This article is the second in a series by Dr. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi on a federal complaint filed against her, the California State University Board of Trustees, and the San Francisco State University by the Lawfare Project, a self-described “legal arm for the pro-Israel community” whose executive director affirmed that its objective is to “make the enemy pay.”
The lawsuit disregards the findings of the University and independent investigator and falsely alleges that San Francisco State University is one of “the most anti-Semitic campuses in the country.” This series examines the actors and incidents behind the lawsuit.
Zionism as Racism, and the Network of Lies
The Israel lobby has a pattern of exploiting anti-Semitism to sneak in justifications for the unjustifiable Israeli settler-colonial project that has uprooted and displaced Palestinians.
The same logic applies to the totality and the different moving parts of a lawsuit filed against me and the San Francisco State University on June 19, 2017 by the Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel firm that is representing students and other plaintiffs who alleged wrongdoing on the part of the university in a series of events that span nearly three-decades–incidentally, well before I began teaching and the plaintiffs enrolled at SFSU.
The manufactured allegations against me (as well as those against Palestinian students and other student advocates for justice in Palestine who are described in the lawsuit) have already been proven to be just that—unfounded allegations.
While citing two recent incidents which I detail below, the lawsuit throws into the mix the usual misrepresentations, character assassination and outright lies in which Israel apologists have long engaged. The lawsuit relies on questionable and long-discredited sources, citing, for example, the ill-reputed Algemeiner fact-free claim, that-SFSU is one of the top 10 worst campuses in the U.S. for Jewish students.
Yet, the truth has never been a central concern to apologists for Israel who continue to manufacture outright lies and outrageous claims against me, Palestinian students and other advocates for justice in/for Palestine at SFSU campus or elsewhere. This is also not surprising since Israel lobby industry is in the business of covering up Israel’s colonialism, racism, and apartheid and thus take their lead from the Israeli government which is infamous for its hasbara propaganda as much as it is infamous for killing, detaining, displacing Palestinians and violating their rights.
Israel’s apologists are aligned with today’s right-wing agenda. For example, the lawsuit regurgitates dated and disproved claims against the university made by David Horowitz, an “extremist” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, who attacks Movement for Black Lives and the Sanctuary Movement with the same venom with which he attacks advocates for justice in Palestine.
The pro-Israel industry network also takes its cue from its U.S. role model par excellence exemplified by the person of the current occupant of the White House to whom facts are a minor inconvenience that can be countered in a 140 character bullying tweet. Various Zionist groups and individuals have expressed their admiration for Trump despite the influence of anti-Semitic and white supremacist individuals in his administration. This includes Dov Hikind the right-wing Brooklyn member of the NYS Assembly whose anti-Black racism was caught on video. Likewise, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) founded by Meir Kahane, which has been outlawed for its overt racism and violence celebrated the election of Trump and announced plans to publicly resurface. The JDL is accused of orchestrating the murder of Alex Odeh, Arab American activist and West Coast Representative of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) 30 years ago. Israel refuses to extradite the suspected killers of Alex Odeh who are hiding in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. By contrast, our community of justice includes individuals and organizations who have historically and continue to stand for justice in Palestine and everywhere from Jews of Color, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), to Holocaust survivors such as the late Hajo Meyer, Hedy Epstein, Israel Shahak and many others. There are literally hundreds of dear friends and colleagues who have invested in building the Palestine solidarity movement in general and committed pedagogy and scholarship, in particular in the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies department at SFSU that I head in particular. In a future piece I will expand on how each community has participated in AMED Studies and why such an investment in justice for all makes sense.
Not surprisingly then, most of the citations in the lawsuit are drawn from other discredited members of the same pro-Israel network. In a 2015 report, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) exposed the Lawfare Project and the small but well-connected pro-Israel industry network that is funded by right-wing multi millionaires such as the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Bradley Foundation and mega-donor of the Democrat party, Haim Saban. The network also includes the AMCHA Initiative whose discredited director claims African American Studies and Ethnic Studies programs in institutions of higher education “help to pave the way for the dramatic increase in campus antisemitism,” David Horowitz, Campus Watch, Stand With Us, the Zionist Organization of America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Middle East Forum, the David Project, the Brandeis Center, Hillels on campuses, the Lawfare Project, and the Anti-Defamation Leagues (ADL). The manufactured allegations against me (as well as those against Palestinian students and other student advocates for justice in Palestine) have already been proven to be just that—unfounded allegations.
