What I wanted to ask Cary Nelson last night

Dang it! Just as I saw an opening for my question to Cary Nelson about his support of the unhiring of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois, the night was over. I guess I could have hung around for the reception afterwards and tried to talk to him, but it was getting late and I felt like it would have looked like I was confronting the guy over juice and cookies.

Oh well. I guess I’ll ask it here and see what happens. But first a recap:

Cary Nelson came to campus last night to give a talk, “Bait and Switch: The Purpose of the Movement to Boycott Israel,” which was about his take on the efforts of some academic organizations to boycott, financially divest, and otherwise sanction Israel– the “BDS” movement. The crowd was mostly a friendly group, though there was a “boycott Israel” contingent up front. I snapped this picture that pretty much captured the spirit of the protest:


That woman stood there quietly for almost the whole 45 minutes or so Nelson talked. Then she asked the first question during the Q&A (though it wasn’t really a question so much as it was a sort of disjointed rant) and she left. But I digress.

Nelson started by saying that he was going to not stoop to emotional arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he then outlined in broad terms his position (in short, a two state solution where the Israelis are going to have to give up on some settlements and territory, where there is international support to the Palestinians since people who are making decent livings are a whole lot less motivated to bomb people, etc.) before moving to what he thought was wrong specifically with BDS.  Though as Nelson went on, he did get more emotionally caught up, his language became a bit less disciplined, and a lot of his criticism was pointed very specifically at two of the more active/outspoken academics in favor of BDS, Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti.  At one point he said “I would never say this in print, but I think [Judith] Butler is a lunatic.”

Still, Nelson’s overall take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems pretty reasonable and pragmatic to me, and he was persuasive about the problems with BDS. Though to be fair, I haven’t studied the BDS position and I certainly haven’t studied the specifics of the Butler et al side of the argument. It would have been a different event, but it would have been interesting if there was someone there representing the BDS folks so this was more of a debate. And while I haven’t always agreed with Butler, I don’t think it helps Nelson’s credibility to describe her as a lunatic.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very Milquetoast (“can’t we all just get along?”) and I have a enough imagination to have sympathies with both the Israelis and Palestinians in the region. But I’m not comfortable going a whole lot further than that because I don’t have a cultural/social/ethnic/religious dog in this fight (so to speak) as white agnostic on a good day/atheist on a bad day American of European descent, and also because this has become an incredibly polarizing “third rail” among academics. I have friends and colleagues around the country who feel very strongly one way or the other on BDS, and I’d just as soon not alienate and/or piss off either group.

Anyway, the question and answer time came and Nelson was more than game for some conflict and tough questions. He seemed to be encouraging it in a way I recognize among academics (including myself), basically saying “hey, let’s have an argument, it’ll be fun!” And just when I saw an opening to raise my hand, it was done. Dang it.

So if I could have asked a question, it would have been something like this:

“Just to change the topic a bit, I want to ask you about your stance on the unhiring of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois. Because I have to tell you, given what you’ve said and demonstrated here about the importance of engaging and debating people who hold opposing views like the folks down front who are in the “boycott Israel” camp, and also given what you’ve said in the past about academic freedom, I have to say your strong support for the Illinois administration’s move to stop Salaita from being hired into a tenured position seem strange. You’re clearly encouraging free and open debate here on the question of BDS, but not when it comes to hiring faculty with different views.

“So I guess this prompts for me several questions:

  • “You have said before that if Salaita had sent his various offensive tweets after he had been hired into his tenured position, then he would have kept his job because he would have been exercising his right as a tenured professor to academic free speech. Let’s set aside the question of whether or not Salaita was actually hired or not because I think that’s something the courts are ultimately going to decide. What is the “magic” about the tenure switch? What is it where one minute, anything a non-tenured academic says can be held against them, but the next minute, once the tenure switch is flicked, anything goes?
  • “Are there any logical limits to academic free speech? That is, is there anything a tenured professor might say that could cause them his or her job?
  • “Shouldn’t non-tenured members of the academic community be afforded at least some level of protection? After all, non-tenure-track faculty are steadily increasing in numbers and it seems problematic to me that we don’t extend any sort of academic free speech to them.
  • “What’s the role of things like social media and other non-official channels and academic free speech? I’m personally very concerned about this because I have a pretty extensive presence online (this blog, my own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and I think it’d be very problematic if something I wrote in one of these “unofficial” spaces was used against me in my job. As an academic, am I not allowed the chance to express myself on Twitter without it potentially coming back to haunt me in my day job?”

