AAUP award shows Palestinian rights advocates are winning the battle on campus

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, a frequent target of Israel lobby pressure campaigns, has won the prestigious Georgina M. Smith Award from the American Association of University Professors
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The COVID-19 shutdown has put a stop to campus life in America, but it has not stopped advocates for Israel from attacking Israel’s academic critics, trying to banish their thinking and teaching from universities. Nor has it stopped academics and students who support Palestine from fighting back and winning. “Efforts to silence pro-Palestinian voices are bringing more attention to them,” Zoha Khalili, an attorney for the civil rights firm Palestine Legal, told me.

Last week, one of the strongest Palestinian voices on American campuses, Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University (SFSU), won the prestigious Georgina M. Smith Award from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In announcing the award, AAUP said, “Dr. Abdulhadi exemplifies courage, persistence, political foresight, and concern for human rights… As a director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies Program (AMED), she brings together scholars, activists, academics, and organizers to create justice-centered knowledge, build broad-based coalitions, and advance the agenda for social change in Palestine, the United States, and internationally.”

Advocates for the Israeli state predictably condemned the award. Outraged articles have appeared in several publications focused on the American Jewish community. On May 22, Carly Gamill, executive director of the Stand With Us Center for Combating Anti-Semitism, wrote to the Jewish Journal, “It’s hard to imagine someone less deserving of such an award…The AAUP should rescind this award immediately and apologize.” And AMCHA Initiative director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin called teachers like Dr. Abdulhadi, “activist professors who attempt to weaponize their course curricula and advocate for personal political missions, like BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel], to indoctrinate our youth.”

Dr. Abdulhadi and others who work for justice in Israel/Palestine have long experience with such attacks. Stand With Us, AMCHA, Zionist Organization of America, Hillel and a dozen other Israel-identified groups have fought for decades to suppress critics of Israel and those who teach about Palestinian history and rights. They file baseless lawsuits; they initiate Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaints. Their advocates exert constant pressure on donors and universities to promote Israeli interests and sideline Palestinian voices. Their standard argument is that criticism of Israel is antisemitism in disguise.

These complaints, lawsuits, and social media posts allege that, by criticizing Israel, activists are attacking Jews and creating ‘uncomfortable environments for Jewish students.’ Palestine Legal reports that, “In 120 incidents we responded to in 2019, students or faculty were falsely accused of antisemitism or anti-Jewish bias due solely to their support for Palestinian rights.” These accusations can have a chilling effect on school programs and academics’ careers, but they are almost never upheld by investigators or courts.

In fact, many Jewish scholars and organizations reject the equation between uncritical support for the State of Israel and Israeli nationalism and what it means to be Jewish. Dr. Abdulhadi herself has dozens of Jewish colleagues and supporters who write and demonstrate in support for her work. It’s true that she calls Zionism racist and compares it to white supremacy, but history clearly shows that Zionism was founded and built on the belief that European civilization is superior to that of the indigenous Palestinians. Modern Israel officially designates Arabs as an inferior class. How is it anti-Jewish to point that history out? Is the expectation that all Jews everywhere must give top loyalty to the Israeli state itself an antisemitic trope?

Increasing attacks are creating increased resistance. When University of Massachusetts held a program last year called “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” a group of pro-Israel activists sued to block the event as a threat to Jewish students. A judge allowed the event to proceed. An audience of 2,000 people attended.

In November 2019, the University of Minnesota agreed to host the national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP.) In response, Israel-centered groups recruited people to complain of an unsafe environment for Jews on campus. Right-wing websites published unsubstantiated reports smearing conference facilitators with false accusations of support for terrorism. But the conference went ahead and was well-attended. Attacks like these have been successfully fought off at NYU, CUNY, UCLA, Rutgers, and other schools.

Who really fights antisemitism?

When Syracuse University invited Dr. Abdulhadi to speak on March 2nd, Israel lobby groups including the right wing Campus Reform and SU Hillel tried to block the program by pressuring deans, chairs, faculty members and other top administrators at the Maxwell School. They failed. Although SU did not publicize the event online, Abdulhadi got a standing-room-only crowd. Her talk highlighted the history of solidarities between African American and Palestinian communities and condemned the cultures of anti-Semitism and other systems of oppression in the US and elsewhere.

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi visiting the #NotAgainSU student encampment where she stopped to meet with students ahead of her lecture.

Tellingly, around the time of Dr. Abdulhadi’s visit, SU was embroiled in student protests against racist and antisemitic incidents on campus, including swastika graffiti, spray painted racist slogans, and drive-by antisemitic and racist insults yelled from cars. Neither Campus Reform nor Stand With Us said anything about these actions “creating an uncomfortable environment for Jewish students,” but, according to students interviewed, African-American, non-Zionist Jewish, Asian, and Palestinian students did. (Requests for comment from Stand With Us and Campus Reform went unanswered.)

The SU case is not unique. Palestinian activists are often leaders in fighting antisemitism, while Zionist groups often ignore actual attacks on Jews, using real antisemitic incidents to attack Palestinians who had nothing to do with them. Indeed, Dr. Abdulhadi and her students waged a campaign in October 2018 over the presence of neo-Nazis on campus and in her Palestine course. None of the pro-Israel groups that have been bullying Dr. Abdulhadi, her students and AMED Studies joined her and her students in this fight. On the contrary, the Zionist and right-wing Campus Watch/Middle East Forum sought to smear her as a supporter of Nazism.

Because the antisemitism/anti-Judaism link is so tenuous, the movement for justice in Palestine often wins these fights, as at SFSU, where Dr. Abdulhadi has endured years of discrimination, lawsuits and censure for her advocacy. When SFSU hired her in 2007, they promised in their hiring letter to support her AMED program with two additional professorships and support staff. But pro-Israel groups, including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the AMCHA Initiative, began a campaign against her in the media and within campus administration. As a result, no additional faculty or staff were ever hired. 

For 12 years, SFSU has refused to fill AMED Studies faculty lines and has delisted AMED courses from the catalog; denied sabbatical, travel authorization and reimbursements for Dr. Abdulhadi; and questioned her business expenses and disability accommodations. The Zionist Lawfare Project sued her twice, but she won both cases and is still teaching. Now she has opened a new chapter in the fight, filing suits in Federal and State court to compel SFSU to fulfill their commitments to the AMED Studies program and force organizations like JCRC and AMCHA to testify about their efforts to pressure universities. If her case succeeds, it will enable other schools to protect their faculties and students from pressure by the Israel lobby.

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Editor’s Note and Correction (6/8/20): The above article has been edited to remove mentions of the Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network, who was erroneously described as having been involved in efforts to have Dr. Abdulhadi’s speech cancelled at Syracuse University. Mondoweiss regrets the error.