A campaign mobilising support from academics, students, trade unionists and Palestine solidarity activists has pushed back against the victimisation of Palestinian academic Shahd Abusalama, a PhD student and lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). Student activists, Palestine solidarity organisations, trade unionists and academics wrote letters of protest to SHU management and campaigned on social media after reports that her teaching had been cancelled in response to accusations of antisemitism. Within days, however, the campaign was able to claim an important step forward, as the University reinstated Shahd’s classes, although without dropping the investigation.
Bob Jeffrey from Sheffield Hallam UCU told Middle East Solidarity that the University’s actions had set immediate alarm bells ringing in the union branch, which has supported Shahd and represented her in meetings with management.
“Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) UCU has been extremely concerned by the treatment of our member, Shahd Abusalama, in relation to purported complaints to the university, and the way they have been handled (cancellation of Shahd’s classes). It is important to note that neither Shahd nor her representatives have yet had sight of those allegations through official channels. Nevertheless, from information in the public domain, we believe that they pertain to accusations of antisemitism under the controversial IHRA definition.”Bob Jeffrey, Sheffield Hallam UCU
A 2019 story in the Jewish Chronicle highlighted some of Shahd’s tweets from 2012 as antisemitic. In a public Facebook post in response she retracted one of the tweets, unequivocally condemned antisemitism and pointed to her work with Jewish activists who organise in solidarity with Palestinians:
Wider networks of academics also rallied to defend Shahd. The British Committee for the Universities Palestine (BRICUP) condemned the cancellation of Shahd’s teaching and the victimisation of Palestinians who speak up against Israeli oppression.
Jonathan Rosenhead, Chair of BRICUP wrote to the Sheffield Hallam Vice-Chancellor:
“Shahd Abusalama has every right to communicate forcefully on the treatment of her country. Yet Sheffield Hallam has proceeded to suspend her teaching before, not after, an investigation. That your university did this within days of the Jewish Chronicle signalling its intention of publishing an article attacking some of her social media posts is deeply troubling. It seems that you have preferred to put managing what you see as potential reputational damage ahead of protecting free expression and indeed academic freedom.”
“You also have a duty of care to your staff and students, of whom Shahd Abusalama is one, falling into both categories. She is a stateless person who spent her formative years under a vicious siege in a small territory subjected to repeated military assaults. Her father spent over a decade in prison for actions which if he were British we would recognise as entirely patriotic.
Awareness and sensitivity is growing about the oppressions and cruelties of the past, in which Britain has often played a leading role, and about the racist attitudes that underpinned them. Your university’s action against Shahd Abusalama seems to suggest that, uniquely, it should only be Palestinians who are denied the right to discuss, research and name the nature of their condition.”
The British Society for Middle East Studies (BRISMES), the scholarly association representing academics who study the Middle East, issued a public call on SHU to reinstate Shahd. The BRISMES Committee on Academic Freedom condemned the University’s apparent failure to follow its own policies by failing to keep information about the internal investigation confidential from the media, noting that “Reports of investigations into antisemitism against an individual can have career-destroying consequences – particularly for an early career academic – even when the complaints are not upheld.” The Committee’s letter highlights BRISMES’ concerns over the use of the IHRA definition to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel.
“Not only is the IHRA definition vague, but several of its accompanying examples are deeply flawed. Whilst some refer to antisemitic hate speech, several others risk stigmatising lawful speech. The lead author of the definition itself, Kenneth Stern, emphasised the definition’s inadequacy in an academic setting and that it was never intended as a campus free speech guide. Indeed, BRISMES has received a growing number of reports of spurious accusations of antisemitism made against staff and students in UK universities which refer to examples in the IHRA definition conflating criticisms of Israeli governmental policies with antisemitic speech.”
The use of the IHRA definition in the context of the SHU investigation will face robust opposition from Shahd’s UCU branch, Bob Jeffrey confirmed. “In line with national UCU policy, which opposes the malicious use of this definition to silence legitimate political debate, SHU UCU branch committee unanimously supported the issuing of a letter of protest to the University outlining our belief that Shahd is being victimised.”
What you can do
- Follow and share campaign updates on the #InsupportofShahd hashtag on social media
- Pass a motion in your UCU branch in support of the campaign. Model motion from BRICUP can be downloaded here [Solidarity motion with Shahd Abusalama]