A New War on Speech

Campaigns against Rabab Abdulhadi and other activists are calls for state-sponsored political harassment.

In the United States, it’s on campuses that the push against Israeli colonialism is having its greatest success. Despite attempts to quash faculty and student speech, the movement continues to surge.

Professors worldwide rallied to defend the American Studies Association’s landmark endorsement of academic boycott, divestment resolutions have passed in student assemblies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Chicago’s Loyola University. Among other actions, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality’s sit-ins at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor forced their student government to vote on a boycott resolution.

This patient and steady work has contributed to the growing international condemnation of Israel’s brutal occupation, the expansion of settlements from the Negev to the Jordan Valley, and the siege of the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s defenders, aware that their longstanding attempt to control public opinion is faltering, are investing over $300 million in propaganda, surveillance, and legal warfare to silence dissent and solidarity with Palestine with false claims of antisemitism. By now, the institutional muzzling of voices advocating for an open hearing for the Palestinian cause is unmistakable: Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) suspended indefinitely, Florida Atlantic University students forced into re-education programs, a call for the removal of a Palestinian professor at San Francisco State University, and activists at University of California-Irvine facing state charges for protests.

Indeed, it is in California that the campus climate has turned most sharply against Zionism, with the UC campuses passing one BDS resolution after another.

Israel knows that, as one report notes, “those seeking to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy target campuses to shape opinion and spread misinformation” — in other words, use that space to tell the truth about Israel and its collaboration with US and other Western interests. Losing ground, its disinformation machine is recycling and broadening its techniques to enlist the US state to directly silence students and professors.

It is against that background that last month, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the coordinator of the AMCHA initiative, circulated a letter attacking a Palestinian professor at San Francisco State University, Rabab Abdulhadi, founder of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative.

Addressed to a who’s-who of California State University system managers, local state senators and assembly members, as well as major Zionist organizations, the missive highlights a recent academic and labor delegation to Palestine which Abdulhadi led and calls for an investigation into whether, by highlighting the plain reality of Israeli settler-colonialism, her actions have been “compromising the campus climate for Jewish and Israeli students at SFSU.”

This defamation has been long coming, linking a longstanding Zionist “anti-delegitimization” campaign to a sustained effort to cut Palestinians in exile off from their own liberation struggle.

Though the extreme actions of AMCHA’s Rossman-Benjamin and the Northeastern University suspensions are remarkable, they are not isolated, but rather part of a highly resourced, carefully orchestrated strategy of a network of Zionist organizations, Israeli consulates, and their many supporters.

Coordinating the charge against the growing support for justice in Palestine is the Israel Action Network (IAN), a strategic initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, launched in October 2010 with an initial three-year, $6 million investment. A sister project, the national Israeli Campus Coalition (ICC), is a national network of students, faculty and professionals dedicated to combating Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), tracking “anti-Israel” organizing on campus, and coordinating an early warning system to alert campus constituents and national partners about anti-Israel activity.

These forces are committed to combating what the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, calls the “Delegitimization Network,” namely people in Western countries opposed to Israeli racism and its role in advancing US interests in the region. “In order to effectively face the Delegitimization Network,” the report notes, “Israel must embrace a network-based logic and response,” one focused on the “hubs of delegitimization — such as London, Paris, Toronto, Madrid, and the Bay Area,” and on “undermining its catalysts.”

These “catalysts” — like Abdulhadi and a student movement stretching from Northeastern and Michigan to the University of California — are, according to Reut, AMCHA, and other Zionist organizations, performing a crucial role. They are “units of the network that dedicate themselves to its cause by mobilizing financial and human resources, collecting information and turning it into knowledge, and developing the ideology.” Undermining these “catalysts” means publicly denouncing them and seeking to deprive them of their livelihoods and audience.

Isolate the delegitimizers” is the slogan of the day.

