In January, Abusalama was suspended from her teaching position by administrators at Sheffield Hallam University amid a smear campaign by supporters of Israel.
University administrators launched an investigation following a complaint over her social media posts which criticized Israel and its state ideology, Zionism.
But following a massive support campaign and public outcry, the university reinstated her position.
Abusalama did not initially accept the reinstatement offer, demanding that the investigation be dropped first, as it was prompted by malicious smears and bolstered by the IHRA “definition” of anti-Semitism, which is regularly used by Israel lobby groups to smear and censor supporters of Palestinian rights by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.
On 3 February, the university dropped its investigation and offered her a more secure contract. She has resumed teaching her classes.
However, the attacks have not stopped.Abusalama tells us that the university’s decision “to reinstate me and drop the investigation is very welcome.”
“But I don’t think any Palestinian, or any anti-Zionist, would be safe in any environment” that has the IHRA definition in place or the UK’s Prevent strategy, a “counterterrorism” campaign that has focused on Palestinian rights campaigners, she adds.
“I was born with this burden with the cause, a cause of my grandparents who were uprooted from their lands – my great-grandfather was shot as he stood by a tree, and my grandparents waited in refugee camps in Jabaliya, specifically, north of Gaza,” Abusalama tells us.
“All their lives basically waiting to return when this right was barred, due to racist ideologies and practices. … And you could imagine the motivations of such a lived experience that would make me vocal in any possible way, trying to expose these things that the international community failed to act upon,” she explains.
Fassina notes that what concerns him and his colleagues is “how the IHRA has been really used to silence lawful speech on Palestine, and how this contributes to a chilling effect.”
He adds that it is “important to stress that in the last two years, we’ve been providing support to dozens of academics and students across the UK who are being subjected to investigations based on inflammatory allegations of anti-Semitism because of what they tweeted or posted on social media.”
But “it is absolutely possible to push back,” he says.
Articles we discussed
- “Victory: Palestinian teacher defeats Israel lobby smears,” Nora Barrows-Friedman
- “UK Israel lobby takes aim at Palestinian university lecturer,” Nora Barrows-Friedman
Video production by Tamara Nassar
Theme music by Sharif Zakout
Subscribe to The Electronic Intifada Podcast on Apple Podcasts (search for The Electronic Intifada) and on Spotify. Support our podcast by rating us, sharing and leaving a review, and you can also donate to fund our work.
Lightly edited for clarity.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. Today we’re talking to Shahd Abusalama about the situation she just experienced as an activist and assistant lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the north of England. Shahd is also a longtime contributor to The Electronic Intifada. In late January, as we reported, the university suspended Shahd from her position amid a smear campaign by supporters of Israel. Administrators launched an investigation following a complaint over her social media posts which criticized Israel and its state ideology, Zionism. But following a massive support campaign and public outcry, the university reinstated her a week later. Shahd did not initially accept the reinstatement offer, demanding that the investigation be dropped first as it was prompted by malicious smears and bolstered by the IHRA so-called definition of anti-Semitism, which is regularly used by Israel lobby groups to smear and censor supporters of Palestinian rights by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.
On February 3, the university dropped its investigation and offered her a more secure contract. She has resumed teaching her classes. However, the university still has not released details on who or which groups filed the complaint against Shahd. And the smears are still coming. Just a few days ago, the Jewish Chronicle, a far-right publication which has targeted Shahd and countless other Palestinian activists before, published a statement by a Zionist group on campus accusing the university of fostering a “hostile environment” for Jewish students.
Joining us to talk about what happened and how she’s continuing to fight back is Shahd Abusalama and her lawyer, Giovanni Fassinai at the European Legal Support Centre. Shahd and Giovanni, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
Shahd Abusalama: Thank you so much for having us.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: So first off, Shahd, this has been a total whirlwind for you for the last three or four weeks – I encourage our readers and viewers to go back through the reports I wrote about your case, where they can find many of the details. We’ll put those links up on the blog post that accompanies this. But in your own words, tell us about the significance of the university dropping its investigation against you and why you were targeted by supporters of Israel in the first place.
Shahd Abusalama: I think I should answer the latter question before the first. So I am targeted for simply being Palestinian. I am just speaking about my experiences under Israel’s oppressive structures and the realities that anyone from Gaza would be able to understand. And – I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s okay, take your time.
Shahd Abusalama: It’s just because I just came back from teaching. And that was triggering, to be honest.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Just being back at the university with everything that’s happened. Yeah.
Shahd Abusalama: So I’m only utilizing my voice, my words, my experiences in order to expose the crimes that I grew up under and demand accountability for them. And justice is long overdue for the Palestinians. I was born with this burden with the cause – a cause of my grandparents who were uprooted from their lands, my great-grandfather was shot as he stood by a tree, and my grandparents waited in refugee camps in Jabaliya, specifically, north of Gaza. All their lives basically waiting to return when this right was barred, due to racist ideologies and practices. Some of my grandparents actually tried to return, but they were shot at. And we know that 5,000 people, 5,000 Palestinians, simply refugees who were trying to go back to their lands between 1948 and 1956, they were shot just for returning to their lands, shot dead. And this is to reinforce Israel’s colonial borders. And I grew up in Gaza, in the world’s largest open-air prison that was made as such due to these colonial borders that separated us from our original lands, villages that we grew up hearing about from our grandparents, and they’re completely actually erased, and new developments are made on top of them.
Of course, this is part of covering their active memorycide against the Palestinians. And, and we sit so close, and they sit so close holding up to this – to the land, to this feeling that they had at those times, and they never had ever since. They were dispossessed and demeaned, and subjugated under military occupation, and I was born into an occupation. And you could imagine the motivations of such a lived experience that would make me vocal in any possible way, trying to expose these things that the international community failed to act upon. We are living in a reality where Palestine continues to be the exception to the rule, as Israel is continuing to be treated as a state above law. And racism is increasingly not tolerated except when it’s practiced against the Palestinians. And this is why, to be honest, whenever I think of what I’ve just experienced, it comes back not just to the treatment of the university, you know, it’s not only that that comes back to the surface as if it just happened.
But my whole life, literally just, you know, rushes before my eyes, because they understand this as part of this historical pattern that insists on dehumanizing the Palestinians. And that I insist on resisting. I was silenced by the Zionist press with unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism, for simply speaking about the Palestinian people’s right to freedom, justice and equality, and return to their dispossessed lands. And I wasn’t even given a chance to provide my side of the story. And the Zionist narrative immediately took more legitimacy than my existence and my story. And I am their staff member. I’m a module leader. I’m not a teaching assistant. I’m a module leader. And I have 30 students that I’m responsible for, and the university’s responsible for them, as well, not just for me. And for the university to disrupt my life and disrupt the education of its paying students and capitulate to Zionist pressure that just shows that colonialism is not over. And colonial culture, imperial culture, is very contemporary.
It’s the reason why people like George Floyd would be shot dead without a second thought, or Iyad Hallaq would be shot dead, just because he didn’t answer back. And the reason why, as well, we don’t hear in the news, that Sheikh Jarrah, for example, is undergoing a physical erasure and ethnic cleansing is happening right now as we speak, and settlers are invading people’s, our people’s towns and neighborhoods, threatening them to burn them alive. And they shout in the middle of the streets, “death to Arabs” shamelessly. If an Arab says something similar, we would immediately be scandalized on all front lines. But because the perpetrator here is Israel, they can enjoy doing that with immunity, knowing that the world will just let it go. Well, we are fighting to reclaim our narrative, to call things as they are, and to destruct these processes that contribute to our dehumanization and the violence enacted on us in both military and discursive ways. Thank you, Nora.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you, Shahd. Giovanni, you and your colleagues at the European Legal Support Centre track violations of civil rights in cases such as Shahd’s. Can you walk us through the potential violations that Sheffield Hallam University could have made in their kind of reflexive decision to not just suspend Shahd at the beginning, but also launch an investigation without telling Shahd or her legal team who had filed the complaints, the nature of the complaints themselves? Can you talk about what happened from a legal point of view?
Giovanni Fassina: Yeah, I mean, of course, we are of the opinion that the fact that the university has decided to not, you know, investigate Shahd at the end, you know, they haven’t breached any law or any policy. Anyway, we must say that this is a common practice of the university to act like that, because the policies of the university and when it comes to disciplinary proceedings, yeah, indeed, unfortunately, they allow them to not reveal the name of a complainant and are very vague and drafted in a very generic manner. So it is not stated very clearly, that they have to provide immediately what the allegations are. So the whole procedure, I would say, it’s regulated in a very, very broad manner, they are not very specific. Okay. So having said that, we consider the potential investigation against Shahd put under restriction her ability to fully enjoy her right to freedom of expression.
So we were claiming violation of freedom of expression in the sense of freedom to impart information. Okay, and we were considering that that will be unlawful and that would have been an arbitrary interference with her freedom of expression. And also, the start of an investigation could have constituted also a form of unlawful direct discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief, meaning, anti-Zionism as a form of philosophical belief, and also race and religion, so as a Palestinian Muslim, and also potentially a form of unlawful indirect discrimination, that discrimination means when you’re setting, I would say, let’s say an environment where you adopt a specific policy, but at the end targets a specific group of people, in this case would target anti-Zionism, but also Palestinians. So that could potentially be some – these are some arguments we made. But what is particularly concerning is, I mean, what happened is really illustrative on how the IHRA has been really used to silence lawful speech on Palestine, and how this contributes to a chilling effect. For us it’s important to stress that in the last two years, we’ve been providing support to dozens of academics and students across the UK, who are being subjected to investigations based on inflammatory allegations of anti-Semitism, because of what they tweeted or posted on social media. And, you know, the crazy thing was that in most of these cases, like all the social media, where social media posts that were made even before these people were enrolling in university or before they were working. And we’ll show that the complainants were literally going on your profile and scrolling it all over and see what they can find, which shows a kind of malicious intent in our opinion.
And also, in all these cases, the complainants were using the IHRA when making the complaints, because the university just adopted the definition. And so, because they just adopted the definition, and we’re speaking of videos about one year ago, you know, there was a lot of confusion and the university still didn’t know what to do with this definition. And so they felt kind of obliged to open immediately the investigation on this ground. The majority of the complainants knew this very well, and they use it as a tactic to scare academic students. I must say, all these attempts have failed for the time because all the complaints, all the cases we were working on were successfully assessed – all the complaints were all dismissed. All of them. And we’re talking about, yeah, at least, cases involving at least 20, 25 people, maybe, at different universities. Yeah, and, again, the arguments we’re making are that this is unlawful, arbitrary interference with freedom of expression which constitutes discrimination. But then there are many others indeed, like, you cannot investigate like a personal post she wrote before even having a position with this public body. The cases are successful, and it is absolutely possible to push back. And so I really want to reinforce this message.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks. And yeah, I mean, continuing on the topic of the IHRA, Shahd, you expressed that you weren’t done even though, you know, you had claimed victory over this malicious smear campaign and these accusations and the suspension of your classes and the investigation, all of that. You’ve said that the fight isn’t over because the IHRA is still in place, not just at Sheffield Hallam where you teach but all over the UK. Can you talk about the next step in your fight? You’re not just like resting on your laurels as they say, but you are stepping up the challenge to the IHRA, something that you had been involved in from the start when the IHRA was being adopted by universities in the UK. Can you talk about what that fight looks like now?
Shahd Abusalama: Yeah. I mean, of course, the university’s decision to reinstate me and drop the investigation is very welcome. But I don’t think any Palestinian, or any anti-Zionist, would be safe in any environment that has the IHRA on top of Prevent strategy. They’re conveniently used to silence Palestine. And I think what happened to me is making everyone clear it could have been any of them, it could have been any of them. And, and it’s probably actually, you know, that if we want to look at it positively, it actually served having a Palestinian be the first victim to this tool in my university, because it just showed that we are going to be the most vulnerable to it. And when we were talking, when you were fighting it seriously and not heard, we had legitimate concerns that could affect our future, and our life, our people’s life, back home, too. And these are not separate. And so, of course, having these repressive laws must be challenged. And if we care about basic values of the academy, then we have to question the imposition of such a flawed definition of anti-Semitism by governments on educational institutions. We have to question this.
