If any area of the United States can be identified as the epicenter of anti-Israelism on campus, California, the nation’s most populous state, can certainly be said to have earned that dubious distinction. In fact, observers of out of control anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity on campuses consider California’s universities to be the veritable ground zero of such vitriol, with particularly troubling and persistent problems of radical student groups, venom-spewing guest speakers, annual hate-fests targeting Israel and Jewish students, entire academic units in the thrall of Israel hatred and anti-Zionism, and a pervasive mood on campuses in which Jewish students and other pro-Israel faculty and students regularly experience visceral and real “harassment, intimidation and discrimination,” as a 2004 Zionist Organization of America’s complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights described the situation on one California campus.
A particularly execrable record for radical anti-Israel, anti-Semitic campus activism is to be found at San Francisco State University, and specifically in the pseudo-academic machinations of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the school’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) program. Abdulhadi, who, among other slurs, referred to Zionists as white nationalists during a 2019 UCLA lecture, is embroiled in controversy once again for the upcoming virtual speaking appearance, to be held on September 23rd, by Leila Khaled, a terrorist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose resume includes her role in the 1969 hijacking of an Israel-bound plane and her arrest the following year during a failed hijacking of an El Al flight.
Promotional materials for the roundtable discussion with Khaled, entitled “Whose Narrative? Gender, Justice, & Resistance,” (and which included a photograph of Khaled proudly brandishing an AK-47, with which she no doubt intended to murder Jews), glowingly describe her as a “Palestinian feminist, militant, and leader,” someone who Abdulhadi has described as a “Palestinian feminist icon,” an “icon in liberations movements and . . . an icon for women’s liberation.”
Khaled and Abdulhadi have previously collaborated in this toxic academic activism. In 2014, Abdulhadi was criticized for using $7,000 of SFSU’s taxpayer funds to travel to the Middle East to conduct what she described as “research,” but was actually a “political solidarity tour,” to meet with Khaled and representatives of designated Islamist terror organizations. On that activism tour, Abdulhadi also set up a collaboration between SFSU and Al-Najah National University in the West Bank. That academic marriage might justifiably seem perverse to some critics: the 11,000-student Al-Najah is the largest university in the territories, noted Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which Al-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc.
More recently, when in 2018 outgoing SFSU President Leslie Wong apologized to Jewish students and faculty for his chronically disappointing record in addressing anti-Israel, anti-Semitic activism on his campus, he publicly proclaimed that, contrary to his past statements, Zionists were, in fact, welcome on the SFSU campus. That small step at “normalizing” Zionism was just too much for Abdulhadi, however, who harbors the poisonous view—shared by other Israel-haters and anti-Semites—that Zionism is a racist, political ideology; in fact, she audaciously “rejects the equation of Zionism with Judaism.” Wong’s apology, to her, was a capitulation to an ideology she wanted purged from campus. “I consider the statement . . . from President Wong, welcoming Zionists to campus, equating Jewishness with Zionism . . . to be a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of justice on and off campus.” [Emphasis added.]
And just in case anyone would possibly draw the wrong conclusion from her hateful rhetoric, Abdulhadi clarified that, “I am anti-Zionist. I’m not anti-Jew. So don’t call me anti-Semitic.”
Not surprisingly, given Abdulhadi’s track record, criticism of the upcoming Khaled event forced SFSU’s president, Lynn Mahoney, to publish an op-ed in which—while she distanced herself from terrorism and disavowed any implied support for the toxic ideology behind the event—she defended AMED’s right to sponsor such speakers based on academic freedom and the purported desire to “hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences.”
In response, 86 groups issued an open letter, organized by the AMCHA Initiative, which questioned whether the Khaled event was an example of the presentation of diverse viewpoints at all, as opposed to one-sided, highly incendiary ideology with the specific and habitual purpose of libeling Zionism, Israel, and Jews. “What if an invitation to speak to a class — in fact an entire event — is an endorsement of a point of view and a political cause?” the letter read. “And what if the intention of the faculty member who extended such an invitation and organized such an event was not to encourage students ‘to think critically and come to independent, personal conclusions about events of local and global importance,’ but rather to promote the faculty member’s own narrow political view and to weaponize students to be foot soldiers in the faculty member’s own political cause?”—exactly what Abdulhadi has been doing in her role as AMED’s director.
University officials regularly use the cover of academic freedom to insulate them from criticism for allowing repellent guest speakers and events to take place on campus, just as President Mahoney has done here with the Khaled lecture. The belief that “divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences” are valuable in academia’s marketplace of ideas is, of course, a good one, something central to the mission and purpose of a university. The problem is that academic freedom is permitted selectively, depending on who is speaking and who the target of their activism is.
Militant, violent liberation to promote Palestinian self-determination and to simultaneously degrade Zionism and extirpate Israel may be an invigorating ideological mission for Abdulhadi, Khaled, and their fellow travelers, but their planned hate-fest, though disguised as an academic event, has as its purpose only to attack Zionism and Israel and the Jewish students who support them, and to further the belief that Israel’s existence is so repugnant and immoral that the appearance at a school event by a terrorist who wanted to kill Jews is morally acceptable.
Imagine for a moment that, in an alternate moral universe, an SFSU professor chaired a department of white studies, and he planned an event at which well-known racist speakers would rail against the threat of non-whites to a white culture and values, the harm that non-whites do to society through criminality, high birthrates, and questionable morality, the overall superiority of the white race to other, “lower” forms of human existence, and the moral feasibility of using violence, if necessary, against black people as a corrective measure to racial strife.
Would SFSU’s president similarly tolerate this event because it would offer “divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences?” Would any black SFSU students care whether or not the event offered an airing of alternate viewpoints and supposedly encouraged rigorous debate and dialogue? Would they say that the speakers had a right to express these noxious views safely under the umbrella of academic free speech, and that such an event, and the ongoing teaching and programs by this department, would not create a hostile campus climate for minority students being targeted by this virulent ideology?
The answers to those questions are obvious, but not, apparently, when the topic is Israel and Zionism and the targeted group is Jewish students.
And that is central problem with pseudo-academic events parading as scholarship and actual intellectual debate. “Abdulhadi’s continuous and intentional use of her SFSU position and the name and resources of the University to indoctrinate students with her own personal animus towards the Jewish state and its supporters and to promote anti-Israel activism,” the AMCHA letter points out, “does not constitute a legitimate use of academic freedom, but an abuse of it.”
That such morally and intellectually flawed individuals are able to spew forth their toxic ideology with impunity, and under the cover of academic free speech, should frighten us all.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.