An academic freedom committee at the University of California-Los Angeles backed the right of a professor to invite a guest lecturer whose comments were denounced by some students as antisemitic, while critics called for swift action over the incident.
The Academic Freedom Committee — part of the UCLA Academic Senate, which participates in "shared governance" of the university — said in a Wednesday letter that UCLA professor Kyeyoung Park, who invited professor Rabab Abdulhadi to give a May 14 lecture to her anthropology class, had "freedom to present materials in the classroom as she determines to be appropriate."
"It may well be that students find the words of such speakers or the content of classroom materials objectionable, but this does not alter the fact that a professor has the right to introduce such course content," the letter read. "At the same time, the Committee notes that students should be given the opportunity to express their own opinions and objections in an appropriate manner in the classroom and through other avenues."
Abdulhadi, founding director of San Francisco State University's Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) program, faced criticism from several students for comments she shared during her lecture about Israel and Zionism, a diverse movement that supports the Jewish people's right to national self-determination.
According to a video recording of the class, Abdulhadi claimed in part that "there is a very close industry between the Israeli support industry and the Islamophobia industry," that Zionist groups were seeking to silence dissenting viewpoints, and that "Israeli apologists have a crisis" of public relations.
"One of the Islamophobic, white supremacist, racist discourses is to say that there are shared values between the US and Israel," said Abdulhadi, who also said that she had been smeared as antisemitic.
The professor was named in one of two antisemitism lawsuits against SFSU, both of which have since been settled.
During a question and answer portion of the lecture, junior Shayna Lavi identified herself as Jewish and said emotionally, "the fact that you would put me as a Zionist or a pro-Israel person in the same category as a white supremacist seems pretty offensive." She called Abdulhadi's comments "obviously antisemitic."
Abdulhadi said she respected Lavi's opinion and recognized her feelings, but did not agree.
"Jews come in all sorts of stripes and colors and diagrams and so on," Abdulhadi said. "I align myself with the Jews who are opposing Israel and its colonialism and I ask people who are Jewish, it's their choice you can decide what you want, to actually stop the alliances with white supremacy and do a different alliance."
"There is a lot of connections about what is happening with colonialism and historically with Zionism," she added, before criticizing Lavi for attempting to interrupt her. "Today is my lecture, you need to hear me out," she added. "It's alright if you are uncomfortable, people in school are supposed to be uncomfortable."
Other students raised similar objections to Abdulhadi's comments, with junior Ashari Whitt saying she believed her comments appeared to be "incredibly biased" and targeted against an entire nation, rather than a government. Whitt also criticized the professor's response to Lavi's concerns as "rude," leading Abdulhadi to ultimately ask the student to "please stop mansplaining and attacking me."
Abdulhadi indicated that she was not talking about national groups, but the state of Israel. "My position is anti-Zionism, I am against the Zionist project, I am against all national projects by the way," she said.
Lavi and another student, junior Viktorya Saroyan, said they submitted critical reports of the lecture to Jerry Kang, who heads UCLA's office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Daily Bruin reported.
The Israel education and advocacy group StandWithUs sent a letter to Kang and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block on Friday calling on the administration to condemn Abdulhadi's "discriminatory behavior," fully investigate the matter, and discipline Park if any violations of UCLA's policy were found.
"We urge your administration to take all necessary steps to protect itself against legal liability that could result from ignoring this pattern of discrimination on your campus and the detrimental impact it is having on the Jewish members of the campus community," they wrote.
The university responded this week by noting that its senior "leadership are aware of these concerns and working together to learn more and find a satisfying resolution," and that the school is committed to both academic freedom and to "providing a safe and welcoming environment for Jewish students."
"We also remain proud of the numerous connections that UCLA maintains with Israeli institutions," the statement continued.
The school's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office has also published a "progress dashboard" addressing the incident this week, which acknowledged both concerns over the content of Abdulhadi's speech and academic freedom, and shared a link to the video of the lecture so interested parties could come to their "own independent conclusion."