Unsurprisingly for an organization whose membership has been perennially hostile to Israel, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) just awarded the 2022 Jere L. Bacharach Service Award to San Francisco State University (SFSU) Professor Rabab Abdulhadi.
Though it positions itself as an organization of scholars engaged in research and teaching about the Middle East, MESA has gradually devolved into a highly politicized group of radical academics who display a singular and obsessive focus on Israel, and who have weaponized the organization to attack, degrade, and slander the Jewish state, allegedly in the name of Palestinian Arab self-determination, and the naming of Abdulhadi is a not unexpected result of this toxic ideology.
MESA has gradually devolved into a highly politicized group of radical academics who display a singular and obsessive focus on Israel, and who have weaponized the organization to attack, degrade, and slander the Jewish state.
MESA’s members, who Middle East studies expert Martin Kramer once described as “tenured incompetents” for their defective scholarship, further confirmed their anti-Israel bias earlier this year when its members voted overwhelmingly to endorse an academic boycott against Israeli scholars, a resolution that called “for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions for their complicity in Israel’s violations of human rights and international law through their provision of direct assistance to the military and intelligence establishments.”
There is no surprise that an academic association like the MESA would call for a boycott against only one country—Israel—precisely because a large number of its ranks are evidently steeped in a worldview defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood.
That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives, and speak with such rectitude, does not excuse the fact that their efforts are in the end a betrayal of what the study of history and the university have, and should, stand for—the free exchange of ideas, even ones bad, without political or ideological litmus tests.
And the naming of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) program, for MESA’s 2022 award reveals both the pathological animus against Israel harbored by the group and also its willingness to reward Abdulhadi for her execrable record of radical anti-Israel, anti-Semitic campus activism at San Francisco State University. She has demonstrated chronic pseudo-academic machinations, and, among other slurs, has referred to Zionists as white nationalists during a 2019 UCLA lecture, and was embroiled in controversy once for a virtual speaking appearance, originally planned to be held in 2020, by Leila Khaled, a terrorist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose resume includes her role in the 1969 hijacking of an Israel-bound plane and her arrest the following year during a failed hijacking of an El Al flight.
Promotional materials for the roundtable discussion with Khaled, entitled “Whose Narrative? Gender, Justice, & Resistance,” (and which included a photograph of Khaled proudly brandishing an AK-47, with which she no doubt intended to murder Jews), glowingly described her as a “Palestinian feminist, militant, and leader,” someone who Abdulhadi has described as a “Palestinian feminist icon,” an “icon in liberations movements and . . . an icon for women’s liberation.”
Not surprisingly, given Abdulhadi’s track record, criticism of the upcoming Khaled event forced SFSU’s president, Lynn Mahoney, to publish an op-ed in which—while she distanced herself from terrorism and disavowed any implied support for the toxic ideology behind the event—she defended AMED’s right to sponsor such speakers based on academic freedom and the purported desire to “hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences.”
In response, 86 groups issued an open letter, organized by the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that tracks campus antisemitism, which questioned whether the Khaled event was an example of the presentation of diverse viewpoints at all, as opposed to one-sided, highly incendiary ideology with the specific and habitual purpose of libeling Zionism, Israel, and Jews.
“What if an invitation to speak to a class — in fact an entire event — is an endorsement of a point of view and a political cause?” the letter read. “And what if the intention of the faculty member who extended such an invitation and organized such an event was not to encourage students ‘to think critically and come to independent, personal conclusions about events of local and global importance,’ but rather to promote the faculty member’s own narrow political view and to weaponize students to be foot soldiers in the faculty member’s own political cause?”—exactly what Abdulhadi has been doing in her role as AMED’s director.
University officials regularly use the cover of academic freedom to insulate them from criticism for allowing repellent guest speakers and events to take place on campus, just as President Mahoney had done with the Khaled lecture. The belief that “divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences” are valuable in academia’s marketplace of ideas is, of course, a good one, something central to the mission and purpose of a university. The problem is that academic freedom is permitted selectively, depending on who is speaking and who the target of their activism is.
Militant, violent liberation to promote Palestinian Arab self-determination and to simultaneously degrade Zionism and extirpate Israel may be an invigorating ideological mission for Abdulhadi, Khaled, and their fellow travelers, but their planned hate-fest, though disguised as an academic event, had as its purpose only to attack Zionism and Israel and the Jewish students who support them, and to further the belief that Israel’s existence is so repugnant and immoral that the appearance at a school event by a terrorist who wanted to kill Jews is morally acceptable.
Khaled and Abdulhadi had previously collaborated in this type of toxic academic activism.
In 2014, for instance, Abdulhadi was criticized for using $7,000 of SFSU’s taxpayer funds to travel to the Middle East to conduct what she described as “research,” but was actually a “political solidarity tour,” to meet with Khaled and representatives of designated Islamist terror organizations. On that activism tour, Abdulhadi also set up a collaboration between SFSU and Al-Najah National University in the 'West Bank'.
