Producing Knowledge for Justice

Rabab Abdulhadi

THIS IS THE first of a two-part interview that Against the Current editor Dianne Feeley had with Rabab Abdulhadi. Professor Abdulhadi initiated the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program (AMED) at San Francisco State University (SFSU) 13 years ago in the College of Ethnic Studies. ATC was interested in learning what it had accomplished and how the right wing is so intent on harassing her and the AMED program.

I WAS RECRUITED to come and build this program as the fifth Department in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State from my job as director of the Center of Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan Dearborn. Before I signed my contract, I insisted on several things, including that AMED Studies be housed in the College of Ethnic Studies.

I wanted to build AMED studies in the spirit of the student strike of 1968-69, led by the Black Student Union (BSU) and Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). The 1968-69 striking students demanded the decolonization of the curriculum and the creation of educational programs that reflect, legitimize and validate the lived experiences of marginalized communities.

They demanded a different relationship between the university and the community in which the university does not only produce scholarship and advance academic careers, but is accountable, transparent and collaborative. They wanted a respectful and reciprocal relationship between the two; this is exactly what we built in AMED studies.

As you can imagine, there is a real need to educate the academy and the public at large about Islamophobia, anti-Arab discrimination and the struggle for justice in and for Palestine as part of the indivisibility of justice. As well, there is the low bar with which Arab, Muslim and Palestinian bashing is generally treated (and ignored). In the United States, including at SFSU, most incidents are not readily recognizable as racist, discriminatory or xenophobic.

I did not sign the contract until the university agreed to hire two other tenure track faculty members in addition to me so we could have a critical mass dedicated to building the program even though the Dean told me at the time that there would be 12 faculty members for me to steer.

I also negotiated an initial three-year grant. I asked for, but did not succeed in receiving, a standard-of-living salary comparable to that of Michigan but I agreed to the pay cut because I was very excited to build this program.

Like 1968-69, my hire as AMED’s director was a result of two major community historical struggles at SFSU. The first became very urgent in 2002, post 9/11/2001 and during the Aqsa Intifada when the Israeli military reinvaded Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps. Former SFSU President Corrigan unfairly disciplined and sanctioned the General Union of Palestinian Students but failed to crush their activism, leading to a stand off with the community.

Attempting to resolve these tensions, Corrigan formed a task force to study and make recommendations to improve campus climate. Initially the task force was not inclusive of members of our community but sustained activism persuaded him to make it more diverse. One of its top recommendations was to hire a senior scholar to teach about Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities and mentor students at SFSU.

The second development was around the Palestinian Mural. Designed to honor the late Professor Edward Said, it joined other SFSU murals honoring Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, South Asian and Filipino struggles, the Pacific and finally Native American and Indigenous communities. The Palestinian Mural, then, was one of our first accomplishments as AMED. Importantly, it reflected the Spirit of ’68, as it was led by the students and included constant discussions and debates with the faculty, staff and the broader AMED community of justice.

Diaspora Narratives

Next, we organized a workshop on Mapping Arab Diasporas (MAPAD), a project that I started at CAAS in Michigan and brought along to SFSU.

MAPAD aimed at compiling oral history narratives from and in collaboration with community groups and organizers. It contributed to the growth of Arab American Studies and Muslim American interdisciplinary studies that were relatively new after September 11, 2001, and thus represented a significant cutting edge in the academy. We organized our first workshop in May 2007 even before my first spring semester at SFSU was over.

The MAPAD workshop included testimony by Arab American Union member Sheikh Abdullah, a Yemeni worker who struggled alongside Cesar Chavez. He spoke of the late martyr Nagi Daifullah, who was active in the United Farm Workers and killed as he was defending Cesar Chavez. At the time and even today, very few within or outside the academy know this history of the involvement of Arab and Muslim communities in other struggles for justice.

The Mapping Arab Diasporas workshop is an example of how we can in praxis enact scholarship that is accountable to our communities. By researching, teaching about and making public such knowledge we engage in what the 1968 BSU/TWLF strikers demanded, validating the lived experiences of marginalized groups. In left and “progressive” circles, even within the ranks of Ethnic Studies, few are familiar with Arab involvement in all segments of justice-centered struggles in the United States and internationally.

