The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on Campus: The AMED Studies Program
This article is part of a series that seeks to explain and examine aspects of how issues around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impact students, faculty, the university administration and academic programs. It is the work of over 80 interviews and numerous conversations that took place over a year. Taken together, these articles are meant to provide an overview of certain aspects of these tensions on SF State’s campus — and are not comprehensive.
December 1, 2020
“Life-changing” is how SF State alum Noel Madbak described the classes she took that delved into her identity and her family experiences — something she said she never encountered in an academic space before the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program.
“I never had Arab teachers,” Madbak said, reflecting on her primary and secondary school years. “I never had teachers who ate the same food as me, who spoke the same language as me … who understood the struggles my family went through as refugees.”
Madbak, who graduated in Fall 2019, said she signed up for the minor after taking the Palestine Ethnic Studies Perspective course. She said that class and other AMED courses excited her as they validated the experiences of her Palestinian parents and grandparents.
Though Madbak describes a sense of fulfillment from AMED coursework, she and other students are simultaneously disappointed with what they say are a lack of university support for the program and frequent attacks against Palestinian students and professors — both of which, Madbak said, attempt to stifle meaningful discourse around Palestine, Palestinians and their history.
Creating the AMED program was an intentional step toward reducing friction on campus around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; however, the past 18 years have seen more conflict as a program meant to increase education has drawn ire and pushback at times from school administrators and attacks from outside organizations.
Rabab Abdulhadi is the senior scholar who has built and directed the AMED program since its inception in 2006. A Palestinian born in Nablus, Abdulhadi holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Yale University. The program curriculum, inspired by the spirit of the ’68 student strike, focuses on the lived experiences of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities through a framework emphasizing shared liberation — what Abdulhadi calls the indivisibility of justice.
“AMED’s curriculum is designed to provide students with a core base of knowledge around the history, issues and challenges relating to Arab, Muslim and Palestinian diasporic communities while developing their critical thinking, pedagogical reasoning, and analytical processing abilities,” Abdulhadi wrote in a 2009 draft for the proposal of the AMED minor.
Abdulhadi began developing the AMED program before she was hired. She left her position as the first director of Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan to head SF State’s new program in January 2007, with the understanding that two additional full-time faculty members would be hired.
Thirteen years later as the senior scholar and sole full-time faculty for the program, Abdulhadi said she feels alienated by the administration and unsupported when facing attacks from outside groups.
THE START OF ARAB AND MUSLIM STUDIES AT SF STATE
Campus protests concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increased in the early 2000s — a period marked by events such as the second Intifada and increasing violence in Israel and Palestine, Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We couldn’t generate enough interest amongst the students in that field [Middle Eastern, Islamic and Arab studies] as much as we tried,” said Emeritus Jerald Combs, a former History Department professor from 1964 to 2006. “But 9/11 changed things drastically in generating student interest. Our Middle Eastern courses were filled, and we were hiring people across the campus and in other disciplines with Islamic or Arab emphasis. Students were very interested because it seemed very relevant.”
In 2003, the university hired four faculty members in the fields of comparative politics, anthropology and philosophy. They and existing faculty formed the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program, which became a minor in 2007. It currently has 17 contributing faculty from various disciplines.
Tensions on campus came to a head during a rally on May 7, 2002, “We Stand with Israel: Now and Forever.” Organized by SF Hillel students, the rally brought approximately 350 campus and community members to the Malcolm X plaza for the rally — along with 75 protesters.
The university’s president at the time, Robert Corrigan, responded with a message that condemned antisemitic speech.
“A small but terribly destructive number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, many of whom were not SFSU students, abandoned themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat,” Corrigan stated.
Students in the General Union of Palestine Students published their own summary of the event at the end of May, expressing their frustration with what they said was one-sided and biased media portrayals. They noted the absence of coverage or acknowledgement of anti-Arab and Islamophobic phrases shouted at the event. “Go fuck a camel” was one expletive said by a Jewish student who was afterward assigned community service by the university.
The summary also included list of demands such as the creation of an Arab and Muslim studies program to “ensure Academic freedom and a fair and balanced course offering.”
A month later, Corrigan created what became a 42-person task force of university and community representatives to address recent issues and concerns of Jewish and Palestinian communities. He also issued a letter of warning to SF Hillel, sanctioned GUPS for a year because of the May 7 rally and announced a “Year of Constructive Civil Discourse” at SF State focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through film screenings and panel discussions.
The task force concluded in its preliminary and final reports that the university should create curriculum focused on Arab and Muslim communities globally. They envisioned an interdisciplinary program or minor that could develop into a Bachelor of Arts anchored by core faculty in the College of Ethnic Studies. It recommended a model paralleling the Jewish Studies Department, which at the time had two full-time faculty.
“The College of Ethnic Studies’ entire existence and presence is really important within campus life,” said Ariana Khateeb, a current Palestinian student who has taken an AMED course. “Adding those classes are beneficial to students who aren’t Arab or Muslim, who could really learn from those courses. It is important to have that option open for students regardless [of enrollment numbers].”
DEVELOPMENT OF THE AMED PROGRAM
The Race and Resistance Studies Department and COES emphasize collaboration between communities and academics and prioritizing justice-centered learning. The AMED program aims to embody these themes by hosting classes and events open to the greater community and posted online. Its addition to the COES marked the college’s first expansion upon traditional ethnic studies areas.
Kenneth Monteiro, former dean of the COES for from 2004-17, described the intentional inclusion of AMED into Ethnic Studies as a major feat pushed forward by extensive peer review and community scrutiny.
“This addition enriched the lives of students and faculty who are parts of the communities represented in AMED, and also expanded the educational opportunities for those of us who are not,” Monteiro wrote in an email.
Click HERE to read more about the fight for Ethnic Studies in the CSU system as a requirement.
In March 2015, the AMED program created a minor with 22 approved courses meeting multiple SF State Studies and general education requirements. The Edward Said scholarship was first awarded in the 2015-16 school year to help financially support undergraduate and graduate students involved with AMED. Abdulhadi also established a memorandum of understanding with the An-Najah National University in Palestine.
Abdulhadi and James Martel, president of the SF State chapter of the California Faculty Association, maintain that despite its successes, AMED has taken a back seat to Race and Resistance Studies — which became a department in 2017 — and AMED has not been able to develop into its own department as intended.
“AMED at its core is really so much about this indivisibility of justice and looking at interconnected struggles. It makes me very sad to know that all of this exists, because if the resources promised were there, then I think students would be walking away honestly transformed,” said Heather Abu Deiab, a student who self-designed her undergraduate major to center on AMED courses. She went on to become a research assistant to Abdulhadi and AMED as she obtained her M.A. in Ethnic Studies at SF State. “Because I know it’s really a transformative academic experience taking these courses.”
Abdulhadi was subject to harassment and aware of the targeting of Palestinian academics before coming to SF State.
Since coming to the university, she said these attacks have only intensified. She has faced numerous attempts to defame her and discredit her work by pro-Israel groups such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, AMCHA Initiative, Campus Watch and the Lawfare Project.
Degrading caricatures featured on posters have been plastered regularly throughout campus, alleging ties between Abdulhadi and terrorist organizations and accusing her of being antisemitic. Threatening voicemails and physical hate mail have made Abdulhadi fearful to walk alone on campus.
An Islamophobic hate letter for Abdulhadi was sent to the administration on May 25, but the university did not inform her until June 22 — a decision made by the administration, saying that “no one needs this kind of negative input.” The associate vice president of Student Affairs wrote that they submitted the letter to the University Police Department for their records.
“The University takes the safety of its faculty very seriously,” SF State President Lynn Mahoney wrote in an August email regarding hate mail sent to Abdulhadi. “We have worked and will continue to work with Professor Abdulhadi if she should receive threatening messages or believes that her safety is at risk, as we do for all faculty.”
Various pro-Israel Jewish organizations have petitioned the university and California State Controller to audit Abdulhadi’s academic travel, leading to multiple university audits.
In one instance, the AMCHA Initiative called upon the university to audit a delegation trip where Abdulhadi met with Leila Khaled and Sheikh Raed Salah in Palestine. Receiving backlash for meeting with Khaled and Saleh, Abdulhadi and those in the delegation noted that they arranged to meet with almost 200 individuals to gather a range of perspectives.
Abdulhadi was ultimately exonerated of all these accusations.
“Professor Abdulhadi, primarily, with the assistance of various colleagues and students, wrote and ushered through the approval process for the new classes and the minor degree program that you can find online,” Monteiro wrote in an email. “She did this despite fending off one of the most active hate campaigns against any individual that I’ve seen across more than three decades at SF State.”
Throughout the years, multiple strikers from the 1968 strike, which led to the founding of the COES, have expressed support for Abdulhadi and the AMED program, writing that the campaigns against Abdulhadi and her students for being outspoken advocates for justice also attack the COES and spirit of their strike.
ADDITIONAL HIRES — AN UNFULFILLED PROMISE
Since her arrival at SF State in 2007, Abdulhadi has been the only professor hired specifically for the AMED program, though the program has received supplemental support in the form of student research assistants, visiting scholars and lecturers over the years.
She is currently involved in state and federal lawsuits suing the California State University system and SF State for alleged discrimination as a Palestinian and Muslim woman with disabilities. At a Nov. 13 hearing for the state lawsuit, a California Supreme Court judge overturned a request by the university to dismiss the case and ruled to proceed with the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the university has failed to provide protection or support from Islamophobic attacks by outside parties and that top administrators have referred to her in derogatory ways because of her nationality, gender and religion. The lawsuit also alleges that the university has not fulfilled Abdulhadi’s hiring agreement — primarily, a promise to hire two additional faculty for the program she was hired to develop and direct.
The Memorandum of Understanding when hiring her states, “The university will support two additional lines in the areas of Arab/Islamic studies.” These were to first be opened as research assistant jobs and converted into tenure-track positions after Abdulhadi submitted necessary documents for the approval of the university provost.
Abdulhadi said this commitment strongly influenced her to come to SF State, but the university has continually dismissed it for the past 14 years.
Mahoney wrote in an email that the promise of two faculty hires predates her arrival in July 2019 by several years and is part of ongoing litigation. She wrote that new faculty appointments are currently awarded based on student demand and enrollment.
“I don’t feel like I have the luxury to walk away, because I’m the only professor at AMED,” Abdulhadi said in an April 23 Zoom conference with Students for Justice in Palestine, discussing campus repression of Palestinian scholarship and activism.
Abdulhadi said then-president Robert Corrigan cancelled searches for the two tenure-track faculty positions when they were near completion in late 2009.
Corrigan and then-Provost Sue Rosser cited the 2008 financial crisis and a lack of outside fundraising as the reason the faculty positions could not be funded. Abdulhadi, however, said the positions had already been in the approved budget since she was hired in 2006. She, alumni and community members added that the cancellation coincided with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement co-founder Omar Barghouti’s invitation to speak at SF State, as Corrigan wrote that academic boycotts are dangerous.
Abdulhadi, along with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian community members supportive of AMED, were hopeful that Leslie Wong would provide administrative and financial support to the program when he took the helm as university president in 2012.
Wong was initially supportive of the program and its students, Abdulhadi said. In March 2013, he met with the AMED community at the Arab Cultural and Community Center. He also spoke at the reception to celebrate the creation of the AMED minor in 2015.
The initial complaint filed for Abdulhadi’s lawsuit alleges that Wong’s support disappeared after he went on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel in March 2013 with the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council.
Monteiro said that in the years he was dean of COES, Wong and Rosser would not approve the two positions for hire. He wrote that current Provost Jennifer Summit also seemed disinclined to approve the positions and, at times, appeared to create the impression that the unfilled positions never existed.
The students’ first demand included hiring two tenure-track faculty for the AMED program. While the original goals were not met, Wong agreed to regularly meet with interested students in AMED to develop a plan to reinstate the two tenure-track faculty lines within five years. In addition, he promised to provide operational support to the program.
Two students heavily involved in AMED at the time of the hunger strikes both said those regular meetings did not materialize, noting that they only met once with Wong on July 27, 2016, after repeated student requests. When directly asked about reinstating the two faculty lines, Wong said it was the role of the provost to approve them.
Students later reached out to Rosser. One of the two heavily involved students said that the provost claimed the positions were to be paid for by the existing COES budget, and that she refused multiple times to meet with students regarding the hires. Both students said they felt nothing significant came out of the meeting and that Wong dismissed their concerns.
Falu Bakrania, chair of the Race and Resistance Studies Department, said her department and the COES have requested the two hires for AMED nearly every year since the faculty searches were cancelled. Monteiro said that throughout his tenure as dean, the AMED program hires remained a standing request from the time the hiring searches were terminated by Corrigan.
“The program hasn’t been able to grow because it hasn’t gotten those hires,” Bakrania said. “We want the program to grow. It would be great if it could become a department.”
Abdulhadi said that the last time requests for the faculty lines were made was summer 2016, and that the actions of administrators — including those in RRS and the COES — have not demonstrated meaningful support to institutionalize the AMED program. She said her lawsuit against the university aims to hold administrators accountable.
THE START OF THE SEMESTER
Abdulhadi filed a grievance on Aug. 20 centered around the unfulfilled promise of additional faculty. Shortly before the Fall 2020 semester began, she was assigned to teach two Introduction to Ethnic Studies courses she had never taught before.
The grievance describes Abdulhadi’s assignment to teach Race and Resistance Studies courses as a breach of her hiring contract and violation of her original appointment as the AMED program’s director and senior scholar. It proposes hiring the two additional faculty to remedy the administration’s shortfall in fulfilling her memorandum of understanding.
Abdulhadi, along with alumni, community members and current students, met with Mahoney virtually on Aug. 21 to discuss what they described to be a lack of administrative support for the AMED program, along with the cancellation of two Palestine-specific AMED courses in April and Abdulhadi’s Arab and Arab Feminisms course. At the meeting, Mahoney said the cancellations were a budget decision out of her control and made no commitment to further develop the program.
The SF State chapter of the CFA passed a resolution in support of Abdulhadi and the AMED program the last week of August, and a recent Council on American-Islamic Relations report about Islamophobia on California college campuses mentioned the AMED program when referring to incidents of Islamophobia perpetuated by administrators or outside organizations.
“The cutting of AMED classes and inability to provide full time faculty remains troubling and has caused low student enrollment and an inability for the program to grow and thrive, as intended by Dr. Abdulhadi’s Pro-Israel Zionist detractors,” the Nov. 19 report stated. “CAIR-SFBA, as a member of the Friends of AMED Committee, advocated for a reversal of SFSU’s decision to delist AMED courses and force Dr. Abdulhadi to teach introductory courses outside her area of academic research.”
Mahoney cited the pandemic, loss of tuition funds and a $41 million budget gap for this academic year as reasons classes across the university were being cancelled. The university also laid off 131 staff members in September, which were finalized over the fall break. Staff and three SF Board of Supervisors have criticized the layoffs in light of the CSU’s $1.5 billion surplus discovered by the California State University audit released in 2019.
Martel said that despite the many programs, professors, staff and classes impacted by the current budget crisis, the situation with AMED is part of a longer history. He said that the lack of support is nothing new to AMED, adding that the administration is attempting to suppress the program out of fear of lawsuits and defamation.
“What they [the administration] won’t say is, ‘We’re afraid. We’re afraid of David Horowitz, we’re afraid of Canary Mission, we’re afraid of lawsuits, of the Lawfare Project that sued SF State successfully and the settlement,’” Martel said. “They can’t and they won’t say that, but that’s I think what’s going on.”
Students in the program see the administration’s actions as adding to the difficulties the program already faces.
“The administration is cutting all the classes,” said a Palestinian student planning to minor in AMED who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If it’s only 15 units, it really should not be that difficult to get the minor. But at this point, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to do it. Why would I take classes for a minor that I might not be able to finish? The entire COES is so necessary, and it opens students’ eyes a lot. My favorite classes so far have all been Ethnic Studies classes.”