SFSU and Zoom undermine Palestinians and academic freedom

Fingers hold a smartphone displaying Zoom logo

Zoom holds the power to undercut academic freedom and did so at San Francisco State University.

Mateusz Slodkowski ZUMA Press

In a predictable show of academic branding, San Francisco State University’s website claims that having served as the “home to the nation’s first college of ethnic studies, San Francisco State has a longstanding commitment to inclusiveness and social justice as expressed every day through university programs, initiatives and services.”

But it doesn’t take much digging to discover this “commitment” is disingenuous, particularly when it comes to Palestinians.

On 9 September 2021, a vice president at SFSU sent an email announcing that the university intended to “address and take action on the campus climate experiences of several affinity and identity groups at SF State” by partnering with SF Hillel, Hillel International, and the Academic Engagement Network (AEN). The partnership makes clear the university is prioritizing Zionism – Israel’s state ideology – and reinforcing the false conflation between Jewishness and Zionism.

Hillel poses as an inclusive organization for Jewish students, but is focused on upholding Zionism and combating Palestine activism – to the extent that progressive Jewish students across college campuses have felt the need to found alternative Jewish community organizations.

By partnering with Hillel, a Zionist-nationalist organization, SF State is in fact further marginalizing anti-Zionist Jewish students by limiting its conceptions of anti-Semitism and community empowerment to an issue of the “right” (i.e., pro-Israel) politics.

This is problematic in and of itself. But also concerning is the university’s partnership with the AEN, an organization strongly opposed to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The AEN was founded in 2015 and is headed by former University of California President Mark Yudof. The group claims to support freedom of speech while enforcing repression by constructing BDS and anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic, and advising administrators accordingly.

This is a familiar tactic for Yudof, who played an active role in drafting and endorsing California House Resolution 35, a non-binding piece of legislation that called on universities to combat what the bill’s language termed “anti-Semitic” activity – or, in actual fact, Palestine solidarity activism.

Furthermore, while Yudof was UC president, his Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion produced a report that similarly urged UC officials to stifle Palestine activity for allegedly threatening the sense of well-being of Zionist Jewish students.

We thus have a familiar pattern in place: Zionist Jewish students are made the default for considering questions of campus climate in order to continue to prioritize a Zionist agenda, while the needs of Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ students and students of color (including anti-Zionist Jews of color) are roundly ignored.

Naturally, this transcends Mark Yudof alone.

But Yudof has carved out a unique position in the crackdown on campus Palestine activity that continues to have a noticeable influence. Namely, Yudof has honed the tactic of bringing about censorship while claiming to want to protect free speech and academic freedom.

This is a strategy that continues to be used today to gaslight audiences into believing that the speaker cares about keeping political freedoms intact, while in reality the words in question are used to delegitimize the activity in question.

For instance, University of California, Los Angeles Chancellor Gene Block smeared the 2018 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference at UCLA in the very op-ed piece where he was supposedly defending students’ right to host the conference in spite of Zionist complaints. Block claimed some “fear” that the “controversial” conference would be “infused with anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

This “delegitimizing defense” against Palestine activism on campuses used by figures like Yudof and Block demonizes even as it utilizes language ostensibly attesting to the opposite. It serves to re-marginalize some of the most vulnerable communities on campus while preserving Zionist Jews as the default community whose needs must be centered above all others in a cynical, artificial show of political theater.

Canceling Arabs and Muslims

Why is SF State partnering with Zionist and avowedly anti-BDS organizations that actively reproduce the racist and Islamophobic trope of Palestine research and organizing being inherently anti-Semitic?

And what are Palestinian, Arab and/or Muslim students to make of the fact that the university is proudly declaring these racist and exclusionary partnerships as it continues to eviscerate the only program that was created to house their experiences and narratives?

The Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) studies program was founded in 2006. Led by Rabab Abdulhadi, the program was, according to contractual commitments made by SFSU at Abdulhadi’s hiring, supposed to have been grown with new permanent faculty hire lines.

To this day, Abdulhadi remains the only full-time professor in AMED, as the years that followed the program’s founding saw the university accede to Zionist organizations’ agenda by actively undermining and bureaucratically sabotaging the AMED studies program.