I’m not expecting Nelson to answer any of these questions, but hey, who knows? Maybe someone else who was there can offer their thoughts?

24 thoughts on “What I wanted to ask Cary Nelson last night

  1. Nice summation, Sitedad. It was a first-rate event, and I was impressed by how readily Nelson engaged dialogue. As you say, he seemed to relish taking whatever questions arose.


  2. Thanks for the report. While such middle of the road pragmatism, that Israel withdraws from territory and settlements and Palestinians gets a state (i.e. the ‘two state solution’), is all well and good, it does not address how such a resolution is to be achieved. This is where Nelson reveals his ignorance of the conflict, its history, and its asymmetries. I believe he (and you) means well, but just saying everyone should get on does not address these deeper, structural issues that have shaped and continue to shape the conflict. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the BDS movement or not, at least they are seeking a meaningful way to resolve the conflict. As far as I can ascertain, Nelson has not offered any suggestions for a constructive process that confronts the reality of the conflict, and its broader geopolitical dynamics.

    I agree that calling Butler a lunatic certainly does not help Nelson’s credibility; in view of his recent calls for civility he comes off as a hypocrite. It also appears to contradict his intention of not stooping to emotional arguments, which I also find interesting, as if getting ‘emotional’ about something is inherently wrong. As is clear, I was not at the presentation. Having read a great deal by and about Nelson, your report has reconfirmed my impression that Nelson is ignorant (on matters concerning the Palestinian-Israel conflict) and a hypocrite (on matters concerning free speech). Hence why I did not bother going: he does not appear to have anything useful to say about these incredibly important issues.


  3. Sitedad, had I realized you raised a hand, I would have encouraged Nelson to take one more question. But the night was getting late, the weather was murderous, and I knew he would stick around a bit to chat with people afterwards–he did, in fact, talk to people (mostly students) on both sides of the ideological coin for over an hour after his presentation. I was deeply impressed by his clarity and commitment to fairness. I was a little surprised by his comment about Butler. Nelson did certainly praise Butler’s work on gender, and many in opposition to boycott rhetoric find this exceptional thinker’s arguments on the matter unworthy of her intellect. As for Salaita, Nelson has compelling reasons for his position–reasons that fit reasonably well within his long history with free academic speech. He also appreciates that there are very compelling arguments on the other side. Perhaps it is good I didn’t let you ask the question. We would have been there two more hours–at least.


  4. You should have come to it, John. I don’t think Nelson came off as a hypocrite or as ill-informed, and I think what he was advocating seems to me to be about as realistic as the BDS folks arguing for things like “right of return,” and vice-versa. Which is to say that in terms of an actual policy that could actually be implemented, both camps are very problematic. But again, third rail, I don’t want to go there.

    And Marty, don’t feel bad because as you say, it was getting late, etc., and better for Nelson to be spending that time chatting with students than the likes of me. You’ll have to tell me in the halls about his compelling reasons.

    I will say this though for now: I hope his compelling reasons aren’t based on the technicality of whether or not Salaita was actually offered a position. As I said in my question (more formed in writing than it would have been in person for sure!), I think we have to set that aside because that’s a matter that is going to be decided in the courts and neither Nelson nor I (and not anyone else there last night) knows enough about the employment and contract law around all that. Salaita and his colleagues thought he had the job, he had ordered books for the classes he was going to teach, he and his family moved there, etc. The administration said he didn’t have the job because the board hadn’t approved the appointment– a technicality for sure, but a darn important one. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s going to be some kind of out-of-court settlement that more or less pays off Salaita in an effort to make him whole and able to go on to another job. I read someplace that there were people on the UIll board who favored this. But if that doesn’t happen, this thing will be litigated for years.

    Maybe a slightly different way of putting the question to Nelson is if Salaita’s rants and politics weren’t associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and this BDS stuff– say Salaita’s work was more about the genetic and ethnic superiority of one race over another or something else kind of “out there” crazy– would Nelson have cared and would he have supported the U of Ill administration’s decisions? That’s a pretty impossible hypothetical proposal I suppose, but I’d suggest it’d make a difference. Part of what was clear in his presentation last night was Nelson’s passion against the BDS movement, and I think that’s more or less “trumping” Nelson’s views on academic freedom.


