A row over a relationship between San Francisco State University and a university in the West Bank has reached Congress, where a memorandum of understanding between SFSU and An-Najah National University is being challenged.
An-Najah has been accused of fostering an environment of violence and terror, and is broadly seen in that light by Israelis. The largest university in the West Bank and Gaza, An-Najah has a long history of politically extreme connections.
In 2013, Hamas was re-introduced to student council elections through students with strong ties to the terrorist organization, Al-Monitor reported at the time. The move was seen to signal a return by Hamas to West Bank politics, as Palestinian universities are traditionally closely tied to Palestinian political life.
Last April the Middle East Forum (MEF), a Philadelphia-based conservative nonprofit group, alerted Congress to the relationship between the two schools. MEF argues that the relationship presents a potential security risk due to exchanges between faculty members and students.
"An-Najah is a hotbed of Islamist radicalism," the organization wrote in a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Going back to at least 2001, clear documentation exists that prominent current and former students from An-Najah were directly involved in terrorism, as well as pro-terrorist propaganda and incitement."
An-Najah is based in Nablus, a city of about 120,000 people in the northern West Bank that was a violent flashpoint during the second intifada. Fighting and skirmishes there between 2001 and 2005 left scores of bullet holes in walls and windows that are still visible today.
Posters of people from Nablus killed during that period and since then, including some who carried out terrorist attacks, are still plastered on the outside of buildings around the city, which Israeli citizens are strictly forbidden from entering.
During a reception with faculty in April 2015, SFSU's president, Leslie Wong, publicly lauded the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with An-Najah.
"It was really easy for me to sign the agreement with An-Najah University," said Wong. He added that after a trip to the West Bank in 2013, he decided he wanted SFSU to be one of the first universities to sign an agreement with An-Najah or "any of the other universities in the Arab world."
"I feel deeply that it was not only the right thing to do, but this university should have done it twenty years ago, fifty years ago," said Wong. "We are playing a little bit of catch up, but that's okay."
State law gives university presidents within the California State University system the authority to sign agreements such as MOUs with foreign institutions. Despite criticism over the relationship, Wong said he stands behind the decision.
Still, the relationship between An-Najah and SFSU is not listed among the numerous official international partnerships on SFSU's website. A search, however, does bring up references in the university's mentions in the media, referring to "a memorandum of understanding that SF State has with Al-Najah University, a Palestinian university in the West Bank."
Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, associate professor of "race and resistance studies" at SFSU, is a major proponent of the relationship. Rabab is director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative and an adviser and mentor of the General Union of Palestinian Students at SFSU. Her academic profile page features a list of published papers dealing with Palestinian issues and an imageof a raised fist with a call for a "third intifada" in Arabic.
According to the Canary Mission, a database documenting people and organizations that promote hatred of the US, Israel, and the Jewish people on campuses in North America, Abdulhadi has publicly "defended branding radical advocacy as scholarship and her alignment with avowed terrorists."
A copy of the MOU obtained by MEF through a public records request shows that it was signed by both university presidents in late 2014. Neither SFSU nor An-Najah responded to requests for comment, emailed to their respective public affairs departments.
According to the MEF, the silence about the partnership is typical.
"This has been going on for two years," MEF director Gregg Roman said by phone. He said the stonewalling hasn't stopped his organization from pursuing the issue. "We took our time, we did due diligence. No one responded to us."
Roman said that since sending the letter to Congress, the MEF has been in touch with relevant congressional offices whose "opinion of this has been quite negative."
"They are concerned, especially in a time of combatting extremism," said Roman. "It's quite absurd that there is a relationship between these universities."
Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast representative for MEF's Campus Watch program, added that there are genuine security concerns. Stillwell, a graduate of SFSU, has written extensively about the university's engagement with Palestinian universities.
"I personally witnessed anti-Israel behavior on campus, in particular the controversy in the 1990s surrounding anti-Semitic symbols in the original Malcolm X mural," Stillwell said in an email. "So I see the MOU with An-Najah as a continuation of an established pattern."