In fact, in announcing the award, MESA specifically pointed to this questionable Abdulhadi accomplishment, namely, her involvement in forging cooperation between her institution and a Palestinian counterpart. “As AMED Director,” the award language read, “she negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding between SFSU and An-Najah National University in Palestine,” a logical choice for someone who seeks a continued assault on and the eventual destruction of Israel.
Why is that a predictable choice for Abdulhadi? Because, as Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, has previously revealed, the 11,000-student An-Najah is the largest university in the disputed territories, and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which An-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc. “Of the thirteen members of An-Najah’s 2004 student council, eight,” Levitt wrote—“including the chairperson—belong to Hamas’s Islamic Bloc.”
Terrorism and political activism against Israel are not only promoted within Palestinian university walls, but also celebrated publicly. The radical students at An-Najah University, for example, fondly remembered the outbreak of the Second Intifada by constructing a macabre attraction called “The Sbarro Cafe Exhibition,” named for the location of a 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizza parlor where 15 Jews were murdered and dozens more wounded.
Created not as a memorial but as an inspiration for further terror-laden savagery, the diorama included scattered pizza slices amid Israeli body parts, splattered blood, calls to martyrdom with Koran and Kalashnikovs close by, and, beaming out of a loudspeaker behind a mannequin version of an Orthodox Jew, the inspiring take on an oft-repeated Islamic exhortation: “O believer, there is a Jewish man behind me. Come and kill him.”
The mock apartheid walls constructed by anti-Israel students on American campuses during the annual Israeli Apartheid Week look tame and civilized in comparison, and Abdulhadi’s role in linking an American university to one that promotes terrorism and the murder of Jews shows how potentially lethal her ideology is.
In 2018, outgoing SFSU President Leslie Wong apologized to Jewish students and faculty for his chronically disappointing record in addressing anti-Israel, anti-Semitic activism on his campus, and he publicly proclaimed that, contrary to his past statements, Zionists were, in fact, welcome on the SFSU campus.
That small step at “normalizing” Zionism was just too much for Abdulhadi, however, who harbors the poisonous view—shared by other Israel-haters and anti-Semites—that Zionism is a racist, political ideology; in fact, she audaciously “rejects the equation of Zionism with Judaism.” Wong’s apology, to her, was a capitulation to an ideology she wanted to be purged from campus. “I consider the statement . . . from President Wong, welcoming Zionists to campus, equating Jewishness with Zionism . . . to be a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of justice on and off campus.” [Emphasis added.]
And just in case anyone would possibly draw the wrong conclusion from her hateful rhetoric, Abdulhadi clarified that “I am anti-Zionist. I’m not anti-Jew. So don’t call me anti-Semitic.”
In 2017 and 2018, separate lawsuits against SFSU on behalf of Jewish students claimed that the university “has not merely fostered and embraced anti-Jewish hostility — it has systematically supported these departments and student groups as they have doggedly organized their efforts to target, threaten, and intimidate Jewish students on campus and deprive them of their civil rights and their ability to feel safe and secure as they pursue their education.” It is obvious now that the hostile climate created on the SFSU campus is not only the result of student activism on the part of the General Union of Palestine Students, but also, and perhaps more significantly, by the teaching, writing, and participation in anti-Israel events, conferences, and other programs and initiatives by SFSU faculty—and specifically Abdulhadi and her ideological reign of terror against Israel, Zionism, and Jews.
Is there any doubt that professors like Abdulhadi, individuals consumed with blatant hatred for Israel, contempt for those who call themselves Zionists, and a highly-biased, historically-inaccurate, and counterfactual narrative about the Middle East, take their ideology into classrooms?
That they censure and contradict students who have opposing, pro-Israel views?
Or that they are instrumental in influencing student activists and joining in their efforts to engage in BDS activities, demonize Israel and Zionism, and contribute to the hostile climate in which Jewish students, as the lawsuit read, are "often afraid to wear Stars of David or yarmulkes on campus, and regularly text their friends to describe potential safety issues?"
MESA’s tendentious academic mandarins continue to think of themselves as authentic scholars whose work furthers learning and knowledge in Middle East studies. But their actions—promoting academic boycotts solely against Israeli scholars and no other country’s academics—reveal their inherent bias and their inability to rise above their obsession with Israel to the detriment of any valuable scholarship that might be otherwise produced by MESA’s members.
And awarding a professor whose career has been similarly focused on degrading and slandering Israel, Zionism, and its Jewish supporters also reveals the absence of any moral clarity on MESA’s part. That MESA confirms its pathological hatred of the Jewish state by celebrating a professor who has waged a long-standing ideological war against Israel, lauded terrorists who sought to murder Jews, and demonized Zionism, Jews, and Israel itself as manifestations of white supremacy and racism—all of this exposes how intellectually debased and academically irrelevant MESA has become.
Richard L. Cravatts,Ph.D. is a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East