  5. I disagree about the Palestine-Israel conflict being a ‘third rail’ issue: Nelson claims to understand the Palestinian-Israel conflict and, thus, to speak authoritatively on the BDS issue. The first does not appear to be the case; thus, the second is suspect.

    Recently, in his ‘civility manifesto,’ Nelson wrote: ‘Civility should lead us to treat people with respect, but it doesn’t mean that all arguments or ideas merit respect. Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation.’ As far as I am concerned, calling Judith Butler a ‘lunatic’ amounts to ‘abusive rhetoric [and] personal accusation.’ To be absolutely sure, I believe Nelson is free to call Butler whatever he wants; however, it also demonstrates his hypocrisy where civility is supposedly concerned, and this is not the first time he has indulged in such ‘abusive rhetoric.’ And this goes back to my original point: such a hypocrite does not deserve to be taken seriously on issues such as free speech and civility.

    Regarding Salaita, much has been made (especially by Nelson) that Salaita was not actually hired, as his appointment was awaiting the approval of the Board of Regents,’ and was therefore not subject to tenure protection. My understanding is that Board of Regents was due to meet after the term had begun, i.e. after Salaita had been due to begin teaching. So the issue of the Board’s approval is more than a technicality; it is a fundamental issue upon which Salaita had made his personal arrangements. This issue is a vexing one and will probably, as you state, ultimately be settled in court.

    Nothing you have said has made me regret not going to the presentation.


  6. Well, let me put it this way: because I am personally ambivalent, conflicted, relatively uninformed about the BDS stuff, it’s a third rail for me. I don’t want to go there. I was there mostly there last night because of the academic free speech stuff and just to hear what Nelson had to say.

    I think your point about the notion of “civility” is one worth taking up here though, John, for at least two reasons. First, I want to be clear about the nature of the quote and what Nelson was saying. In the context of the event, I don’t think his calling Judith Butler a “lunatic” was uncivil so much as it was kind of stupid on his part. I guess the best way to describe it is I didn’t sense hostility or what have you in his off the cuff and not very smart remark.

    But on the screen/on the page/in writing, calling someone a “lunatic” is a very uncivil thing indeed, in large part because it is an abusive term, especially after it is freed from context. This is one of the problems I’ve had with Salaita being unhired based on his Twitter posts because it’s super-duper easy to take 140 character statements completely out of context, and (as someone who tweets often enough) it’s also easy as a writer to say something in 140 characters you regret. So while I think Nelson calling Butler a lunatic was more about carelessness than hypocrisy, I also think you have a good point.

    The other problem I have is I find the terms of “civility” to be too squishy. Someone standing there the whole time with a BOYCOTT ISRAEL t-shirt on is obviously a purposefully uncivil act of protest. Nelson was okay with her protest– he said something along the lines of being used to that sort of thing– but it’s easy to imagine a speaker who would have had that woman cleared out of there in the name of civility. It’s easy to interpret Nelson calling Butler a “lunatic” as an uncivil act, but I don’t think that was his intentions (but it’s hard to guess intentions sometimes.).

    Anyway, my point is it’s too easy to abuse or misunderstand civility, and it’s obviously too personally and politically charged. Higher education needs a little bit of incivility in the forms of protests and arguments, too– which, again ironically, was exactly what Nelson was hoping for despite his civility manifesto. No, my preference for a speech standard is “hate speech,” which I will admit is also squishy though less so– there are, after all, civil rights laws regarding hate speech and hate crimes.


  7. I think, by and large, we agree on the very problematic nature of ‘civility’ as a supposed measure of what constitutes discourse. I think you’re right that for whatever reason Nelson’s judgments on this issue are clouded by his views on BDS. What strikes me as important, though, is not just trying to distinguish between ‘incivility’ and ‘hate speech,’ and what to do in latter’s case (which seems to be your concern), it is that the very concept ‘civility’ has itself generally been used to stifle opinion. So, in this case the broader context, of Salaita’s background, the Palestinian-Israel conflict, and the BDS movement, are all crucial for understanding this lamentable business.