Key to this effort is a deliberate conflation between anti-Zionism — opposition to the settler-colonial project of establishing and maintaining a Jewish state in Palestine — and antisemitism, the hatred of Jews. Indeed, AMCHA, which poses as an organization devoted to fighting antisemitism, claims that “anti-Jewish animus has been manifested under the political/ideological guise of anti-Zionism,” and that “this is particularly true on American college and university campuses.” Similarly, Reut asserts, “Because Israel’s delegitimization is often a modern form of anti-Semitism, Jewish communities can and should be mobilized toward this cause as well.”

Needless to say, suggesting that those opposed to Israeli racism or the Zionist ideology which underpins it are complicit in antisemitism is unacceptable on its face. To accuse those who, like Abdulhadi, fight against all forms of racism of creating an unsafe atmosphere for Jewish students has been openly rejected even by those who oppose BDS work.

Such a claim appears cheaper yet in light of the real danger those who are the target of US government interests and racism face at home and abroad: Palestinians confronting occupation and the refusal of their right as refugees to return to their land of origin, Arabs and Muslim in the United States facing discrimination, state prosecution and even incarceration without evidence or due process. Indeed, the rhetoric of Israel’s supporters is a cheap exploitation of the quite real history of antisemitism, now used to justify an attack on the West’s newest “other” — those hailing from Muslim and Arab countries.

And yet the charges made against Abdulhadi continue to mount. As evidence that she “condones terrorism,” AMCHA points to a recent Ethnic Studies event — a report back from the academic and labor delegation to Palestine. During that visit, she and her fellow delegation members met with Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled, among other activists. Even more damning, in AMCHA’s opinion, Abdulhadi had the audacity to work “towards organizing collaborative agreements between CSU campuses and two Palestinian universities, An-Najah and Birzeit.”

Having conjured up the Zionist delegitimization triad — “terrorism,” “Islamism,” and “antisemitism” — no further substantiation is necessary. Instead, Abdulhadi is presented as being guilty by virtue of her associations with individuals, institutions, and political views that criticize Israel and call for the liberation of Palestine. As such, AMCHA is suggesting that no one need to bother themselves with the actual content of Abdulhadi’s scholarship, activities or the event in question, nor the larger political questions in which they are embedded.

These accusations are laced with racism. They rely on the melding and blurring of a variety of terms: Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, terror, resistance, and liberation. As UCLA Professor Leila Beckwith, AMCHA cofounder, bizarrely wondered, is this “A professor promoting terrorism to impressionable students?” The question is ludicrous, trying to conflate terrorism with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

A quick review of Abdulhadi’s syllabi affirms her commitment to critical thinking by presenting her students with critical viewpoints and analysis so they can make decisions of their own — with Lawrence Summers staged against Judith Butler. What’s more, Abdulhadi teaches in SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies, which was created in the aftermath of a 1968 anti-racist student strike. Students demanded that “histories from below” and struggles for liberation be recognized and taught in the university. The attacks on AMED and Abdulhadi are threats to this important legacy.

The accusations also have another edge. As Charlotte Kates has noted in these pages, the overall goal is to “[Separate] those in exile here from their counterparts in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world by trying to discredit and thus undermine any political affiliation that supports the Palestinian struggle. With the potential for prosecution looming over politically active Palestinians, a new climate of fear has strongly suppressed organizing.”

Manifestly, the attack on Abdulhadi is part-and-parcel of the broader assault against politically active Palestinians. As expressed by California Scholars for Academic Freedom in their letter to the President of SFSU and California State University Board of Trustees, the call for the state of California to “investigate” Abdulhadi is nothing more than a call to subject her to months or years of state-sponsored political harassment, intended to put a stop to her educational and political activity, ultimately, to perhaps lose her access to employment, and even to face prosecution.

Such an agenda threatens everything people of conscience hold dear: free speech, academic freedom, and the sanctity of universities as places of anti-racist and progressive organizing.

This would be only a step towards driving those committed to teaching the “histories from below” either out of academia or to live censored and underground within it.