This includes Arab workers in labor struggles and solidarities, including Detroit autoworkers in collaboration with DRUM, or California farm workers. This knowledge also undermines the dominant trend about Arab American Studies that claims that Arab- and/or Muslim-Americans are only concerned with narrow ethnic matters and are part of U.S. middle-class whiteness. It reinforces the need for inclusion of Arab, Muslim, and Palestine Studies in the California Ethnic Studies curriculum that has been targeted by Israel lobby groups.

Building from Scratch

To build AMED’s infrastructure from scratch, I started out by hiring lecturers (as per the CFA Collective Bargaining Agreement) under the title of Research Associates to staff the two AMED faculty lines that I had negotiated in my contract. I did not want to start by hiring tenure-track faculty until I became more familiar with the lay of the land at SFSU and determined what expertise we needed. Meanwhile AMED Research Associates helped out in community outreach, mentor­ing students and designing courses, such as Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico, Arab American History, and Islamophobia.

I was able to draw on the San Francisco Bay Area community due to my prior involvement with several national organizations, such as Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations in North America (UPWA).

As a result, I was  already familiar with Arab and other non-Palestinian organizations such as the American Arab anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Al-Awda, the Arab Cultural and Community Center,  CISPES, Filipino, Central American, American Indian Movement, Black Panthers Party, and several left organizations. Through my Palestine Solidarity Committee work, I knew Gus Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley, and Barbara Lubin, the founder of the Middle East Children’s Alliance as the organization was being created.

I therefore engaged Bay Area scholars and community members and organizations before deciding on how to best frame the job descriptions for the permanent AMED faculty. This was essential to bring about the stability and longevity needed to maintain the program and turn it into the department that I was hired to build.

International Context for Threats

However, Zionists had already intensified their campaigns to oppose my plans for the institutionalization of AMED. Within less than a year (and while I was still healing from two broken shoulders), a major pro-Israel donor made a $90,000 gift to SFSU to start the first visiting scholar in Israeli Studies. In 2014, it was converted to an endowed senior faculty position.

It is important to note that this institutionalization of an ideologically pro-Zionist Israeli studies program at SFSU took place at the same time as Israel’s cotinued colonization and occupation of Palestine, the institutionalization of the AMED studies program, and the escalation of attacks against me. This has been a central site for pro-Israeli advocacy and opposition to Palestine.

The attempts to block the institutionalization of the AMED Studies in 2009-2010 coincided with Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza. We were about to submit the job description and conduct the searches for the two AMED tenure track lines.

The spring 2009 semester began with Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian posters issued by the College Republicans and supporters of Israel. The posters invited students to “throw shoes” at what the posters labeled as “Hamas flag” which was in fact the Shahadatyn, the second tenet of Islam, that states that “there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.”

SFSU administrators were asked by Palestinian, Muslim and other students of color to take seriously this racist threat, but they refused under the guise of defending “freedom of speech.” At a meeting with administrators, Hillel, Department of Jewish Studies and Middle East and Islamic Studies, administrators argued that Islamophobia was not legally defined as hate speech.

As we were narrowing down the short list for AMED candidates (which coincided with the 2009 conference celebrating 40 years of the College of Ethnic Studies), Zionist groups launched a campaign to cancel the commemoration of the second anniversary of the Palestinian Mural. They demanded that SFSU disinvite the featured speaker, Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee that coordinates the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

Immediately following the event, Presi­dent Corrigan emailed me a new statement he published in support of Israel that denounced BDS. Shortly thereafter, he proceeded to cancel AMED faculty searches.

SFSU claimed that this was not retaliation but a normal response to the 2008 financial crash. However, AMED faculty lines were already part of the university budget since I was hired in 2007. Furthermore, I submitted the job descriptions in 2009 after the 2008 crash and the adjusted fiscal budget that was already approved on July 1, 2009.

Upon his retirement, Robert Corrigan took another hostile action against AMED by deleting its budget lines, thus carrying out Zionist wishes to prevent its institutionalization. Since that time, university administrators came up with all sorts of excuses not to reinstate AMED’s faculty lines.

As a result, since 2012-13 AMED has been a one-faculty program, with no operating budget, administrative assistance, or other tenured faculty. It is quite challenging, to put it mildly, to offer courses, run a program, advise students and do everything else, not to mention facing unrelenting Zionist attacks.

