgore’s past.

Once that controversy started, the Nelson machine kicked into high gear. As Inside Higher Ed then reported:

Cary Nelson, a professor of English, member of the Senate and past president of the American Association of University Professors, said via email: “This whole effort was triggered by the university administration’s violations of academic freedom and shared governance when it decided to tell James Kilgore his services as a part-time teacher would never be needed again.”

Nelson continued: “Such global commitments to lifetime non-reappointment are only issued with cause: incompetence, fraud, or moral turpitude. Only a week earlier the administration gave him a ringing endorsement. In the meantime, a News-Gazette slander piece was published. It told the university nothing that James hadn’t already disclosed when he was hired. The university acted out of political cowardice, ignoring the wishes of Kilgore’s department and doing so [without] faculty review.”

Of the three “causes” which Nelson feels are grounds for dismissal, only one could possibly be of use here — moral turpitude. And yet how could vehemently moralistic tweets, decrying the killing of innocents, possibly be construed as evidence of “moral turpitude”? Only in Cary Nelson’s upside-down world.

Note how quickly Nelson forgets his principles when the issue is not someone convicted of second-degree murder, but someone who has exercised his First Amendment rights and tweeted sharp criticism of Israel’s rampage in Gaza, in which it had by that point in time murdered close to two thousand people, the vast majority of them civilians and of those civilians, some four hundred children.

Salaita’s tweets vociferously voiced his moral outrage at these killings, but his anger and outrage certainly came nowhere close to actually abetting in the murder of another human being.

Now I absolutely agree with the Cary Nelson who defended Kilgore, in precisely the terms he did. But how in the world does Nelson square that passionate and righteous defense with his disproportionate and utterly contradictory condemnation of Salaita?

Nelson represents simply the most extreme expression of a basic double standard that is not his alone. It is now manifest in the Board of Trustees’ disgraceful decision on Steven Salaita, and in the fact that Chancellor Wise is still considering Kilgore’s case.

David Palumbo-Liu is Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.




This reminds me of something said by Henry Siegman, former head of the Synagogue Council of America, former National Director of the American Jewish Congress & a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations . He said, “Benny Morris published a book […] Righteous Victims, in which he said [...] the IDF finally had to open up [...] that Israeli generals received direct instructions from Ben-Gurion during the War of Independence to kill civilians, or line them up against the wall & shoot them, in order to help to encourage the exodus, that in fact resulted, of 700,000 Palestinians, who were driven out of their—left their homes, & their towns & villages were destroyed. This was terror, even within not just the terrorist groups, the pre-state terrorists, but this is within the military, the Israeli military, that fought the War of Independence. & in this recent [a book by] Ari Shavit. He describes several such incidents, too. [...] One of the people who—according to Benny Morris, one of the people who received these orders [was] none other than (Yitzhak) Rabin, [...] he executed civilians.

Shavit [...] had an interview with Benny Morris & said to him, 'My God, you are saying that there was deliberate ethnic cleansing here?' & (he) said, 'Yes, there was.' & he says, 'And you justify it?' & he said, 'Yes, because otherwise there would not have been a state.' [...] & that was one of my turning point myself, [...] He would not follow up & say, 'Well, if that is a justification, the struggle for statehood, why can’t Palestinians do that? What’s wrong with Hamas? Why are they demonized if they do what we did?' You're not a racist, anti-Semite or self-hating Jew to disagree with what Israel is doing, just a person with a conscience, morals and compassion.


This article does excellently highlight Nelson's hypocrisy, and it certainly does deserve to be highlighted, again and again!

However, I am uneasy with the tone and, especially, the sensationalist headline (which I am aware the author may well not be responsible for). I am glad that he does eventually agres with Nelson's defense of Kilgore, and I am frankly troubled by the fact that he apparently does not in the Ward-Churchill case.

While any reasonable person would certainly construe the latter's remarks as far more "offensive" and "uncivil" than anything by Salaita, they still fall under the rubric of protected free speech, and have no impact on his teaching/research ability within his field.

Calling out hypocrisy is always good, but engaging in selective moral outrage and sensationalism is counter-productive; free speech, and the ability to make a fresh start after having paid for past mistakes are essential rights which are equally applicable to EVERYONE.


I just read a speech by Jacob Ari Labendz that he made at a St. Louis synagogue recently. He said he was just finishing his dissertation at the Washington University. Labendz said he was a supporter of Israel until he realized what Israel's policies actually were. I am writing this because he said he was speaking out despite the fact that this might have a detrimental effect on his future job prospects in academia. I think this is a very dangerous trend. I give him credit, because he is speaking up anyway.


Title: President
Job Category: Academic Professional
Location: Urbana and/or Chicago
Description: President University of Illinois

The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois announces a search for President of the University, the appointment to be effective July 1, 2015, or as designated by the Board. The President of the University leads an academic community with a strong and proud tradition of excellence in teaching, research, public service and economic development.


The current guy is interim. He wasn't fired.


forgot to mention - I heard David Palumbo-Liu on the radio recently and also read some of his writing - REALLY GOOD. fantastic. was brilliant on KPFA's Against The Grain recently, which is usually a useless show, but Palumbo-Liu was great.


"Kilgore fully disclosed his conviction for second-degree murder, possession of an explosive device and passport fraud. He had served his time and was a fully rehabilitated member of society."

Kilgore's only crime was getting foolishly involved, as a young man, in a grouplet that, if not an intelligence agency provocation, was a parody of an anti-imperialist urban guerrilla group. In particular, his responsibility for the death of a bank customer in an expropriation was minimal and certainly unintentional, and neither passport fraud nor possession of an explosive device is a crime from the viewpoint of anti-ruling-class fighters.

Moreover, he was NOT one of the millions of U.S. nationals who, in the 1960's and 1970's, knowingly and wilfully took part, directly or indirectly, in the murders of millions of innocent people in Southeast Asia, and are still treated as if they didn't need rehabilitation, nor to 'pay their debt to society'.


Illinois board is a political appointment by the governor. 20 years ago they were independently elected, but now they are creatures of the corrupt political process of Illinois. U.S.Senators Durbin and Kirk are owned by AIPAC and who knows how many of the rest of the politicians. The UI administration fears angering all those pols and of course the board. Then you have right wing local paper starting it all.


Gentlemen, you should take over the boycott of UIUC in support of Prof. Salaita. I am very concerned with 1) Corey Robin handling it after seeing how he censors comments discrediting people attacking Prof. Salaita's scholarship, 2) his not defending Prof. Salaita from those who had clearly started preparing to attack illegitimately and misleadingly his scholarship in the manner to which Zionist activists are known to engage long before this dispute materialized and 3) Prof. Salaita's support in at least one academic community being hindered by the fact that one academic (e.g., J Otto Pohl) collecting boycott signatures confessed that according to him leftist academics "don't really believe in free speech" and "would rather see Salaita get screwed than have any association with somebody like" Pohl.

Palestinians, their supporters, and anyone who wants to liberate humankind from Zionist tyranny should reject and condemn the support of Robin, Honig, Jonathon Judaken, and others like them who seem to support Salaita but have a problem with some of Salaita's almost banal tweets (something I wrote about at length when Bonnie Honig’s offensive letter was published and a view I have had from the instant I became aware of his tweets). We don’t need their support and we don’t want to give them any opportunity to launder themselves or use this incident to establish some type of legitimacy.

The proper context in which to evaluate Prof. Salaita's tweets and his case is described in my comment to the article at the following URL: