Marc Goldberg of the Community Security Trust, writing in a personal capacity, casts a concerned eye over some astonishing reactions to a student complaint about the Sheffield Hallam University lecturer Shahd Abusalama.
Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian PhD student recently taken on as an assistant lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Originally from Gaza, Abusalama moved to the UK where she studied for a Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies and then a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University. Abusalama has written about her experiences in Gaza and about being the daughter of Ismail Abusalama, an activist associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was incarcerated by Israel for roughly 15 years. She has also written posts on social media that could be considered antisemitic and/or showing support for terrorism in Israel.
In 2019 the Jewish Chronicle reported on tweets Abusalama had posted in 2012 while still living in Gaza, including a tweet linking to an antisemitic video with the words:
Must watch this video that tells you the truth about #zionist #Jews. They take their legitimacy from #Talmud.
She deleted that tweet after it was reported on by the JC but another one from the same time, that arguably invokes antisemitic tropes about Jewish power, also highlighted by the Jewish Chronicle, remains up:
I know! What a shame! Somehow the Zionist lobbies control all this for their interest. They buy presidents/slaves.
When those tweets were made public Abusalama argued that the article was published in order ’to silence the rights-based movement that has succeeded in threatening Israel’s culture of impunity. It aims to undermine BDS activists’ credibility and in my case, smear my academic reputation’. She added that ’in my whole life in Gaza’s prison until September 2013, I had never interacted with any Israeli Jew outside the framework of the ongoing wars which cost us horrific human and material loss’.
The Jewish Chronicle reported that: ‘In 2014, she [Abusalama] posted a photo of killer Dalal Mughrabi alongside a Palestinian flag to Facebook. Ms Mughrabi participated in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in which — after she personally shot and killed an American wildlife photographer — Palestinian militants hijacked a bus and massacred 38 of its occupants, including 13 children. Ms Abusalama said that the terrorists “managed to establish a republic of Palestine in a bus, and their republic lasted four hours. It doesn’t matter how long this republic lasted, the important thing is that it was established.”’
She described Kozo Okamoto, who along with two other terrorists murdered 26 people and wounded another 80 in what has been termed as the ‘Lod Airport Massacre’ as a ’freedom fighter’ in a blog written in 2012 and as a ’revolutionary’ in an article published in 2020.
In December last year the Jewish News reported that Sheffield Hallam University was investigating Abusalama after a complaint was made about a thread she wrote on Twitter defending a student painting a banner using the term ‘Stop the Palestinian Holocaust’. The thread includes the following:
#Holoucaust [sic] as a word generally means great destruction of life & was used historically to refer to other genocides that preceded Nazi Germany, it now evokes the Nazi mass killing of European Jews in WW2 in the minds of many. This dehistoricised association is dangerous. Why?
It excludes millions of minorities who were persecuted because of their religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation. It also separates Nazi pogroms of European Jews from other acts of genocide that happened in modern history, as if they’re not comparable.
On 22 January the Electronic Intifada reported that: ‘A British university has suspended a Palestinian graduate student from teaching amid a smear campaign by supporters of Israel.’ Of course there was no smear, there was the social media thread that Abusalama had written and the complaint that had been made about it. In the wake of her suspension Abusalama took to social media and campus activism to state her case. As part of this she was interviewed by journalist Roshan Salih to whom she said, ’I am accused of antisemitism because I dare to speak up against power and I dare to demand freedom just as an equality for my people’.
In response to his question, ‘Do you feel there is a coordinated attempt by Zionist organisations in this country to basically take down pro-Palestinian academics?’ She answered: ‘Of course, and there is a historical pattern … I am not the first person to be targeted and I may not be the last’.
Salih has claimed in the past that ’Zionists are using ”interfaith” to infiltrate Muslim communities in UK. Their goal is to drive wedge between British Muslims and get them to shut up about Palestine’. In an interview with Tina Werkmann, a founder member of the left-wing group Labour Against the Witch Hunt, considered so toxic by the Labour Party that it has been proscribed, meaning its members are banned from holding membership in the Party, Abusalama said to Werkmann that:
We can match the allegations, the list of allegations that the university had sent me with the press inquiries that I received from Jewish News, Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Jewish Chronicle and yes it’s clear who they are and they are external bodies.
Despite asserting that, in her view, the complaint against her had been made by three British Jewish organisations when her employer dropped the investigation, she tweeted that it was a ’victory against Hasbara brigades’ and also tweeted that ‘Israel’s lobby seem persistent to stereotype me’. Six days later she tweeted:
Notice the scare/hate mongering of the shamelessly racist Jewish Chronicle. They don’t fight anti-Jewish bigotry. They fuel it. A statement by Israel-funded JSoc at @sheffielduni ‘branded’ @sheffhallamuni as ‘unsafe for Jews’ for standing on the side of a victim of Israeli terror.
To my mind the alleged association of Israeli money and the Jsoc paints the Jsoc out as a proxy for Israel rather than a student society at the university like any other. It’s hard for me to interpret this other than as an implication that their President wasn’t offering her real opinion but merely saying things she was told to say as some kind of agent or spokesperson for Israel.
In another tweet Abusalama wrote, ‘The infamous Jewish Chronicle (Jewish used ideologically in their title to cement the analogy between anti-zionism & antisemitism) just published another hateful article. We must oppose hatred of Jews for being Jews as must as we oppose the hate of Palestinian Arabs for being so!’