Take for example the current reality. As a result of union advocacy, faculty members who need a paid leave can apply and receive it now due to the coronavirus health crisis. However, I can’t avail myself of this opportunity now and take care of my health because that would effectively mean abandoning AMED studies. That simply is not an option for me.

Despite the university collaboration with the Zionist agenda, we refused to be defeated or stop the institutionalization of AMED studies as Zionist forces had hoped. Our strong community of justice extends beyond Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians, It includes students and faculty as well as activists and leaders from inside and outside the university who come from Indigenous communities, third world and communities of color, Jewish anti-Zionist groups, labor, prison abolition and civil rights.

Developing Courses and Collaborators

With such broad involvement, we were able to develop and offer 22 courses.

Our courses are certified as General Education so all university students can receive credit for and become familiar with multiple issues that they are unable to learn about from dominant media outlets. These topics include Islamophobia; Palestine; Comparative Border studies: Palestine and Mexico; Edward Said; the Palestinian Mural; Gender and Modernity in Arab and Muslim Communities; civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims; Media images; art; literature; and representation; and queer Arab Diasporas.

Our program is accountable to the community and places justice at the center of critical knowledge production. Our students have received job placements and are now involved in some amazing research. Our graduate students have gone on to exciting careers in the academy that are linked to their communities.

We also signed the first — and so far, the only — memorandum of understanding (MOU) between San Francisco State and An-Najah National University in Palestine. We proposed it, discussed and debated it widely. It was vetted at every administrative and academic level at SFSU and was finally approved at the level of Chancellor of California State University (the highest body of the California state university system).

But Zionist groups have targeted our collaboration with An-Najah National University. Campus Watch/Middle East Forum, led by Daniel Pipes, a right-wing leading Islamo­phobe (according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), has taken the lead, launching a pro-Israel campaign demanding an end to the agreement, calling An-Najah a “terrorist university.” It has reproduced the same false accusations that AMCHA and other Israeli lobby groups have spread about me and that were proven to be completely baseless.

Their long two-fold goals have been to discredit Palestinian academic institutions on one hand, and cover up Israeli denial of Palestinian right to education, on the other.

Our next achievement was the development of the Edward Said Scholarship for students who excel in their studies and exemplify the model of the late Professor Said’s life of publicly engaged scholarship. A high level Zionist at SFSU tried to block it, but we defeated that attempt and created the scholarship.

However, since the escalation of Zionist attacks in 2016, and in a typical move employed by other neoliberal institutions against Black Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Ethnic Studies,SFSU has sought to further weaken AMED by taking away the decision-making authority over the scholarship fund from me and placing it in the hands of administrators who are unfriendly to AMED, the Edward Said Mural, our community and its dynamics.

We also continue to organize Open Classrooms where we bring longtime community scholars, leaders and activists together to interact with our students, faculty and staff. We stream those educational events live, both to reach the public beyond the university boundaries and also because we don’t have access to the resources those who seek to silence us do.

As a result, both Zionist groups as well as SFSU administrators have consistently targeted me over my social media outreach, posting to silence me. One administrator even wrote me that “classes are not supposed to be open to the public. They are for students who are registered in the class.”

Delegations to Palestine

We have organized several delegations to Palestine, including the 2011 Indigenous and Women of Color Feminist delegation in which several transnational feminists have participated, such as Angela Davis, Barbara Ransby, Chandra Mohanty, Waziyatwin, and Beverly Guy Sheftall. In 2014, we had the Academic and Labor Delegation that included colleagues from different universities including Joanne Barker, Chair of the American Indian Studies at SFSU, and Junaid Rana, Chair of Asian American Studies at UIUC.

In 2016 we co-organized the first U.S. prisoner solidarity delegation to Palestine. The delegation included four other formerly incarcerated U.S. political prisoners, artists, scholars and labor organizers, including the graphic artist and the former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party Emory Douglas. Each delegation issued a statement either while we were still in Palestine or within a month of our return.

The 2014 delegation issued a statement on the day on which we arrived in Palestine after being held by the Israeli military intelligence for 10 hours at the Jordan-Palestine Bridge crossing. The 2016 delegation issued a powerful statement timed for the April 17th International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners. We translated the statement into five languages within less than two weeks of returning.