    Allow me to finish this post (and this exchange) with a lengthy, but I think very important and poignant, quote from a letter that Ed Kazarian recently sent to UIUC:

    [Begin quote] Before closing this message, I also want to ask you to consider another aspect of this case which has been less frequently remarked upon, namely that what is happening to Salaita—the invocation of a standard of civility as grounds for excluding a scholar from a university community—fits an old and ugly pattern. Salaita, as I am sure you know, is Palestinian-American. Those of his statements which some have contested are not simply the speech of any generic individual, but the speech of someone whose own community was profoundly and directly affected by the events that he was discussing. This speech expresses a grievance. But this has been obscured in much of the discussion, which has simply painted him as generically ‘uncivil.’ And precisely this operation of obscuring the speaker’s position in order to facilitate labeling him or her as ‘uncivil’ has all too frequently been used to shut down aggrieved speech by members of marginalized groups against the systems (or the agents thereof) that marginalize them. In the American academy, this tactic has been all too common, having been used against generations of non-white scholars, non-male scholars, queer scholars, scholars demanding equitable treatment for those affected by disability, and so forth. (If you think about it for a moment, you should be able to recognize the stereotypes of the ‘angry black man or woman’, the ‘angry feminist,’ etc., and see how they work here.) Labeling the claims of those folks (and their conduct) as uncivil and unprofessional serves simply to divert attention from the substance of those claims and the necessity of acknowledging or answering them. It also prevents us from recognizing or acknowledging the position—and the anguish—of the speakers. That it frequently leads to the exclusion of the folks so labeled from the academic world as such is, of course, part of the point of such labeling. And to the extent that you have accepted that label as it has been applied to Salaita, you are reiterating this pattern once again. [End quote]

    [The full letter is here: http://darkprecursor.net/2014/09/05/letter-to-the-trustees-of-the-university-of-illinois-at-urbana-champaign-re-steven-salaita/%5D


  8. Thanks for this exchange, Sitedad and Prof. Knight.

    Campuses are places that highly value civil discourse, and that value does not conflict with sharp, clear expression of disagreement. Cary Nelson has understood this principle for most of his long career, but in his current political defenses of Israel, he has lost sight of the principle’s

    Judith Butler is clearly no “lunatic”. That Nelson called her a lunatic and also said he wouldn’t say the same thing in print, reveals that he used the abusive term “lunatic” deliberately, to discredit Butler’s views. It was an opportunistic slam at his intellectual opponent, leaving him unaccountable for his uncivil language.

    Anyone who says Judith Butler is a lunatic is obviously being careless with facts and the language. But it’s carelessness crafted to shape Nelson’s political goal: to discredit academic critics of Israeli politics. This also motivates his strange endorsement of the firing of Steven Salaita; his position on this matter seems impossible to reconcile with Nelson’s past positions on academic freedom and advocacy of faculty rights, no matter what contortions he puts himself through now.


    • I feel kind of bad for Nelson for that “lunatic” crack. I kind of got the feeling it was more a case of him not speaking carefully and saying something he wishes he could have taken back. I have a bad habit of saying things like that too, so I definitely have some sympathy with him there.

      On the other hand, he’s giving an invited lecture in front of (about) 100-ish people, so he probably should have spoken more carefully and avoided the “I’d never actually write this but” with such a large group. So I kinda feel bad for him, it’s kinda his own fault.


  9. You do not need to feel at all bad for Nelson’s ‘crack’ about Butler being a ‘lunatic.’ The reason you do not have to do so should be obvious: you have not, as far as I’m aware, made a very public call for civility to which it is now incumbent upon you to adhere to. You, like me, are fine with some incivility. As I noted in a previous message, I believe Nelson is perfectly within his right to call Butler whatever he wants; however, since he has expressly stated that we ‘should treat people with respect’ and avoid ‘abusive rhetoric,’ he is failing to adhere to the very standards that he himself has set. At best, one would hope this would lead him to be a bit more circumspect when others use intemperate language when dealing with incredibly traumatic issues. At worst, it opens him up to charges of hypocrisy. As I also alluded to in my previous message, Nelson has form where incivility is concerned: he has said things in the past that the current iteration of Nelson would, presumably, find objectionable. Hence the charge that Nelson is a hypocrite and the suggestion that his current position on these issues is dictated by his stance vis a vis BDS and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

    So, you don’t need to feel bad. It’s not ‘kinda his own fault’: it is entirely his own fault. Nelson has made a rod for his own back. Another reason you don’t need to feel bad for Nelson: he has had a long, distinguished, and well-paid academic career as a tenured professor. He presumably has a decent pension and good health care. These are the very things that Salaita has been unfairly denied. Cary Nelson can take comfort from the fact that he has personally contributed to Salaita’s denial of the very life that he, Nelson, has enjoyed. Nelson does not merit your (or anyone else’s) sympathy.


  10. Having been there (unlike many of the other people who seem to take delight in reviling Nelson for what they heard secondhand), I found him a model of civility.

    1. A woman stood up the entire time he was talking in silent protest – he not only encouraged her to remain there, but offered her the first question when he was done. Her comments were a barely coherent rant, but he did give her the chance to speak.

    2. The second questioner that Cary called on was someone wearing a shirt that said something like “End Israel” or something like that. Nelson took his question and gave it a serious answer. Can we give the guy a little bit of credit for choosing to engage questioners who firmly opposed him?

    3. When the speech was over, Nelson sat there for a long, long time talking to anyone who would speak to him. Many of these were people with a demonstrated hostility to Israel. Voices were not raised, and emotions were not high. Respect was the order of the day in these conversations.

    Would I have called Judith Butler a “lunatic” from the stage? Probably not. Not my style. Cary Nelson did. Fine. But to seize that ONE moment and take that as evidence that he has lost sight of principles of disagreement, or that he is a ranting lunatic, is simply absurd.

    Sitedad, I don’t agree with you across the board on these issues. But I very much appreciate your having been there to hear Cary Nelson, and I value your reactions based on your having heard him (even if I do not entirely agree). For others who did not take the time to be there but feel free to criticize based on these little snippets, shame on you. You missed an interesting talk, which was far more nuanced than your summaries make it out to be.


  11. Jeffrey, you are absolutely right: ‘to seize that ONE moment and take that as evidence that he has lost sight of principles of disagreement, or that he is a ranting lunatic, is simply absurd.’

    First, please take the time to reread this exchange and do so in full. No one is suggesting that Nelson is ‘ranting lunatic.’

    Second, since I obviously have not made myself clear, I am suggesting that Nelson is a hypocrite (not a ‘ranting lunatic’) because his remark about Butler being a lunatic is _another_ instance of him not adhering to the very standards that he expects from his colleagues. I have no doubt he _can_ also be collegial and civil: that is not the point.

    Third, what on earth possesses you to make the suggestion that I ‘take delight in reviling Nelson’: do you really believe that? In what strange world do you think I, or anyone else involved in these incredibly important issues, find this delightful?

    To reiterate, I am not suggesting Nelson is a ‘ranting lunatic’ nor do I take any delight in this business. Even if you can’t be civil, Jeffrey, and even, as appears to be the case, you disagree with me, please be good enough to avoid making spurious assertions about me personally or my comments. You do yourself a disservice by making such silly, thoughtless comments.


  12. John, I will not waste your time, or mine, further discussing the merits of a speech that I attended and of which you grabbed a few sound bites. All best wishes to you and yours for a happy and restful Thanksgiving break.


  13. Jeffrey, I very much appreciate you not wasting our time along those lines, because, as I have repeatedly stated, that is not the point of this discussion. If you have not understood this by now then I am grateful you no longer wish to pursue it. Sincere best wishes to you also.


  14. Alright, you two….

    I don’t think Nelson is a hypocrite so much as it just seems to me that when it comes to Salaita, he seems to be contradicting himself. Or maybe a better way of putting it is he seems at odds with himself because, on the one hand, he wants to embrace the academic debate/argument by allowing all views and he clearly has a history of supporting academic speech; but on the other hand, there seems to be an “except with Salaita” clause– or perhaps more broadly, and “except for BDS” clause. I think hypocrisy is more shrewd and more devious than suggesting contradictory views. Tea Party Republicans who want no new taxes or involvement in foreign affairs but want the US to spend lots of money on weapons of war, especially when those weapons benefit their districts, are hypocrites. I don’t think that’s what Nelson is up to here. Lots of us hold views that in some ways are seemingly at odds with each other, and often enough, those views don’t seem contradictory to the holder.

    But I still don’t think Nelson’s views on Salaita square quite right. Marty kind of hinted at this in what he said before: perhaps Nelson has an explanation (at least one he’s able to give to himself) for how he can be all for academic freedom and the exchange of very differing views in a forum like on Wednesday but he’s against this when it manifests itself as a series of tweets by an incoming associate (that is, tenured) professor. I just don’t know what that explanation is, that’s all.


