California professor under attack for hosting Palestinian lawmaker

MK Haneen Zoabi is facing investigation by Israel’s parliament over her recent criticisms of the state’s claims to be Jewish and democratic. (Circuito Fora do Eixo)

A UC Berkeley lecturer is under attack for hosting an event with a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament who challenged Israel’s claim to be a democracy.

The campaign to punish Hatem Bazian in California comes amid renewed attempts in South Carolina to codify a definition of anti-Semitism which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

On 17 April, Bazian facilitated an event at UC Berkeley with Haneen Zoabi, a member of Israel’s Knesset.

Zionist students are calling for the university to take disciplinary action against Bazian for hosting Zoabi and defending the content of her speech.

This latest attack is part of “an ongoing series of targeting BDS activists and individuals who continue to do work on Palestine in the US,” Bazian told The Electronic Intifada, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Haneen Zoabi is an elected politician who advocates for Israel to give full, equal rights to all its citizens.

She is one of approximately 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. They are the survivors and their descendants of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. While nominally citizens with a right to vote and be elected, they live under dozens of laws giving them inferior status because they are not Jews.

During her US speaking tour, Zoabi reportedly called Israel’s claim to be a Jewish and democratic state “absurd,” citing as an example Israel’s Law of Return – which bars Palestinian refugees from returning to their homeland solely because they are not Jews, while granting citizenship to anyone in the world Israel recognizes as Jewish.

She is one of a handful of politicians in the Israeli parliament who challenge the state’s legalized discrimination against its Palestinian citizens, its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria’s Golan Heights, as well as the regular genocidal rhetoric against Palestinians by Israeli leaders.

Because of this, she has faced unrelenting attacks by her Zionist Jewish colleagues in the Knesset, the Israeli media and by Israel’s supporters abroad.

This week, lawmakers in the Knesset announced plans to hold a hearing on Zoabi’s remarks while in the US.

In a sign of the crackdown lawmakers who call for equal rights are facing, the Knesset this month barred another Palestinian member, Yousef Jabareen, from traveling to the US for a lecture tour sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace. Jabareen is challenging the decision in court.

During the event at UC Berkeley, a group of Zionist students protested Zoabi as she lectured by holding posters next to her, with one claiming that she is “complicit in terrorism.”

The students wore T-shirts bearing the word “Zionist” in Arabic.

Students then sent a letter of complaint to the university’s chancellor, demanding that Bazian face “immediate administrative action” for promoting an event they described as “anti-Semitic.”

The Israel-aligned students also launched a petition calling on the university to discipline Bazian.

The complaint alleges that Zoabi made “preposterous claims” about Israel’s well-documented human rights abuses and expulsion of Palestinians, and that Zoabi “openly called for the elimination of Israel” – apparently because she was advocating for a state that does not privilege one religious or ethnic group over others.

The group behind the smear campaign at UC Berkeley is Tikvah, a Zionist campus group that has a long history of smearing Bazian and Students for Justice in Palestine.

Students for Justice in Palestine launched their own petition to defend Bazian against “the mischaracterization, bullying and blatant racism” of Tikvah and off-campus Zionist groups “in their continued attempts to suppress open discussion and honest academic analysis” of Israel’s occupation.

More than 2,600 people have signed the petition in support of Bazian.

Ramping up

Bazian said he has faced relentless accusations of anti-Semitism meant to silence his criticisms of Israel ever since he began teaching at UC Berkeley as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Zionist groups on and off campus may be ramping up these tactics due to the pending confirmation of Kenneth Marcus to head the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Marcus will have the authority to open new investigations against students and faculty who are critical of Israel while determining policies that could stifle speech and political organizing on US campuses.

Marcus, who has headed the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, an Israel lobby organization, is known for filing numerous civil rights complaints to the US Department of Education claiming that universities fail to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.

Using a tactic Marcus pioneered, members of Tikvah filed a federal complaint with the Department of Education in 2012 against the University of California, alleging that the university allowed “discrimination” against Jewish students to occur by tolerating the “development of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses.”

The Department of Education threw out the complaint in 2013 along with similar claims filed against the University of California.

An earlier version of the same lawsuit was dismissed in 2011 by a federal judge who had determined that Israel advocates failed to support their claims of anti-Semitism.

South Carolina censorship

It is no surprise that Marcus’ Brandeis Center is backing pending legislation to define anti-Semitism at public colleges and universities in South Carolina to include criticism of Israel and its state ideology, Zionism.

The measure would codify a discredited definition of anti-Semitism pushed by Israel lobby groups in the US and Europe that conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

This definition is sometimes referred to as the “State Department Definition” because a version of it was adopted by the US State Department.

Notably, the lead author of the original definition, former American Jewish Committee executive Kenneth Stern, has strongly opposed efforts to enshrine it in legislation, arguing that it could lead to unconstitutional censorship.

Yet the South Carolina measure, which was added as a rider on the 2018-2019 budget bill, would require state-funded institutions to use this definition when investigating alleged incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses.

Its chief sponsor is state representative Alan Clemmons, a self-described Christian Zionist who holds pro-Israel views so extreme that he has attacked Jewish students who criticize Israel as “anti-Semitic.”

If the legislation is enacted, students could face “increased scrutiny, investigations, censorship and possibly punishment for speech and activities that are critical of Israel and Israeli government policies,” warned civil rights group Palestine Legal.

The law will “set up public colleges and universities to be required to violate free speech rights,” Palestine Legal’s Rahul Saksena told The Electronic Intifada.

While recent state-based legislative efforts to suppress the BDS movement also violate the First Amendment, Saksena warned that “these efforts to codify the so-called State Department definition of anti-Semitism will have a much bigger and much more problematic impact in terms of Palestine advocacy on the ground and on college campuses in particular.”

Palestine Legal notes that similar efforts to codify this definition of anti-Semitism into law have failed due to constitutional concerns in the US Congress and in Virginia.

In 2016, the University of California adopted a vague statement linking anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism, under pressure from Israel advocacy groups.

Palestine Legal warned at the time that the wording, part of a report on “intolerance,” would be exploited by those seeking to censor criticism of Israel.

According to Bazian, Israel lobby pressure on the University of California aims to criminalize speech and restrict freedom of expression by faculty.

He said that challenging South Carolina’s pending legislation, as well as the mounting attempts to censor speech by faculty across the US, is “a prolonged fight.”




Clearly presenting this Palestinian politician was not anti-Semitic. It is a total absurdity to equate every criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It is a fraudulent way to silence critics of Israel and stifle free speech. Also significant numbers of younger Jewish people and some of us older folks, have exactly the same criticisms of Israel and our voice are entitled to be heard as well.

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).