And we have to be able to say that this is – whether we agree or not on the content, but this is an intervention into the university’s autonomy. And it just shows the influence that the Israeli lobby has in this country. Many people would argue that Islamophobia is far more prominent in the UK. Why aren’t there any specific laws being imposed by the government on institutions like this to ensure that Muslim people are safe? But it just – it just shows the amount of forces we are fighting against. And the systematic, really, racism that we’re dealing with in this case. Yes, the fight is definitely not over. And we have to remind people who are listening, that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism deliberately conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism to protect Israel from accountability. And this is something that should be seen no clearer than ever, especially with the developments on the ground. And the fact that a lot more Jews, like quite substantial, Jews around the world are speaking against Zionism and saying that this is not in our name, and no religion would endorse crimes of ethnic cleansing, crimes of apartheid.
So, and even like in the fact that seven of 11 examples that are listed under the IHRA are focused on Israel, that in itself shows how political this tool is, and how it’s designed to silence the Palestinians, and their supporters, their allies. And of course, we’re not going to let this happen. And we’re going to fight it until the end. And we have a mandate within the university, actually, in my support, in support of Palestine. And if you look closely, the university’s own policies and their own values should be, in theory, on our side and against such repressive tools. But unfortunately, when it comes to practice, it’s not like that. And we see racism reproduced. So yeah, we have strong support in my university. The UCU [University and College Union] has been brilliant. And the ELSC as well has been phenomenal, and has given us a lot of power. And I guess everything all like this, the rage that my case galvanized showed us what we can do when we come united against oppression. And I guess this is, this is the thing that we should take forward as we continue to fight until Israeli apartheid is defeated.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. As you said, What happened to you has happened to many other Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists and academics, people who just criticize or question Israel’s policies. What kind of advice can you give to those who are facing these kinds of attacks, whether it’s in the UK, or in Europe, or in the US, you know, who are being repeatedly targeted by Zionist groups and racist publications, trying to get them to stay silent? And not even rock the boat politically, especially if their employment could be at stake? What have you learned from this experience that you can share with others going through this?
Shahd Abusalama: Yeah, I think we just need to be strong, and mobilize, mobilize effectively, with grassroots communities, with everybody who could help, and who could alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians. This cannot be acceptable to anyone, and it cannot be acceptable to the Palestinians. And Israel is a settler-colonial apartheid regime that exists at the expense of uprooting the Palestinians and dehumanizing them, and keeping as maximum as possible, in as minimum land as possible. And it’s clear now, clearer than ever. And we are not short of evidence on the criminality and the cruelty of the Israeli state. And this is not safe to anyone. Because as we see, Israel is actually exporting a model of oppression to other oppressive regimes around the world to use against their unwanted others. And this is happening in India now, under Modi’s government against the Kashmiris, and in the US, it has been happening for ages.
And, of course, we don’t have a choice but to fight. Because these are our lives. These are not abstract issues. I mean, I do go teach post-colonial media culture and I, and, you know, I feel like I’m speaking about my life and the Palestinian experience and you know, even if we can expand it to every racialized person’s experience, it is our life, our life that we’re talking about. And it has an impact beyond the boundaries of Palestine. And we see this. And so we really need to stand our ground and just remember that we have the mandate of human rights conventions, international law, the Hague, the United Nations, so many resolutions that are just waiting to be implemented.
And we have to keep going until it’s done. And this is what, you know, we just saw – five years of grassroots campaigning against Elbit Systems in Oldham. And many people thought this is not going to do anything because Israel is so powerful and dadadadada, but they did force Elbit, Israel’s giant arms company, to shut its doors and leave their communities. And the people of South Africa forced apartheid down. With the help of the international community, the Algerian people forced France out of their land. They put an end to colonialism and brutality. And we have to do this, like this is a matter of life and death for the Palestinians. And we see that and we can’t breathe, honestly, we can’t breathe because we wake up to oppression that eats us up every day. And in order to breathe, we speak. We just – we expose. And we’ve tried to exist, despite all the barriers that are trying to silence us and erase us. And we’re going to continue doing so until Palestine is liberated. And that is going to be a good day not just for the Palestinians, but for the whole world.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It will. Giovanni, same question to you. What advice can you give students, activists, academics who are facing these kinds of attacks and smear campaigns? What’s your best advice?
