When freedom of expression is protected only for Zionism the university is failing in its role

San Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney's championing of Zionism is shocking and runs directly counter to embracing a “diversity of opinions”—something the university claims to uphold.
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Editor’s Note: Laura Whitehorn sent the following letter to San Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney in response to Mahoney’s September 14, 2020 J Weekly article “I condemn hate but cherish a diversity of opinions.”

Dear President Mahoney,

I will be one of the speakers on the upcoming panel “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A conversation with Leila Khaled.”  I am writing to voice my dismay at your recent statements in an article in JWeekly about this panel.

I am a Jewish woman, born in 1945 and very familiar with antisemitism—both globally and in my own life. I find it disingenuous that you suggest this panel is in any way antisemitic. It is not antisemitic to oppose the way the state of Israel has historically and does now treat the Palestinian people. In fact, my own support for the human rights of the Palestinian people, because it puts me in conflict with Israeli policies, has shown me how deeply counter to the actual values of Judaism the actions of the Jewish state are.

Laura Whitehorn, center bottom row, with the 2016 U.S. Prisoner, Labor and Academic Solidarity Delegation to Palestine.
Laura Whitehorn, third from right on the bottom row, with the 2016 U.S. Prisoner, Labor and Academic Solidarity Delegation to Palestine.

I was taught from an early age that overturning the hatred embodied by Naziism meant supporting the humanity of every person on the planet, and taking a stand against any efforts to oppress or deny a people their right to live freely. My parents, who were of course directly harmed by antisemitism, were not active in politics, but they expressed extreme dismay that the state of Israel had expelled Palestinian people from their homes and villages in 1948. I believe if they were alive today they would be appalled, as I am, by the fact that only Jews are permitted the rights of citizenship in the state of Israel.

Leila Khaled is a leader in the movement for the rights of the Palestinian people. She has fought in many ways for the right of return to historic Palestine, and she will offer important lessons and information about the history of women’s involvement in working for the rights of the Palestinian people under occupation and in exile. I found your acceptance of a narrative that brands her a terrorist or a hater to be deeply offensive and in conflict with what I believe an educator should say, teach, and promote.

Along with the other panelists, I have lessons and ideas to contribute on the history and practice of the intersection among gender, justice and resistance. I have been active for 50 years in solidarity with the movements for civil rights, Black liberation, and to bring the US into line with international standards of human rights as named in the period following the holocaust. This roundtable represents a unique opportunity for academics, students and community members to learn about these narratives.  I am profoundly offended by your suggestion that we panelists will promote “abhorrent” and “deeply offensive” speech.

I was pleased, when you issued your initial statement to SFSU regarding the roundtable, that you said you “strongly condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies.” So I am troubled that, In your more recent op-ed in JWeekly, you drop “Islamophobia, anti-Blackness and racism” and only mention antisemitism.  Further, as an anti-Zionist Jew, I am bothered that your JWeekly article affirms the University’s concern for the free expression of Zionism (internationally recognized to be a racist ideology) and the alleged ways in which anti-Zionism “intersects with anti-Semitism.” Yet you exclude campus community members who, like me, are anti-Zionist Jews, not to mention non-Jewish community members who question or oppose Zionism—and others who are learning to question the established Zionist versions of history as well as other colonialist narrative. This championing of the Zionist side of this discussion is shocking and runs directly counter to embracing a “diversity of opinions”—something you say is important to you.

I am looking forward to joining this open classroom offered by Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, Director and Senior Scholar of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicties and Diasporas Studies, and Professor Tomomi Kinukawa, Women and Gender Studies, on gender, justice and resistance. Dr. Abdulhadi whom I have known for 5 years now and with whom I participated in the first prisoner solidarity delegation to Palestine (a delegation she co-organized and led), has been working for years to advance justice in/for Palestine as an integral part of making visible justice, including gender and sexual justice, Black, Brown and Indigenous liberation, and strong opposition to antisemitism. She continues to do this in her scholarship, teaching and advocacy to democratize knowledge and open up the classroom to the university community outside the classroom. 

I also applaud Dr. Tomomi Kinukawa, a feminist and queer activist in several movements, most notably in the “Comfort Women Justice Coalition” that demands an end to Japanese denial and apologies to the victims, for linking the struggle against white supremacy, anti-Blackness and other forms of racism with gender and sexual justice and justice in/for Palestine. 

I urge you to welcome our panel and to renounce the bias you expressed in the JWeekly article. In your role as educator and leader, you should welcome opportunities such as this roundtable to provide a crucial and often lacking part of the education your university claims to—and should indeed—offer.


Laura Whitehorn
New York City

Students have created a petition in support of academic freedom and the “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A conversation with Leila Khaled” panel, sign it here.

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One point I would like to take issue with. She wrote “ I understand that Zionism is an important part of the identity of many of our Jewish students.”

But that is their fault. They have chosen to be Zionists, and chosen to make that an important part of their “identity”. Is the university required to pander to every such choice made by its students?

IMPORTANT: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200918-knesset-rejects-bill-to-ensure-full-equality-between-all-israeli-citizens/ “Knesset rejects bill to ensure full equality between all Israeli citizens” Middle East Monitor, Sept. 18/20 “The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has rejected a bill presented by Yousef Jabareen on behalf of the Arab Joint List intended to ensure full equality for all of Israel’s citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. “Jabareen presented his bill in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Aqsa Intifada, which has became a cornerstone in… Read more »

As I see it, President Mahoney is between a rock and a hard place. She is defending the university’s right to present a pro-Palestinian speaker, in the face of an onslaught from the pro-Israel brigade. Does she also need to take hits from the Left? I did not find any problems with her opinion piece in the JWeekly. She mentioned antisemitism specifically, because she was writing for a Jewish readership, and then included a more… Read more »

Israel routinely elects terrorists as Prime Minister. Their past atrocities are just as routinely protected from international judicial review by the US, who also supplies the arms to the racist Zionist state. People who are brutally victimized by these US-sanctified killers are recognized under international law to possess the right of violent resistance. The actual and certainly the most adept terrorists are the racist and unlawful invaders and occupiers of Palestine. In 1948, Palestinians and… Read more »

Laura Whitehorn was not a “political prisoner”, she was a terrorist who espoused and committed violence to further her personal political goals. That she is offended by the so-called “narrative” of Leila Khaled, a like-minded violent terrorist, is laughable.

The Palestinian political movement must be really running on fumes if persons of this ilk are held up for esteem.