  15. Jeff,
    Thank you for your observations of Nelson’s talk, including his tolerance of the protester who stood the whole time he spoke, and who he called on first for the Q&A. Nelson has been a public speaker for over 40 years, I believe, and has a well developed, engaging style — and he is smart and kind enough to give time to students who stay after a talk, to talk with him. Nelson is capable and accomplished.

    Cary Nelson is a graduate of Antioch College in the 1960s (I’m Antioch, Class of 1983), and he has long been associated with the academic, tenured Left. (I mention this merely as reportage of facts, not as criticism). I’ve heard him speak a couple times over the years, and read some of his voluminous writings, on BDS and other topics, including faculty unionism and freedom of speech. I backed his recent, failed insurgent campaign to be returned to the national AAUP leadership.

    So while I did not hear him the other night, I know Nelson’s record. His current positions on BDS and on the Illinois decision to fire an academic for his political speech, conducted outside of any classroom, has disturbed many of Nelson’s former admirers, because he seems to have opportunistically turned his back on principles he’s advocated for years — or at least has minimized them in his desire to discredit critics of Israeli policies.

    He publicly called a famous, accomplished scholar a “lunatic” while at EMU. That is clearly ad hominem speech, and he knows it, or else he wouldn’t have also proclaimed that he would not call her a “lunatic” in print: that would subject Nelson to criticism. But doing so orally, in a one-off speech? That’s the kind of ad hominem attack that’s likely to create a lasting negative impression (“that lunatic, Judith Butler”) in the minds of audience members who don’t know Butler’s work.

    I know Cary Nelson’s history well enough to be certain of this: his casual calling of Butler a “lunatic” was deliberate and calculated. He’s been around skilled rhetoric — from the Left, from academia, from Zionists — that he knows how to deploy it for his own purposes.

    A good Thanksgiving to you, my friend Jeff, and to all!


  16. Steve, as is clear by now, I disagree with your assessment of Nelson. That said, I can’t help but be impressed with your fair-mindedness and charitable assessment of Nelson’s ‘contradictory’ views. It is both sad and ironic that Nelson himself is not capable of such fair-mindedness and nuance where Steven Salaita is concerned.


  17. Alas, Mark, you weren’t there. He didn’t actually call her a lunatic. What he said was that he believed she was lunatic in her beliefs the Jewish people are diasporic and therefore not particularly needing of a homeland. There is a difference. You may agree or disagree with him on this, but that is another story–and one which I have little interest involving myself in on EMUTalk. As for Nelson’s notions about civil speech, these too are very specific–again, this is hardly the place for such a discussion. You may agree with him or not. But in all cases, it would be nice for the facts to be in place.


  18. Marty, I am not sure why this is ‘hardly the place’ for such a discussion, be that as it may, please feel free to send me the details of the salient ‘facts.’ Perhaps there is something ‘very specific’ that I am missing. You’ve got my email address.


  19. Just to be clear, I stand by what I originally wrote because it’s what I saw/heard happen. Nelson praised Butler for her work on gender, but said that when it came to BDS, she was flat-out wrong. And to quote directly, he also said, “I would never say this in print, but I think Butler is a lunatic.”

    So again, I don’t think Nelson is a hypocrite, I don’t think he’s a bad guy, I’m guessing he wish he could have had a do-over on that lunatic line, and more to the point of his presentation, I think what he said generally about BDS seemed pretty reasonable– though I say that without knowing a lot about the BDS movement directly, I don’t want to touch the third rail, etc., etc.

    But also again, the slip was there, and I think it says something about the contradictions in the way Nelson is thinking about how academic free speech and debate squares with this particular issue of BDS.


  20. Marty, I take your summary of Nelson’s statement about Judith Butler being a lunatic as a sincere statement of what you believe he said. You said he meant “he believed she was lunatic in her beliefs the Jewish people are diasporic and therefore not particularly needing of a homeland.” Sitedad understood his meaning to be quite different, and so did another person, who recounted her view of the talk to me (she attended it).

    Reasonable people often disagree on what was said, even when they were present. We often tend to form interpretations consist with our a priori views of the subject. Fine — we’re human beings. And, I didn’t hear Nelson this week at EMU (and my belief that I am familiar with his style of rhetoric and argumentation, however valid, does not mean that I know what he said).

