One professor’s twisted definition of ‘scholarship’

Click photo to download. Caption: The Israeli security fence in Bethlehem is pictured here painted with graffiti depicting Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist Leila Khaled. Rabab Abdulhadi, a professor at San Francisco State University, met with Khaled on a trip funded by the state of California. Credit: Bluewind via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Like many others in the Jewish community, I first became aware of the dire situation facing Jewish students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) back in May 2002, when John Podhoretz published an op-ed in the New York Post exposing the anti-Semitic activism plaguing the campus. Podhoretz quoted from an email written by Professor Laurie Zoloth, then the chair of the SFSU’s Jewish Studies department, in which she confessed, “I cannot fully express what it feels like to have to walk across campus daily, past posters of cans of soup with labels on them of drops of blood and dead babies, labeled ‘canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites.’”

Twelve years on, not much appears to have changed at the university that revived the ancient and despicable “blood libel” against the Jewish people. This time, SFSU is engulfed by a scandal involving allegations that one of its professors “misused” $7,000 worth of taxpayer funds for a January research trip to the Middle East that included meetings with representatives of terrorists and Islamist organizations.

Notably, one of the individuals with whom the professor, Rabab Abdulhadi, met was Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who has himself voiced the blood libel. “You should ask,” Salah told an audience in eastern Jerusalem in 2007, “what used to happen to some of the children of Europe, whose blood would be mixed in the dough of the holy bread.” Salah in this quote references the matzah, or unleavened bread, eaten by Jews during the Passover holiday, which medieval Jew-haters claimed was prepared with the blood of Christian children.

In a letter sent on June 25 to California State Controller John Chiang, a coalition of Israel-advocacy groups led by the AMCHA Initiative charged, “Abdulhadi indicated that the primary purpose of her trip was academic: to deliver a paper at a scholarly conference in Beirut. However, Abdulhadi never attended the Beirut conference. Instead, as she herself acknowledged... the trip was a ‘political solidarity tour’ to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, whose primary purpose was to promote ‘resolute actions in support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.’” The groups urged Chiang to conduct, as part of a proposed investigation into “this potentially fraudulent use of taxpayer dollars,” a state audit of SFSU.

What does Professor Abdulhadi have to say about the matter? When I emailed her to ask for her side of the story, she promptly sent me a “public statement” which she has distributed to friends and colleagues. In that document, Abdulhadi says her non-attendance at the Beirut conference was the result of delays “imposed” by SFSU, because she was traveling to countries deemed “high-risk” by the State Department.

She went ahead with the state-funded visit anyway. The justification? According to her public statement, “As Senior Scholar at the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED), it is part of my job duties to establish educational and research collaboration on Palestine and between Palestinians in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Research and discussion between actors in the U.S. and Palestine is fundamental to my scholarship. It is one of the reasons why SFSU hired me in the first place.”

Abdulhadi insists that since her trip was conducted for the benefit of what she describes as “scholarly understanding,” the “McCarthyist repression campaign” led by AMCHA should be unmasked as an assault on the right of scholars to conduct their research without interference.

Such phrasing is designed to win the support of fellow academics by invoking the eminently reasonable argument that underpins academic freedom—in their quest to explain the state of the world, social scientists have to interact with all the agents in a particular conflict, including professional haters and terrorists, so as to paint a rounded picture. That was why Abdulhadi met with Sheikh Salah as well as with Leila Khaled, a convicted hijacker and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a terrorist group whose exploits resulted in the murder of several Israeli and American citizens.

What, though, does Abdulhadi, a professor at SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies, understand the word “scholarship” to mean? That question, I would contend, is what lies at the heart of this controversy.

By her own admission, Abdulhadi’s methodology does not begin from dispassionate neutrality, whereby the perspectives of all parties to the conflict, including that of the Israeli mainstream, are taken into account. Instead, as she says in her public statement, “The purpose of such programming is to contextualize the study of Palestine as well as the study of Arab and Muslim communities within other social justice struggles and affirm our principle of the indivisibility of justice.”

To my ears, that sounds much more like explicit political advocacy, not scholarship—and it gets worse. In the passage where she discusses her meeting with Leila Khaled, Abdulhadi doesn’t even mention the latter’s participation in the hijack of an El Al plane in 1970, which resulted in the shooting of a member of the flight crew. Instead, she lionizes Khaled as a “Palestinian feminist icon” whose insights are integral to “a counter narrative to the orientalist depictions of Palestinian, and other Arab and Muslim, women as weak and docile.” Later on, we learn that another element of Abdulhadi’s “scholarship” involves “our commitment to the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel”—a quite astounding admission, given that she has spent the previous pages bemoaning AMCHA’s “attack” on academic freedom in the U.S.!

After I received Abdulhadi’s statement, I sent her a further email asking her, in the light of her department’s mission “to connect with communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as to validate the experiences and support the empowerment of marginalized and oppressed communities,” whether she had forged “similar connections with scholars, academic institutions or activist networks” elsewhere in the region. For example, what about the historically repressed Kurdish areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria? This time, Abdulhadi chose not to reply—a silence that, to me, speaks volumes.

Ben Cohen

Still, the Abdulhadi affair should be regarded as a positive experience, for we now know beyond doubt that anti-Zionist propaganda is being dignified with the label of “scholarship.” If Abdulhadi wants to engage in such work privately, then she should do so—after all, as she herself notes, we have a First Amendment in this country that protects initiatives like these. But for her to use public funds to accomplish these aims is chutzpah of the most breathtaking kind.

Let’s hope Chiang, the California state controller, sees it that way too.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.

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Posted on June 27, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..