Last year, I wrote about a settlement in the case of Volk v. Board of Trustees. At the center of that case was one incident, in which the Jewish campus organization, Hillel, was intentionally excluded from the “Know Your Rights” fair at San Francisco State University (SFSU). That exclusion is part of a broader movement to permit only Jews approved by anti-Israel activists into “progressive” events.
California State University, whose system included SFSU, opted to settle. It had commissioned its own investigation, which left the facts of the matter beyond dispute. SFSU concluded that it had violated its own standards “for inclusion and respect expected of all members of our University community.”
Since the facts of the matter were not in dispute, apologists were compelled to put their cards on the table. Only anti-Zionist groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace (whose involvement in spreading anti-Semitic poison has been a resume-builder in some circles), should be welcome at progressive events. Among the most prominent advocates for this view was Rabab Abdulhadi, a professor of ethnic studies at SFSU. The organizers of the “Know Your Rights” fair had merely “refused to allow a member of a privileged white group whose members feel entitled to be represented everywhere and anywhere” to table at an event. Get it? These people want their long fingers in everything!
This is merely par for the course for Abdulhadi, who believes that Jews who favor the existence if a Jewish state—that is most Jews—should be unwelcome not only at particular events but at the university altogether. When Leslie Wong, then president of SFSU, foolishly refused to affirm that Zionists were welcome on campus, he had the good sense to apologize. Abdulhadi objected to the apology as a “declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of justice on and off campus.” She demanded the “immediate retraction” of the “racist, Islamophobic and colonialist” apology. A few days, later, in case anyone doubted precisely what in the apology she found objectionable, she would add “Zionists are NOT welcomed on our campuses.”
Were it not for the context—Wong was, among other things, taking steps to acknowledge a frequently-wronged party on campus—Abdulhadi’s comments would register as merely absurd. Yes, Abdulhadi is dead set against the free exchange of ideas, but surely no one would take a person capable of such statements seriously. Right? Wrong.
This year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), gave Abdulhadi its Georgina M. Smith Award. The award is for a “person or persons who provided exceptional leadership in a given year in improving the status of academic women or in academic collective bargaining and through that work improved the profession in general.” The AAUP’s statement makes it clear that Abdulhadi received the award not despite but because of her approach to advancing “social change in Palestine” and elsewhere.
Perversely, she who would exclude Zionists from campus and who, as far as I can tell, has never encountered a specific charge of anti-Semitism on the left that she has not dismissed as an invention of the “Israel lobby,” is now honored by the AAUP as a builder of coalitions and a champion of human rights. She for whom the boycott of Israel is the very center of her “pro-Palestinian” activism is honored for that very activism by an organization that explicitly opposes academic boycotts.
The AAUP has been at many times in its history a vital voice in the defense of academic freedom and a thoughtful contributor to discussions of the professional standards academics can be expected to honor. As colleges and universities, facing greater and lesser financial problems as a result of the pandemic, move to eliminate faculty positions, the AAUP will be an important resource for faculty members looking to safeguard their rights. The AAUP has also struggled with, from early on, a tendency to let its commitment to academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, and the distinctive vocation of the scholar be overshadowed by the attachment of members to the progressive cause of the day. This tendency reaches its zenith in the AAUP’s praise of Abdulhadi, who “transcends the division between scholarship and activism that encumbers traditional university life.”
In fact, as the AAUP’s own 1915 Declaration of Principles avers, the defense of academic freedom greatly depends on the perception and reality of the university as a “nonpartisan institution of learning” and on the willingness of professors themselves to police the boundaries between the spirit of scholarship and the spirit of “uncritical and intemperate partisanship.”
In offering an award to professor Abdulhadi, the AAUP has damaged its credibility at a moment when it can use every shred. Somehow, in the course of spitting in the face of those who, with good reason, consider Abdulhabi deserving of censure, not awards, the AAUP has spit in its own face.