The confusion of Jewish and Zionist in this context, the Jewish Chronicle being older than political Zionism, likely diminishes Abusalama’s assertion about opposing hatred of Jews as Jews for many Jews reading the statement. Furthermore, her claim that ‘we are going to resist our occupier not just because they are Jews but because they are occupying us’ made at an event held by the UK Palestine Mental Health Network muddies the waters even further.
Abusalama’s response to the investigation, launched as a result of her own comments, has been to go on the offensive. She attacks the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, recently adopted by her employer, calling it ‘a tool for suppression and intimidation’. And lashing out against a variety of organisations some by name, others in more general terms as ‘Zionist’. What seems to be absent from her discourse is critical engagement with her own comments as to why someone might have felt it important to complain to the university about them. Lecturing Jews about the word ‘Holocaust’ and criticising them for using it would be a sensitive area for an expert on the subject much less for someone who has arguably touched on antisemitic discourse in the past. The wellspring of support Abusalama attracted for her cause indicates that there are a lot of people out there who agree with her that there is some kind of Zionist plot to attack Palestinians in the UK and that the investigation into her resulting from a complaint was evidence of just such a plot.
Writing in al Jazeera Catherine Chiniara Charrett, senior lecturer in Global Politics at the University of Westminster, claimed that ‘Sheffield Hallam University management capitulated to a racialised smear campaign launched against her by Zionist media,’ adding ‘the attacks against her were levelled because of her outspoken and entirely legitimate criticism of the state of Israel’. Charrett goes on to say, ’this character assassination attempt is not an isolated case but part of a UK-wide, systematic drive to use the IHRA definition to silence the voices of Palestinian academics and supporters of the Palestinian cause.’
The IHRA definition was also mentioned in this public letter with 99 signatories (names of societies, not people are given) accusing Sheffield Hallam University of ‘responding to false accusations made by Israeli lobby groups rather than issuing a public statement in support of Shahd’. The letter’s signatories claim: ’This is not the first time in which Palestinian and human rights activists and organisations, advocating for Palestinian rights, are targetted [sic] through an organised and systematic defamation campaign. We have even witnessed it recently with British academic David Miller at Bristol University.’
This is a reference to an academic who was recently sacked from his university after making a plethora of comments about organisations active in the Jewish community and their funders. The university reached the conclusion that his conduct ‘did not meet the standards of behaviour [we] expect from [our] staff’.
The Sheffield Hallam branch of the University and College Union was unequivocal in its support for Abusalama and criticism of the IHRA definition and passed a motion that claimed ‘the attack on Shahd is motivated by her defence of Palestinian rights and threatens academic freedom’ and ’the adoption of the controversial IHRA definition by Sheffield Hallam is prima facie directly responsible for the situation that has arisen’. This appears to contradict a motion passed by the branch last year which calls on members to ‘make sure you think about the balance between the right to freedom of expression and sensitivity to individuals’ religion or belief’.
In a tweet supporting Abusalama the Palestine Solidarity Campaign claimed: ‘Those targeting Shahd include groups at the forefront of wider campaigns to silence legitimate advocacy for Palestinian rights by purposefully conflating it with antisemitism, including via the usage of the IHRA definition.’ Which is interesting, bearing in mind that PSC’s own Student Legal Support Guide claims only one event in the last five years was stopped because of concerns emanating from the IHRA definition.
All of this buries the simple truth that Sheffield Hallam University investigated a member of staff after a complaint was made about her Holocaust discourse. At this point it’s worth noting that in 2016 Sheffield Hallam University was forced by the office of the independent adjudicator to pay £3,000 compensation to a former Jewish student for failing ‘to properly turn its mind to the question of whether [he] had experienced harassment’. This time they appear to have taken the complaint seriously and mounted an investigation. It’s difficult to see how the university could have done anything other than investigating to see if there was any merit to the complaint.
We have seen that over the course of a couple of weeks Abusalama blamed the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Campaign Against Antisemitism as well as lashing out at the ‘Israel funded Jsoc’, ‘Hasbara brigades’ and the ‘Israel lobby’ for the investigation into her conducted by the university. Her words fell on fertile soil lapped up by a plethora of groups who stood in her support but they appear never to have been based on anything more than being contacted for comment by news outlets whose role is to report issues of interest to the Jewish community.
When the university dropped its investigation Abusalama claimed ‘a fantastic victory for Palestine’. But this has nothing to do with Palestine. It is to do with a junior academic at Sheffield Hallam University making insensitive comments that led to a complaint against her and the (apparently very minor) consequences. The investigation into Abusalama’s comments about the Holocaust has been wrapped up but the university should now take a very close look at the comments that she made while that investigation was ongoing. Her claims about the Jewish Society, about the IHRA definition of antisemitism and about the Jewish Chronicle using the word ‘Jewish’ to obfuscate between Jewish and Zionist bear closer examination, as does her more general conspiratorial rhetoric.
So what did we learn from watching all of this unfold? While seeing all this discourse online I couldn’t help but think that this is what the antisemitic conspiracy theory looks like in the 21st century. The ease with which claims that Zionist or Israel lobby groups are conspiring to silence an academic are accepted by people who should know better show the scale of the problem those combatting antisemitism are facing.
The discourse against ‘Zionists’ seems to imagine itself to be punching up against a powerful machine trying to suppress Abusalama, her allies and their point of view. The realities of the issue were quickly forgotten and little or no discussion took place about whether Abusalama’s arguments about her use of the word Holocaust held merit. Instead there was a wave of righteous indignation against the university for taking seriously a complaint made against her discourse. Hopefully this will change in the months and years to come but I don’t think this change will come easily.