On 23 September 2020, Zoom outrageously canceled an AMED open classroom co-organized by SFSU faculty members Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa that featured Palestinian feminist and liberation icon Leila Khaled in conversation with other paragons of resistance such as Ronnie Kasrils, Rula Abu Dahou, Sekou Odinga and Laura Whitehorn.

Zoom’s cancellation due to pressure from Zionists and an app aligned with the Israeli government effectively meant that the classroom was shut down, and other Big Tech platforms followed suit by similarly blocking the event.

At times, liberal reframing of this event glorifies SFSU President Lynn Mahoney.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s headline claims Mahoney “gets it right” for supposedly opposing Zoom’s censorship of the classroom. But, in fact, Mahoney’s initial comments threw Abdulhadi and Kinukawa under the bus by embracing the Zionist talking point of a link between the open classroom and support for terrorism.

As Mahoney said at the time, “Let me say equally emphatically that we support the right of our faculty to academic freedom and to conducting their teaching and scholarship without censorship. And I say this while also condemning the glorification and use of terrorism and violence, particularly against unarmed civilians.”

Once more, we can see the “delegitimizing defense” at work: by claiming to support “academic freedom” but also falsely vilifying the true nature of the event, Mahoney can project an image of being the “bigger person” and doing everything within her power to support Abdulhadi and Kinukawa, while in reality legitimizing the Zionist narrative.

Big Tech’s dangerous power

And neither Mahoney nor the university at large ever provided Abdulhadi and Kinukawa with an alternative platform to host the classroom. Mahoney explicitly deferred to Zoom’s “right as a private company” to decide on its own accord as a non-academic company what is and isn’t sufficiently academic to warrant being featured as a class on its own platform.

Lost in all of this conversation is the inescapable reality that Zoom has come to wield a comfortable monopoly upon academic programming. If a university contracts with Zoom, and Zoom refuses to host a class, that class will be effectively erased unless the university takes appropriate measures to provide alternative hosting mechanisms.

The notion that the university can simply wash its hands of a Big Tech censorship of its faculty may be par for the course in the neoliberal logic of the corporate academy, but it highlights flagging university dedication to academic freedom, “social justice” (particularly, as in this case, when the material in question is about gender justice and anti-colonial liberation) or – well, really anything, besides profit.

Two sets of grievance hearings have been scheduled via Zoom – ironically – to address San Francisco State University’s abysmal track record of authentic support for academic freedom and meeting its contractual obligations to institutionalize a cutting-edge critical ethnic studies program that prominently foregrounds Palestine as one crucial component of what Rabab Abdulhadi calls “the indivisibility of justice.”

The first, which took place on 30 September, focused on the university’s failure to uphold the academic freedom of Abdulhadi and Kinukawa by refusing to host the open classroom in light of Zoom’s cancellation.

Despite the fact that the hearing was supposed to be public, SFSU’s administration delayed online entry for some attempting to listen to developments.

Sang Hea Kil, chair of the California Faculty Association’s Anti-Racism and Social Justice Transformation Committee at San Jose State University, acted as Abdulhadi’s representative for the proceedings. She told me that this “should be like any public event on campus that is open.”

Instead, she said, the university asked some would-be attendees for their names and university affiliations and delayed entry.

Kil added, “My demand to have these errors on the record helped to correct the problem mid-hearing. But how many people were denied? I don’t know.”

The second grievance hearing, to take place on 19 October, will address over a decade of attacks on Abdulhadi and the AMED studies program that have been perpetrated and upheld by SFSU. Hopefully, the outcome of these grievance hearings will be in favor of meaningful restitution on the part of the university.

Of course, SFSU is not alone – and that’s precisely the point. SFSU’s administration can continue to violate the rights of Abdulhadi and Kinukawa and undercut AMED while misrepresenting its work with Zionist institutions as authentic community uplift because of the nationwide normalization of anti-Palestinian racism across university campuses.

It’s time we take power back into our hands and mobilize in support of AMED studies, Abdulhadi and Kinukawa, and against institutionalized anti-Palestinian racism and repression across the country.

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as being a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).