Another highlight was the collect call we received in the midst of the conference at Birzeit University. Mumia Abu-Jamal called my colleague Johanna Fernandez from his prison cell in Pennsylvania to express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and Palestinian prisoners.

Each delegation traveled all over Pales­tine, met and critically engaged with academics, artists, labor and feminist and queer activists, prison solidarity groups and political leaders.

Each delegation experienced moments of joy and pain. A most heart wrenching experience during the prison delegation was attending an Israeli military tribunal for three Palestinian children at the Ofra Settlement military prison outside Ramallah.

The Zionist movement has particularly targeted me and members of the delegation. SFSU Administration also contributed to the Zionist agenda by subsequently revoking my travel to Palestine in 2014. The administration has since imposed several bureaucratic obstacles every time I submitted a request for travel authorization to Palestine. They proceeded to deny my travel authorization application for Teaching Palestine, and travel reimbursements for international conferences at which I was either co-organizing or presenting my scholarship.

We also developed a full program for Study Abroad in Palestine last summer. The program was drawing on the AMED academic curriculum, the delegations we took to Palestine, the open classrooms, as well as the Teaching Palestine project.

My students and I spent seven months working on developing the Palestine Study Abroad project, jumping through one hoop after another, including processes that SFSU applied only to us, and answering ridiculous questions, asking for an explanation of “engaging with the Isaeli peace movement.”

After we were told that the trip could go forward and my students spent considerable resources to get themselves ready, SFSU suddenly cancelled the trip. We suspected that they were going to try to prevent the institutionalization of a Palestine Study Abroad program in support of the Zionist agenda. Honestly, we did not expect them to be so obvious about it.

Teaching Palestine

The project that I am very proud of is the Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivis­ibility of Justice project.

I have been involved in teaching and co-learning Palestine as long as I can remember. I grew up under Jordanian rule and Israeli occupation and became an activist and community organizer. I formally taught my first course on Palestine in 2000 when I started my academic career at the AUC for the Graduate Certificate in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies.

I also organized my first academic Teaching Palestine trip during the 2001 summer school at the American University in Cairo (AOC). My students and I visited the Shatila and Ein El-Hilweh Palestinian Refugee Camps and traveled to the South of Lebanon. It was during that trip that the Egyptian student project, Cairo to the Camps (C2C), was started. As a critical solidarity engagement rather than a solidarity tourism exercise, C2C lasted for years and was only suspended in 2011 due to student engagement in the Tahrir Square protests and the Egyptian Revolution.

Teaching Palestine builds upon and weaves in the concept of critical solidarity that has been the hallmark of delegations, the pedagogical praxis of open classrooms inside and outside campus that we’ve been doing since AMED started in 2007, and that I brought with me from Michigan, NYU and AUC, as well as the radical methodology of accountability in research and scholarship. We compiled, analyzed and made accessible oral histories and archival material that remains absent in dominant narratives.

We started this latest rendition at AMED in 2016 as we were brainstorming how to commemote 10 years of the Palestinian Mural and the significant anniversaries in Palestinian and U.S. history. We debated what to name the program and we deliberately decided to use the term, Teaching, because it entails accountable scholarship, pedagogy and advocacy.

We stressed pedagogical praxis to signal our commitment in AMED to a justice-centered curriculum and to our refusal to treat our students as consumers or ourselves as customer service. We also wanted to validate activism.

Remembering Anniversaries

Teaching Palestine is inspired by Pales­tinian and other revolutionary movements. For example, the academic year, 2017-18 marked significant anniversaries in the his­tory of Palestine such as the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration or what we refer to in Palestinian history as not only 100 years of colonialism but over 100 years of Palestinian anti-colonial resistance.

It was the 70th anniversary of Nakba, when almost a million Palestinians were uprooted and displaced and Israel founded. It was the 10th anniversary of the blockade of Gaza, not only the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation. We sought to shift the discourse of the Palestinain solidarity movement and the movement for justice in Palestine from thinking of 1967 as the beginning of the occupation. Instead we traced it back to 1948.