Giovanni Fassina: Well, I mean, for organizers, for people having issues in the United States, I would definitely advise to get in touch with Palestine Legal. Palestine Legal has a team of, I don’t know how many, almost 10 attorneys who are amazing. They – I mean, they are the absolute best people you could get in touch with because there is a lot of experience and they achieve amazing successes. And yeah, they’re movement lawyers, so they are great, both as lawyers and politically, I would say. Then, when it comes to Europe when something like this happens, I mean, some basic advice is, first of all, do not rush. Do not act impulsively. The most important thing is to strategize. When these kinds of attacks take place, it’s a really important strategy because the attack is meant to make you go crazy, and act in a rush.
So the most important thing is immediately establish a network of supporters which can be friends, colleagues and organizations. Okay, of course, the first thing would be getting contact with us because we can help you to do this. And of course, we take care mostly of the legal part. But just make sure that, you know, the legal part is as important as the political [strategy] and the advocacy one, because the two things go together really. So, yeah, get in contact with us, if you go on our website, it’s very, very easy, you can write to report an incident, and we will get back to you immediately. But yes, in general, it’s strategize – because as more radical we want to be, as more strategic we need to be. It is a matter of fact. And then according to [the situation], you will see, sometimes it’s important to go public immediately, sometimes it will be better to wait. So it really, really depends. I mean, we work mainly in the UK, Netherlands, in Germany, but when these things come for people in the UK, I mean, we have a legal officer working full time doing this. And we coordinate a lot also with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who always help us a lot on these kind of cases, and give us really good advice. So yeah, these are my basic suggestions.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s great. And we’ll put the link to the website for the ELSC on the blog post. Finally, Shahd, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers and viewers who have been closely following your situation? What else would you want to say?
Shahd Abusalama: First I want to thank you Nora, because you were a great support in the past period. Thank you so much. And the whole Electronic Intifada squad has been brilliant, and I’m just like, I’m so proud to be part of you. And I’ve actually learned a lot you know, like, when I started writing, I was barely 20. I learned a lot from you, and I was reading you and like, you sort of expanded my horizon. And like, I wasn’t feeling like I was living in a prison anymore. And it was something that actually The Electronic Intifada made me feel it and I was – I was free despite the shackles. I was free with my voice.
And I think this is something that Palestinians really need to feel like they – we are not helpless. We can change and we have – every one of us is an agent of change. And we have tools that we can use in order to break the prison walls. And really, thank you for everybody – this collective action and the “killing rage” – in order to use bell hooks – may she rest in peace and power. I mean, this, this rage that my case galvanized is what made things backfire on the Zionists. And, of course, they’re very angry now. They’re very, very angry. And ever since I’ve been reinstated, the circle of attack is actually getting wider and nastier, and they stoop lower and lower. And I’m getting negative media and threats, emails, trolls, you name it.
But of course I have to stay strong. And I’m not going to be surprised from, you know, the people or the regime that uprooted my grandparents and imprisoned my father and killed my cousins, and then subjugated us to a life of terror under the frequent bombardment of Gaza – it’s expected to chase you and try to silence you outside Palestine. And we know that silencing of the Palestinians is not a new phenomenon. It’s something that has repeated itself across the history of Palestinian resistance and the agents of change, the cultural agents of change specifically were also targeted by means of arbitrary detention and assassination. Let’s not forget Ghassan Kanafani, an artist, novelist, a freedom fighter. And, and he was shot, I mean, sorry, assassinated in a car bomb with his niece, 17-years-old, next to him, they don’t care and they will do anything to protect the Israeli apartheid state and it is our moral duty to fight against this.
So thank you, we are stronger every day. And I feel really like despite all the oppression that we feel in every cell of our bodies, we also feel breezes of freedom. And we see that in Sheikh Jarrah and the people who are fighting with their own bodies just holding on to their homes. We see that and the people of Gaza who continue to exemplify such an amazing demonstration of dignity despite all the terror and dehumanization they’re subjugated to. And yes, we teach life, as Rafeef Ziadah said, and I hope that yeah, justice is around the corner. Until then, let’s stay strong.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Shahd Abusalama, you are a light and a gem. And I thank you so much on behalf of all of, you know, my colleagues at The Electronic Intifada, we are with you. Thank you and Giovanni Fassina of the European Legal Support Centre. Thank you so much for all that you do. And we’ll come back to you both very soon. I’m sure. Shahd you’re always welcome to submit stories to us again when you have some time away from teaching. And thank you both so much.