Leila Khaled owes her international fame to two things: she used to hijack planes, and female hijackers remain an object of fascination. You can find her face on T-shirts, in part because some advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel love her.
As I’ve written before, that’s strange because, as Khaled has indicated any number of times, she is in favor of violence against Israel, whereas BDS sells itself as a nonviolent movement. It’s almost as if BDS isn’t dedicated to nonviolence, except as an adjunct to violence.
Khaled remains in the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other nations, and still very much in the terror business. A PFLP cell is suspected in a bombing that killed seventeen-year-old Israeli, Rina Shnerb, as recently as last year.
In 2020, thanks to the magic of Zoom, San Francisco State University, whose track record on these matters is not great, can hear from Khaled without worrying about her getting stopped at the border. The event at which she will be virtually appearing is being promoted by an academic program, the cumbersomely-named Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies, which sits in SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies. Rabab Abdulhadi, from that program, and Tomomi Kinukawa, from Women’s Studies, are co-moderators.
This event, I think, is protected by academic freedom and, at a public university like SFSU, the First Amendment. But it seems safe to assume that the co-moderators, who examined in April the “direct connections between Israeli Zionism and [a] Japanese far-right government that denies its own history of colonial violence and war-time crimes,” are not there to ask Khaled tough questions. Ethnic studies is a self-consciously politicized field that has no qualms about using the academy to promote radical politics. That’s one reason the adoption of a new ethnic studies requirement at state universities in California should be bigger news than it is.
The real story here is less the event itself—Abdulhadi and Kinukawa’s April event doesn’t seem to have generated much interest, even at San Francisco State—than the mainstreaming of this kind of thing in the academy. Abdulhadi just this year received an award from the American Association of University Professors, even though her career has been dedicated to undermining the distinction between teaching and propagandizing on which the AAUP’s defense of academic freedom relies.
Last year, The Women’s Resource Center at San Diego State was compelled to apologize for using images of Khaled in one of its newsletters. That the Center apologized tells us that Khaled isn’t, after all, quite mainstream. But that she made her way into that most bureaucratic of productions, a newsletter put out by an academic administrative unit, also tells us that the cocktail of violence, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism that Khaled represents causes no one to bat an eyelash until someone points a finger.
As the United Arab Emirates abandons its longstanding boycott of Israel, the boycotters are doubling down at SFSU. Perhaps because no one much cares about them, small programs like Abdulhadi’s can afford to hug a terrorist on Zoom. But what can be said of more mainstream elements within our colleges and universities that wink at or reward this kind of behavior? Nothing flattering.