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A University’s Empty Pledge

As SFSU proves, universities cannot be paragons of social justice activism while overtly politicized academic departments teach students that airplane hijackers are righteous icons of feminism committed to “resilience and resistance.”
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September 11, 2020
Leila Khaled (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

In response to the August 2017 “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia — which saw throngs of white nationalists yelling, among other obscenities, “Jews will not replace us” — then president of San Francisco State University (SFSU), Les Wong, published a message of consolation.

The memo was remarkably passionate. Wong decried the “dangerous social forces” that “our current political climate has openly and unapologetically unleashed.” He touted plans to establish a Division of Equity & Community Inclusion that would lead events and programs “designed to facilitate intercultural/intergroup dialogue, promote equity and inclusion, advance social justice, and improve campus climate” for all. Wong concluded his letter by assuring SFSU that the community would “stand together against all expressions of terrorism and bigotry.”

Given Wong’s ardent condemnation of terrorism, we might be forgiven for assuming that Leila Khaled — a member of the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — would not be revered by an official SFSU academic program as a “feminist, militant, and leader.”

But we would be wrong. Not only was Khaled unapologetically lionized by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies (AMED) Senior Scholar Rabab Abdulhadi, but she will regale students with her stories of “resistance” during an AMED-sponsored online conversation on Sept. 23.

At best, Khaled is an unrepentant terrorist who hijacked civilian flights. At worst, she is complicit in murder: the PFLP’s fanatical struggle to destroy Israel is soaked in blood. In 1972, the PFLP hired members of the Japanese Red Army to conduct a mass shooting in Israel’s Lod Airport, killing 26 civilians and injuring 80 more. On Feb. 16, 2002, the PFLP orchestrated a suicide bombing in the West Bank village of Karnei Shomron, killing three civilians, all teenagers. On Nov. 1, 2004, the PFLP sent a Palestinian teenager to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, which killed three civilians. Most recently, a PFLP cell is suspected of detonating a roadside bomb that killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb on Aug. 23, 2019.

News of AMED’s plan to host an event with a member of this murderous organization naturally elicited consternation and outrage from the Jewish and pro-Israel world, prompting the current SFSU president, Lynn Mahoney, to address the matter with a statement of her own. Her statement was remarkably unspecific, denouncing “hateful ideologies” and “the glorification and use of terrorism and violence, particularly against unarmed civilians.” But Mahoney also asserted her support of “academic freedom,” stating that “rejecting binaries and embracing hard-to-reconcile complexities are the hallmarks of the educational experience.” Mahoney then argued that “There is — and must be — space for all viewpoints at SF State.”

One can’t help but notice that Les Wong’s response to Charlottesville left no wiggle room for “embracing hard-to-reconcile complexities.” Wong made no guarantees that “all viewpoints” are welcome in any on-campus discussions about the rally’s horrific violence, its causes, or its implications. What Wong’s statement did do was condemn the “dangerous social forces” that fueled it and pledge to oppose them.

SFSU’s messages are mixed. The community stands, commendably, against domestic terrorists who march and murder counter demonstrators on the other side of the country, yet tolerates university-sponsored events that glorify a member of a foreign terrorist organization that has killed countless civilians.

SFSU’s messages are mixed. The community stands, commendably, against domestic terrorists who march and murder counter demonstrators on the other side of the country, yet tolerates university-sponsored events that glorify a member of a foreign terrorist organization that has killed countless civilians.

Common sense would indicate that AMED’s upcoming event extolling Khaled is antithetical to SFSU’s post-Charlottesville pledge against terrorism. Those who value moral consistency should ask the SFSU administration: If a university professor ever idolized or hosted a university-affiliated discussion with a member of a violent white nationalist organization, would the office of the president vaguely condemn “terrorism and violence” yet defend “academic freedom?” No. The university would probably denounce white nationalism, the person invited to speak, the professor who organized the event, and the event itself. So why the double standard?

This double standard likely stems from a widespread doctrine at universities that stripping the Jewish people of their self-determination — even through violence — is just another “viewpoint” to be debated. This viewpoint is often cloaked in the rhetoric of anti-colonial struggle, wrongly painting Jews as foreign interlopers in the land that they have maintained a connection to for thousands of years. (AMED, for example, is explicitly committed to what it calls “decolonizing work”).

This narrative dehumanizes Jewish history and, in all too many cases, provides a convenient rationalization for violence against civilian Israelis. On Sept. 17, 2018, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at The New School justified the murder of Israeli-American Ari Fuld under the pretext that “colonialism comes with consequences.” And on Aug. 27, 2015, a member of Palestine Solidarity Committee at UT Austin wrote that activists within the boycott, divestment and sanctions  (BDS) movement should “look to and support Palestinian resistance groups and civil organizations” that maintain a “commitment to anti-colonial struggle — groups such as the [PFLP], Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad.” (Hamas has notoriously orchestrated numerous suicide bombings inside Israel. Palestine Islamic Jihad is similarly brutal). University administrations should recognize this hateful ideology for what it is.

As SFSU proves, universities cannot be paragons of social justice activism while overtly politicized academic departments teach students that airplane hijackers are righteous icons of feminism committed to “resilience and resistance.” Here’s the bottom line: Killing Israeli civilians for the cause of wiping their country off the map is unacceptable. Making exceptions for some supporters of violence should also be unacceptable. SFSU must address the contradiction in its policies.

Zac Schildcrout is a campus adviser and online editor for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).

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