Its director, Brooke Goldstein, has appeared several times on Fox News and other media and has made explicit Islamophobic statements, for example, discrediting the word “Islamophobia” as a “made-up term propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood.” She has dismissed concerns around the growing hate speech against Muslims as a “dangerous phenomenon.” She has denied the very existence of Palestinians, stating, “Why are we using the word Palestinian? There’s no such thing as a Palestinian person.” Furthering its agenda, the Lawfare Project has also attacked human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The first incident in the complaint focuses on the April 6, 2016, protest of the campus visit of the racist Likud mayor of occupied Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, by a coalition of students from Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Jewish and generally anti-war and justice-minded students led by members of the General Union of Palestine Students.
SFSU’s response to the protest was to bring an investigator hired by President Wong last spring to look into the Barkat affair. The investigation found that the student protest was against Barkat and targeted Israeli policies but had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. While the investigator found that protesters did disrupt the speech, it also found that it was never clear that the protesting students had been asked to stop the disruption by anyone they knew to be a university official. Equally important the independent investigator also found that SFSU engaged in the selective application of student conduct guidelines by subjecting two Palestinian female students to a hearing for using a bullhorn while not applying the same policy regarding amplified sound to other cases. As SFSU VP for Student Affairs said, during her time at SFSU no student had ever been suspended or expelled for the use of amplified sound. The names, faces, Facebook pages and other information of the two young women along with 4 other student protesters and a former GUPS president at SFSU were placed on the Canary Mission Website and the Palestinian female students were subjected to threats of sexual violence/rape. They sought support from the university but to my knowledge, the only thing the university offered was an escort by the University Police Department that has -systematic harassed –faculty and students of color. Saliem Shehadeh’s excellent thesis (forthcoming Duke University Press) documents this and more brilliantly.
The second incident the lawsuit cites to establish its false allegations zeroes in on the “Know Your Rights” Fair, that was held on February 28, 2017. Organized by a number of student groups, lecturers and programming staff, whose work calls attention to and struggles for justice for historically marginalized and underrepresented communities, especially communities that have been directly impacted by Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent victory, including Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism, anti-immigrant and undocumented students, and gender and sexual justice. The KYR Ffair was rightly supported by our local chapter of our union, the California Faculty Association, and other colleges and departments. Students took careful care to invite diverse speakers and community organizations whose work to address the urgent issues of the time, especially the Muslim ban, the attack on Sanctuary cities and physical self-defense for targeted Women and Trans persons on college campuses. The organizers of the KYR Fair sought to provide a much-needed service to the campus community on the rights students, faculty, and staff and the ways in which Trump policies might impact those rights. In essence, the student-staff-lecturer coalition stood in for and initiated the much-needed education which the university, as a public institution, should have provided. CSU did issue a statement upon Trump’s election in November declaring its opposition to discrimination. That was a good step. Rhetoric, however, needs to be backed up by action. Here, it was SFSU students and faculty who began to organize the KYR Fair over their winter break while the university closed down for the holidays. Various community organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Planned Parenthood, La Raza Centro Legal, ACLU, and Asian Law Caucus were welcomed in the fair. JVP’s table was intentionally tabling between GUPS and AMED Studies. As David Spero shows in his jweekly.com article, JVP set up a table, handed out literature and signed up 14 students who expressed interest in forming a local SFSU JVP chapter, including members of SF Hillel. The organizers did not invite Hillel to table at the already overbooked event. The KYR Fair did not exclude Jewish students or community members.
The lawsuit complains about Hillel’s inability to officially participate as a tabling organization in the KYR Fair. The essential question to me is: On what basis should Hillel have participated in such an activity?
