California’s “pepper spray chancellor” stays silent over racist abuse of Arab and Muslim students

Palestine solidarity campaigners have come under attack at UC Davis. (Marcelle Obeid)

Following the recent approval of a resolution to divest from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid at the University of California at Davis, a barrage of hateful, Islamophobic and racist attacks have been launched against Arab and Muslim students — including a student senator.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi condemned the divestment resolution just hours after the vote was passed.

Katehi has traveled to Israel on propaganda trips as a guest of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange and has been amenable to advice from the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Israel lobby group, on how to curb divestment campaigns.

“This [divestment resolution] does not reflect the position of UC Davis or the University of California system,” Katehi stated on Friday, adding that it is the Board of Regents’ “position that this type of call to action will not be entertained.”

After the resolution passed, Arab and Muslim students have been yelled at and called “terrorists” while they walked through campus, according to Azka Fayyaz, a student senator at UC Davis. Extremely racist and Islamophobic remarks have been made against individual students and Arabs and Muslims in general on social media and via personal email messages.

Katehi has yet to respond or condemn the Islamophobic and anti-Arab attacks on her institution’s students, ostensibly giving the green light to let the attacks continue.

Historic hostility

Fayyaz told The Electronic Intifada that these attacks come after at least three years of hostility against Arab and Muslim students and constant attempts by anti-Palestinian individuals to conflate activism by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) with anti-Semitic bigotry.

Anti-Palestinian groups have also claimed that SJP and Muslim student groups are violent and somehow supported by Hamas and Hizballah, Fayyaz added, and claim that such students support “sharia law,” a common Islamophobic trope.

After she posted on the Internet a photo of the celebrations following the divestment resolution victory, with a satirical caption that was meant to mock these racist tropes — “Hamas and Sharia law have taken over UC Davis!” — the harassment has amplified.

“I figured that everyone would be able to discern between satire and fact,” Fayyaz explained, referring to the caption of the photo. “In 2013 and 2014, the anti-divestment community said that Hamas supports our divestment resolution.”

“But I started receiving hate mail, especially messages that asked if I hate Jews, and if I was a Nazi,” she added. “They said that ‘the first step to becoming a Nazi was boycotting Jews’ — really disgusting things that I really can’t believe anyone would think about me.”

During the last ten months of her tenure as student senator, Fayyaz has been constantly harassed by students affiliated with Zionist groups and UC Davis’ Alpha Epsilon Pi, a right-wing Jewish-Zionist fraternity.

“They’ve made it their mission to single-handedly attack me. Their intentions are clear in attacking my position, to suppress any opposition and to slander me while they’re doing it,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

Fayyaz said it was no surprise that “eight senators voted yes [to divestment] and the only one who’s being attacked is me.”

When she posted facts on her personal Facebook page about Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer, for example, Fayyaz said she was harassed by students who had just come back from all-expense paid trips organized by Birthright Israel or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Laying blame

Over the weekend, swastikas were found painted on the walls of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house. No one has claimed responsibility. However, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim individuals were quick to lay blame on Arab students and supporters of the divestment resolution —  especially Fayyaz.

Fayyaz said that she began receiving hate mail that said “that because I’m a ‘Nazi supporter and Jew-hater,’ my comments were somehow motivating to those who painted them.”

A diverse array of prominent student groups including SJP, legal advocates and the student senate president immediately issued a statement condemning the graffiti and the hateful message behind it.

“This reminds us that anti-Semitism, along with all other forms of hate, including, but not limited to, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism and misogyny, still exist and are rampant trans-nationally and on our university campuses,” the statement reads.

“We reject any attempts to blame this on any single student community, including the UC Davis divestment movement.”

UC Davis’ chancellor’s office quickly denounced the graffiti and has referred the matter to the police.

Far-right Zionist websites have published articles blaming Fayyaz and Palestine solidarity organizers for creating an anti-Semitic atmosphere on campus and promoting “terrorism.” Other mainstream outlets have clumsily insinuated that there could be a connection between the Palestinian-led movement urging boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and the hateful vandalism.

On social media, anti-Palestinian individuals have compared the UC Davis Muslim Student Association to “Hitler Youth,” while other posts say “Fuck Muslims” along with other racist tirades against Arabs and Muslims.

The University of California has yet to address or condemn such racist and inciteful attacks.

Israel-aligned groups “violently stalked me”

Fayyaz has posted a personal statement to the UC Davis community explaining her intention at mocking the hateful and racist insinuations against divestment supporters. She also explained a troubling history of attacks leveled against her as a student senator.