    But still, Marty, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your account of his lunatic/Butler comment is accurate and fair. Isn’t it still an example of an ad hominem argument? If Butler’s view that the Jewish people are diasporic and therefore she sees no particular need for a Jewish homeland, what is “lunatic” about that position? It might be argued against with evidence and reason, but Cary Nelson, you tell us simply attacked it as inherently “lunatic.” Thus he dismissed Butler as entirely unworthy of attention on the issues of Palestine and Israel.

    When I read your account of Nelson’s Butler/lunatic comment, Marty, I immediately thought of the wonderfully gifted, famous New York Jewish writer, Grace Paley, who I got to spend some time with late in her life. I was meet her in the 1980s and several times I had dinner with her and a couple of others, and once, breakfast. I will always recall her observations, over breakfast in 1998, on her youth in the Bronx, a century ago, and politics then and now (1998). Nearly all the people in her world were Jewish, and, as she recounted it, none of them favored creating a state of Israel. They saw every reason that the world must be changed, in fundamental ways and quickly. But they felt no good reason to want to “return” to an ancient land that had nothing to do with the Jews of the Bronx, or the Poland and Russia and Germany that they had left for America. The Zionist idea of a homeland was marginal, at best, in her Jewish New York world. (She told these stories, of course, far better than I can now.)

    Did Grace Paley and her family and many hundreds of thousands of American Jews, have a “lunatic” world view? No, of course not.

    And isn’t there a large number of strictly observant Jews, living in tight communities, whose understanding of their faith leads them also to deny the need for a “homeland” for the Jews — until after the Messiah comes? Would Cary Nelson call the world view of these very orthodox Jews, “lunatic”?

    May peace prevail everywhere.


  21. Mark, at stake is a place that 6,000,000 Jews, more or less, call a homeland. It seems unlikely they will rush to embrace their diasporic natures. Paley’s rejection of Zionism many years ago was a theoretical argument posed from a place of some security. Many who chose the newly-formed state
    had fewer options. As for the anti-Zionism embraced by some (though very few) ultra-Orthodox Jews, that comes from a particular reading for the Bible. These Jews are willing to face annihilation–if need be–to maintain what they see as religious purity. All that being said, and we can whip this around forever–the problem with territory in such dispute is that it is very unlikely to be solved on the emutalk blog–Nelson spoke about Butler’s book for a while. He had recently returned from an extended discussion of it at Yale. He didn’t just pull the “lunatic” remark out of the air and let it hang. But enough. As you say, things are often heard differently.


  22. Thanks, Marty, for your observations. You keep later hours than me! I absolutely agree with you that these problems are “very unlikely to be solved at the emutalk blog”. Still, it’s a good site for dialogue.

    And, I also agree with you that “at stake is a place that 6,000,000 Jews” call a homeland — but there are many other issues at stake as well. Human rights for the people of the Gaza and the West Bank, for one. I absolutely uphold Israel’s right to exist. So did Grace Paley, who never took up a politics that downplayed the human rights of any group of people, for the sake of the interests of a state. So do the many Israelis who oppose their government’s military actions, and also oppose the growing tendency to advocate expulsion of Palestinians, both from Israel and from the occupied territories. And, yes, of course the ultra-Orthadox community’s views are religiously based! I still maintain that their view is not “lunatic” and neither is Butler’s or Paley’s.

    I admire Nelson’s rhetorical skills and have for years. But I am disappointed that he has taken to equating criticizing the state of Israel with threatening that state’s very existence. I would have gone to his talk, but had other obligations.

    Peace be with you, Marty my pal, and everyone who cares about these issues.


  23. Mark, thank you for your comments. And Marty, thank you for your observations. It is, of course, obvious that these issues will not be resolved here on EMUTalk, but this a useful venue for those who take these issues incredibly seriously, those of us who are passionate, dare I say even emotional about them, to discuss them. I hope those who are relatively ignorant on these matters will, if they are bothering to follow this, find this discussion helpful.

    I would like us to be absolutely clear about something: what is at stake here is the nature or characteristics of that ‘homeland’; a place that 8 million Palestinians, more or less, also call a homeland.

    Before signing off, I call upon anyone who has followed this discussion to read Judith Butler’s book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. You can then come to your own conclusions about whether or not she is, as Nelson seems to have suggested, a lunatic on these issues. In the meantime below is a link to a recent interview with Judith Butler.


    Perhaps the Director of Jewish Studies could persuade Judith Butler to come to EMU.


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