The organizers, prompted by Palestinian students, invited Jewish speakers and organizations. Palestinian students were deliberate and intentional about including Jewish speakers and organizations to underscore the long-held Palestinian belief and practice that our struggle for our liberation has never been against Jews but against the Zionist settler-colonial project that has uprooted and displaced Palestinians from their land, turning them into homeless refugees overnight and that continues to try to erase their existence on their land to this very day. In this, Palestinian students were not following a simplistic formula of bringing US Jews and Indigenous Palestinians together in a photo opportunity to normalize a violent and genocidal colonialism or engage in some superficial kum bayah moment. Historically, it has been a Zionist practice to take photos of Palestinians and then recycle them as evidence that Palestinians, like other colonized and oppressed people, are basking in their colonialism and in fact are grateful to their oppressors for bringing them from the “dark ages” to the bright sunshine of modernity. This operates for both propaganda purposes as well as making colonists who are on the sidelines feel better about their belonging to groups that benefit from oppression.
Obviously, Palestinians are not the first nor will be the last colonized people who are exploited in this manner. Why does this happen though? Are we so naïve to agree to further our own oppression? In my view, there are at least two reasons. First, unfortunately, it is drilled in our psyche to be hospitable and not to say no to polite requests. Not unlike other communities whose members have not been completely atomized into discrete individuals by capitalist relations, we tend to engage in apologizing to those who step on our feet in the New York Subway, push us on the sidewalks or cut us off as we drive. We stop, at least I do, to wonder why did we do this? I always blame it on my mother (RIP) who taught us to be polite. But it also does happen because of an innate special gene colonized communities possess but because the power relations between the colonizers and the colonized tilts in favor of the colonizers in Palestine, the U.S. and everywhere until things change radically and tip the balance. These relationships were challenged by the spirit of ’68 that inspires us to resist such colonial relations. Then we begin to tell the stories of liberation and decolonization of the mind (on National Culture) and of the narrative itself. This happened recently during the inquisition of the “Know Your Rights” Fair: the University investigator would tell the students and faculty under interrogation what he thought he heard them say, or more accurately what his conditioning wanted him to hear them say. He would then proceed to view his interpretation of what he thought he heard as the truth irrespective of what those being interrogated said and despite the fact that they would, again and again, express their frustration and tell him that he did not hear what they said nor accurately interpreted what they meant but rather put his own spin on it. This would have been a comical theatrical performance if it were not for the dangerous outcome that such a setup produces. Here the interrogator comes to the interrogation room with a hegemonic definition of the situation, accepting and not having a reason to question the terms the accusers select for their accusations, when they deliberately use Israel, Jewish State, Jews, Jewishness, Zionism interchangeably. He does this not because he wants to be Islamophobic, anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian as he does not want to be seen nor does he see himself as anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-women or anti-queer. He is rather a product of the system who may have gone through one sensitivity workshop if any but may not have had more than a course or two that challenge colonial and racist logic, thus leaving him with no familiarity–intimate or otherwise–with Arab and Muslim communities, except what he hears in the media. As he brings in his “objective self” to interrogate, question, form opinions and prepare his report, his preconceived hegemonic definition of the situation that has been supplied by the institutionally-supported accusers take hold. He retains the power over the whole process. if one of us escapes judgment we consider ourselves lucky because we already know that the system is lopsided and institutional power has no mercy when one is being attacked by those to whom the rules of transparency and accountability do not apply. As Gayatri Spivak asks in her oft-cited essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In a context where power is heavily tilted in favor of the colonizers and when the media reproduces those hegemonic stories, it does not matter what the subaltern says or means. It only matters what members of the dominant group hear, interpret and reproduce because they will apply that interpretation to outcomes that affect and impact the lives of the dominated. This is exactly what’s been going on with this frivolous lawsuit and the reporting by the dominant media and what has been historically happening to Indigenous communities, communities of color, third world communities, the poor and marginalized communities everywhere from 1492 to the present. Volumes have been written and more have been orally passed to younger generations and continue to be experienced every single day. This is why we insist on Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies as a justice-centered project of knowledge production. This is why we engage in the pedagogy of the oppressed and learn and teach how to ethically and responsibly listen and pay attention to the definition of the situation of the marginalized and then subject ourselves to the scrutiny of those from below even if they don’t have the power to pursue us and hold us accountable. We simply cannot afford to have it any other way and at the same time expect to survive as communities, let alone thrive and transform our lives.