It was also the 50th anniversary of the 1968 strike at San Francisco State, and multiple other locations around the world, such as Paris, Senegal, Mexico and Tunisia. In bringing together these historical moments, we wanted to compare and contrast them with each other and with Palestinian history. We raised the question in the minds of students, faculty and other public intellectuals how we might reframe our historical analysis to revise colonial narratives and center anti-colonial and justice-centered narratives.

Aside from its intellectual value and the excitement over engaging in a multi-generational conversation, one of our major achievements was our ability not to be distracted or derailed by the escalation of Zionist attacks against us within and outside SFSU. It was quite challenging but we were able to co-organize two international conferences in Palestine (at Birzeit and An-Najah), host a panel at the Caribbean Studies Association in Havana, Cuba, and put together an impressive international symposium at the World Congress of Middle East Studies in Seville, Andalucía, Spain.

We also co-organized another international conference in Johannesburg in collaboration with several South African universities and organizations.

In the midst of the heightened Zionist attacks and SFSU administration complicity, we brought “Teaching Palestine” to the American Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, Middle East Studies Association and several U.S. campuses and community spaces. We are now putting together an edited volume, a website and future Teaching Palestine encounters around the world. This will depend on what happens with the global health crisis.

You can then imagine why the right-wing Zionist groups and the university’s corporatized forces are upset at me and AMED Studies, and why they are escalating their attacks after having failed to shut us down. As a justice-centered program, AMED contests colonial narratives of submission, subjugation and defeat. We link different struggles on the basis of the indivisibility of justice.

Our impact goes beyond the university and the academy to organically and seriously engage the community. We are continuously engaging the public, connecting education with the community. We challenge Islamophobia, anti-Arab discrimination, anti-Palestinian hostility, and injustices everywhere.

We are committed to student involvement in and accountability to their communities instead of turning them into docile citizens upon graduation and reproducing unfair and unjust systems at home and around the world. We expose injustice and complicity, as we believe that it is our mission to do. We make space for students who are formally enrolled and informally engaged with the program to grow together and become advocates for all our communities.

We do not forget for a single moment that critical thinking represents a danger to right-wing forces who have historically tried to silence us and I do mean all of us. The first target of right-wing attacks on critical thought has focused on sites of knowledge production on university campuses.

Continuing Harassment

Historically, books have been burned, campus grounds were invaded and teachers and students thrown in jails, tortured and sometimes disappeared for daring to challenge an unjust system from Chile to Palestine, Saudi Arabia to South Africa and Michigan to San Francisco.

Throughout, the right wing has attempted to destroy justice-centered knowledge production and enlist members of our communities in their plan to suppress resistance so the system can reproduce itself.

Needless to say, if you can engage students in critical thinking, inevitably they will be open to change not because we indoctrinate them but precisely because they have brains and can think for themselves. Affording students and other members of the community the space to think differently, I am convinced that they will inevitably act for justice.

Here, then, the right resorts to McCarthy-style tactics of intimidation and harassment. They try to ruin people’s reputation, including mine, in order to isolate and silence us, maintain business-as-usual facade, and prevent anyone from rocking the boat.

Pro-Israel attacks against me, AMED studies and our students, along with SFSU collusion by denying us resources and suppressing student activism still failed to prevent us from institutionalizing AMED.

However, this meant that I had to do the job of three or four faculty members. It also means continuing to mobilize community resources. Both took a toll on me, AMED studies, our students and our community resources.

One of the problems we have encountered at SFSU, including right before the outbreak of the coronavirus, has been to find space for our events/open classrooms. For example, we reserved the college conference room for Palestine@SFSU teach-in only to find it singled out for “insurance” under the guise of a potential “fire hazard” as if Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians represented a terrorist danger to this society and the university community.

This semester we faced “technical” issues that were quite transparent to us in how the bureaucracy can be used to shut down a program and try to force a faculty member they do not like to resign.  What they are afraid of is a justice-centered program that speaks truth to power and a faculty member who is not afraid to rock the boat.

To support Rabab Abdulhadi, Palestine at SFSU, visit the International Campaign to Defend Professor Rabab Abdulhadi. To learn more about AMED Studies, visit its official site at or its unofficial FB page.

Here is a PDF of the article: ATC 206–SFSU

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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