Freedom of Speech panel brings Palestinian community issues to light
Some Palestinian students and faculty do not feel safe at SF State.
A two-day informational panel lead by Dr. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, SF State Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora studies, for SF State’s Constitution Day, featured a discussion on academic freedom for professors who stand up for marginalized students and the College of Ethnic Studies.
“We should not be afraid of walking on our own campus,” Abdulhadi said. “People who know me know that I do not walk alone in campus anymore. I am very afraid.”
Last fall, posters were put up on campus that depicted an illustration of Dr. Abdulhadi with this statement next to it: “a leader of the Hamas BDS campaign; collaborator with terrorists; San Francisco State professor.”
Just last week, on Thursday, Sept. 21, posters were plastered across campus from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an extreme Zionist group unaffiliated with SF State, including an illustration of Abdulhadi labeling her a terrorist.
Alongside tangible posters on campus, a website called Canary Mission poses Palestinian professors and students at SF State as a threat to America. The site is run by “students and concerned citizens” who, according to Canary Mission, publish “freely available material gathered from publicly available sources.” The information and claims made on this site are not proven.
The site also attacks students involved in the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) from SF State and puts personal information behind photos of students.
“They do this because they want to silence us on campus,” Abdulhadi said. “The reason ‘terrorist’ is used all the time and the reason that I’m labeled a terrorist is because when Americans think of terrorists they think of a bomb exploding. They use this to create fear and divide us on campus.”
The panel on Monday, Sept. 18 also brought forward the universal theory of free speech and the reality of who has the right to exercise it, which included a comment on GUPS’s and other students’ intent for protesting Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s visit last year – an event which later resulted in a lawsuit against the campus.
The lawsuit, spearheaded by the pro-Israel organization The Lawfare Project, accused GUPS of trying to silence the Jewish community and the right to their First Amendment and, furthermore, accused the University of anti-Semitic behavior of not punishing GUPS activists more severely.
Saleem Shehadeh, a graduate from UC Davis (BA) and SF State (MA) in Anthropology and AMED Studies as well as a member of GUPS, said that Barkat did speak and finished his speech. GUPS voiced their opinion and protested due to what they believe Barkat represents.
“We have to analyze who he [Barkat] is, and the power in dynamics he holds,” Shehadeh said. “His speech is not neutral, his speech represents murder and violence.”
Blanca Misse, a panelist speaker and SF State faculty member from the French department, also added to the conversation, comparing Barkat to Milo Yiannopoulos, a British right-wing spokesman.
“These are not just speakers, they are political representatives,” Misse said. “If you’re inviting a representative of the colonial murder to your campus, you are reporting this violence to your campus. We need to separate freedom of speech that is interested in intellectual debate and other speech that reinforces biases in society and are there to cover bullying and violence.”
Abdulhadi explained in the panel that the accusation of GUPS being a threatening organization is false.
“Barkat was able to finish his speech, shook hands with university officials and exited from the main door,” Abdulhadi said. “The report by the independent investigator the university hired confirmed that the Barkat protest was neither anti-Semitic nor violent toward Jewish or non-Jewish members of the audience.”
The conflict between Palestine and Israel has affected students on college campuses across the nation and it continues to run deep at SF State.
“There’s 70 years of pain that is behind all of this and they’re [Palestinian students and staff] very justified in the way they feel,” Lex De La Herran, a member of SF Hillel speaking as a Jewish individual on campus, said.
The panel called out far-right groups like the David Project and David Horowitz Freedom Center, which are not clubs at SF State. It is also important to note that although SF Hillel is an organization for many Jewish students at SF State, it does not encompass the Jewish community as a whole on campus.
“I thought that a lot of the points that they [the panelists] brought up were pretty valid,” De La Herran said. “However, I felt that it was unfair to group SF Hillel alongside some of the right-wing groups that have done those attacks … that’s not what the Jewish community here at SF State is about. None of us had a hand in doing any of these activities.”
The struggle for free speech that Palestinians in Palestine and Israel face mirror the hurdles that students in America, California and San Francisco face day by day. According to Liz Jackson, a panelist at the event from Palestine Legal, “advocates for freedom on campus face massive assault on their First Amendment rights.”
“Last year there was 258 reports of suppression to Palestinian rights,” she said. “The scope is large– it’s happening coast to coast and though San Francisco State is one major goal for organizations to suppress Palestinian rights, it’s not the only target, this is happening in many campuses, over 75.”
This international issue has put up literal walls between Palestine and Israel and metaphorical walls between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students on campus, resulting in a climate of fear and lack of right to exercise their free speech as Palestinians at SF State.
“The GUPS, they’re barely able to go to class,” Jackson said. “They’re afraid of the media, it’s a really stressful event for them. You can’t have a dialogue with people when you’re constantly accusing them of being anti-Semitic.”