Flipping the framing of the lawsuit on its head, Why should Hillel be the embodiment of all things Jewish across time, place and contexts? The organizers refused to allow a member of a privileged white group whose members feel entitled to be represented everywhere and anywhere they deem the event to be of interest irrespective of the event’s goals. Because the organizers dared challenge the status quo, student and faculty organizers have been subjected to systematic interrogation, harassment and administrative retaliation by the university. In this both Hillel and the university frame the fact that Hillel did not have a table at the KYR Fair as anti-Semitic.
Acting as a privileged student group used to getting their way, Hillel demanded and expected to be given whatever it asked for at the Fair, rejecting the Jewish authenticity of Jewish Voice for Peace not only because JVP advocates justice for Palestine but because Hillel believes that it can simply get away with threats and intimidation, irrespective of whether its demands are reasonable or it, fit into the Fair or not, last minute or not. Accepting Hillel’s definition of the situation that the Know Your Rights Fair was anti-Semitic merely because Hillel could not have a table is in itself an Islamophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and racist act. Proceeding to treat the accused as guilty until proven innocent and allowing the propaganda mill to churn and smear the reputation of students who are at the start of their academic careers is a travesty of justice. Why didn’t SFSU administrators reject these false allegations outright and instead -institute- an inquisition that screams of all sorts of violations of transparency and impartiality?
The first and easy answer is that folks almost intuitively respond to charges of anti-Semitism and they should, given the horrible tragedies that Jews, Roma, communists, homosexuals, and the disabled -experienced as a result -the Holocaust-. The question though is if in fact SFSU administrators and staff are horrified by hatred and racism, why does the Administration jump whenever Hillel or the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) (and now joined by Department of Jewish Studies) complain, but does not respond with the same alarm, swiftness or investigation to other racist incidents? Some SFSU administrators and Staff have responded to Hillel’s false claims regardless whether such complaints are based on reality or contrived to shield Israel under the guise that all Israeli things are Jewish things—an equation that we and our allies and partners in the Jewish community reject.
In fact, our long and painful experiences of the systematic pattern of Islamophobia, anti-Arab discrimination, and hostility to Palestinians at SFSU show the exact opposite—that it is these same SFSU Administrators and Staff who have encouraged, emboldened and themselves have participated in systematic and persistent Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism. The same applies to incidents of anti-Blackness, white supremacy and anti-immigrant bigotry under the guise of protecting freedom of speech. It is alarming that CSU has put out a PowerpointPower Point Presentation that justifies and excuses the hatred and racism spewed by David Horowitz, Canary Mission and other racist groups as examples of protected speech.
Individuals and groups make choices regarding what to do in the face of oppression and the members of the U.S. Jewish communities are no exception. Hillel, JCRC (and Department of Jewish Studies) at SFSU and in SF Bay Area chose to cynically misuse anti-Semitism to advance white supremacy and maintain power relations as they see that increasing numbers of U.S. Jews are no longer siding with Israel and making their voices heard that Israel does not speak in their name. In this none of these actors are modeling the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the hundreds of young Israelis who say “NO” – every single day to the butchering of Palestinians, nor of Michael Schwerner and Ruth First who were martyred in the U.S. civil rights movement and the South African anti-Apartheid struggle. Instead, I see Hillel, JCRC, and unfortunately the Department of Jewish Studies, as choosing to be seen as today’s descendants of the former union head of the United Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, by covering up Nir Barkat’s racist policies and by legitimizing a discredited Israeli government that has consistently denied Palestinian rights, instituted a blockade that aims at starving Gazans into submission (another colonial strategy) and waged three wars on the Strip since the AMED Studies program was founded. During the Oceanhill Brownsville struggle (the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968), Shanker printed anti-Semitic flyers and passed them around as if they were printed by the Black and Puerto Rican parents – to discredit the legitimate struggle of parents and the teachers who were demanding community control over the school board and were-aligned with a diverse coalition including Jewish teachers who rejected Shanker and his racism.
Everyone has a choice. As Bishop Tutu said, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”