The linking of my satirical comments to the painting of swastikas on the Jewish fraternity at UC Davis is a red herring. I am condemning the painting of swastikas on the Jewish fraternity at UC Davis — not because I feel that I should but because it is against my beliefs. Just as my pro-divestment views are rooted in social justice so is my distress over what has transpired at the Jewish fraternity at UC Davis. This is why I stand firmly in my stance on divestment and I reiterate this is not out of hate for anyone but out of love for those facing these injustices every single day and night.

As a veiled, Muslim senator, I have been attacked many times during my term by the anti-divestment community on campus, specifically the leadership of both AEPi [Alpha Epsilon Pi], the Jewish fraternity at UC Davis, and Aggies for Israel, who have made it their mission to harass me over social media and actively censor my online presence during this summer’s atrocious Operation Protective Edge, which resulted in the death of over 2,000 Gazans.

More specifically, these communities have violently stalked me on Facebook and reported the contents of my profile to the Zionist lobby groups which they have been paid to represent. Additionally, student senators and other students affiliated with Aggies for Israel on campus have also yelled Islamophobic slurs at me such as “terrorist” and threatened me by holding my position as an ASUCD [Associated Students at the University of California, Davis] senator hostage over me.

During ASUCD Senate meetings, the anti-divestment community has attacked me and vigorously yelled at me, all because of my affiliations on campus which include predominantly communities of color. Attacks such as these have been directed at me from the day that I assumed the position as an ASUCD senator.

“Incivility” and panic

Sunaina Maira, professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis, told The Electronic Intifada on Monday that the situation on campus is very frustrating but not surprising.

She said that the increased panic and well-financed backlash against the BDS movement by Israel-aligned groups and the Israeli government itself “is a product of the successful campus activism” in recent years.

“Despite years of this grassroots, democratic and very diverse student movement on campus focused on divestment … it seems that the administration and some elements of the media have tried to twist the story and fabricate a narrative about BDS being undemocratic and uncivil, and the students being linked to perpetrators of hate crimes,” she explained. Maira is an advisor for UC Davis’ SJP chapter and an organizing collective member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

By condemning the divestment resolution, Maira said that the UC Davis administration is sending a message “to students that if they follow the democratic process, they will not be listened to — and not only that, they will be condemned.”

Chancellor Katehi is already notorious for being the “pepper spray chancellor” after campus police deployed pepper spray against student activists who peacefully protested tuition hikes in 2011.

“So for the chancellor to respond in this instance with comments that we need to uphold civil liberties and decency — and the administration used words like ‘restrained’ and ‘respect’ — suggests that this movement is somehow unrestrained and it was uncivil,” Maira noted.

“What’s clear is that not only was [the divestment campaign] a highly civil and impeccably self-restrained movement, but they were trying to point out the incivility of Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians and alleged war crimes.”

Amid the relentless racist attacks, Azka Fayyaz has received an overwhelming amount of support from the larger community on and off campus, including from MEChA (the largest Chican@/Latin@ student organization in the US), SJP, the Muslim Students Association, the Black Student Union and South Asian student groups. “I didn’t realize how much support and community I even had,” she said.

Meanwhile, divestment campaigns are spreading despite the attacks and the intransigence of the University of California administration. Two months after the largest UC student-workers union voted in favor of divestment, students across UC campuses are currently calling on the University of California Student Association, the voice of the UC student body, to support divestment system-wide.

In a celebratory statement by student Palestine solidarity campaigners at UC Davis posted on Monday, activists say that they proud to be “part of the new student movement of the twenty-first century, a diverse anti-racist movement that has grown, despite the backlash, intimidation and threats that it has encountered.”




There are many holocaust survivors that are a part of the BDS community. I think this calls for a comparable US strategic campaign where BDS folks that are also holocaust survivors take part in efforts across US campuses to support, discuss and add another perspective.


When I was a senator at UC Davis I spearheaded the disinvitation of military recruiters from campus because -- at the time -- the military still discriminated on the basis of "don't ask, don't tell." I received all sorts of vitriol in my mailbox. However, the situation taught me how truly impotent the ASUCD senate is. The UC system is essentially privatized. The will of the people is ignored. Chancellor Katehi behaves like chancellors of past, with impunity and disregard for anything besides business. However, her predecessor Chancellor Vanderhoef was it accessible and down-to-earth, not residing in an ivory tower. ASUCD senators are mostly all ineffectual egomaniacs. I know because I used to be an egomaniac. That said, I am no longer so arrogant as to believe that most everyone agrees with me. I think that UC Davis should divest, but clearly this situation is not being handled by adults.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).