NOTE: After this interview, Shahd learned that she had won her case. In a supplementary Answer at the end of this interview, she talks about what happens next.
Hi Shahd. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you start by letting us know a little about yourself?
Thank you so much for talking to me. My name is Shahd Abusalama, and I’m a writer, artist and campaigner for Palestine. I’m also an academic and I’ve been working on my PhD, which I submitted on New Year’s Eve. I’m waiting right now for my viva [Ph.D. defence] and I was appointed as an associate lecturer at Sheffield Hallam. I’m also the victim of a Zionist witch hunt.
I was born and raised in Jabalia, the largest refugee camp in Palestine. I’m the daughter of a former political prisoner who spent 15 years of captive resistance in Israeli jails. He was first detained at age 15; at age 19 he was sentenced again, this time to seven lifetimes, and without charge or a fair trial. I’m also the granddaughter of refugees who were dispossessed of their villages, lands and homes in 1948.
I’ve lived through so many of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. I was born during the First Intifada, and I grew up in the aftermath of the Second Intifada. I remember very clearly what Israel calls “Summer Rains” – its 2006 campaign against Gaza.
Then there was what they called “Cast Lead” in 2008-2009, when I was 17. I was attending my mid-term exams for high school, when Israel bombarded Gaza with tons and tons of explosives at 11 a.m. on the first day of the attack, when most of the children were either at school or on their way to school. After that, there was the 11-day attack on Gaza, the “Pillars of Cloud”.
For a Palestinian living under the relentless terror perpetrated by the Israeli state, all we have is our voice. I’ve been utilising that voice in writing, in painting, in dabke dancing, ever since I was a teenager, if not a kid.
Speaking of your voice, you were recently banned from teaching at Hallam University in Sheffield. Do you know exactly why?
I met my students on Monday 17 January. At that introductory lecture, I had such a stimulating conversation with them. We were having great discussions around Edward Said and Orientalism, about Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi and the psychology of the colonised and the coloniser.
We also spoke about Spivak and the question of agency of the oppressed: about how we can disrupt colonial legacy and colonial narratives by taking back our agency and enforcing that counter-narrative. I screened a documentary for the students to get them more oriented with Edward Said and Orientalism, which inaugurated post-colonial culture.
To clarify: the module that I’m teaching is called “Post-Colonial Media Culture”, and it intersects so profoundly with my PhD research, which is on historical representations of Palestinian refugees with a focus on Gaza. Gaza is important because of its majority refugee population and its systematic isolation since the building of the Israeli state.
I was looking at colonial, humanitarian and Palestinian filmic discourses that dealt with the Palestinian refugee issue in documentary film. So all of my work – my personal and my family history, our struggles as Palestinians – it’s all very entrenched in everything I do, whether it be academia or grassroots campaigning or cultural expressions, ie Cinema Palestino in Sheffield, the Hawiyya dance company in London, and the Apartheid Off Campus campaign.
Then there’s the Shut Elbit Down campaign. We recently managed to reach such a momentum that we shut down the Oldham branch of Elbit Systems, after five years of consistent community mobilisation protesting the normalisation of prisons by such a horrendous factory. They literally test their weapons on the Gaza strip – where the majority of the population is children. Then they go around the world and market it as “battle tested” to other oppressive regimes, and make billions and billions in profits from the destruction of our lives and our livelihoods.
I was going to meet my students for a second time on Friday for my scheduled seminars. And just a few hours before, I received this sudden email from my university saying that I cannot resume teaching and that I’m under investigation following a complaint. Everything was vague. Nothing was mentioned of the nature of the complaint or why I was suspended. They also notified me that they would tell the students that my classes were cancelled until further notice.
That was devastating for me because I do not feel appreciated or recognised for all the work I’ve been doing back home in Gaza, or all the work I’ve continued to do while engaging with community organisations, and building and running justice and anti-racist campaigns on and off-campus.
Instead of recognition, I’m being punished, silenced and censored. The university has made itself an accomplice in the Zionist attempts to silence Palestine, to silence Palestinian voices, and to distract from Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. This crimes are continuing as we speak – in Gaza, in Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, in Beita and Al-Naqab, where we wake up every day to more horrors.
This vicious circle of oppression has to stop. We are rising up for human values, for the oppressed. We are elevating their voices and ours and doing what is within our rights. We are fighting to reverse this international failure to hold Israel to account and deliver justice to Palestinians.
Have you spoken to any of your students since this happened? Do you know how they have reacted?
I’ve received immense support on so many levels – from students, the UCU [the lecturers’ trade union], and on the local and international levels. The support, love and solidarity has been honestly overwhelming. This is the reason I’m carrying on, with my family struggles before my eyes.
If you put it in context, what I’m experiencing now is nothing in comparison to my dad’s struggle. He was taken away and locked in a cell in a dark narrow space for 15 years without trial. His only offence was being Palestinian.
What is happening exposes the truth that Palestinians do not necessarily break free of Israel’s oppression when they leave their refugee camps and their occupied territories. We are chased wherever we go, and we are silenced and attacked wherever we go.
But in my case, the popular support is just beyond description. And it definitely overshadows the Zionist smear campaign: it embarrasses Israel for coming after a war survivor and a refugee who broke from their violence, and shows how determined they still are to ruin our lives and silence Palestinian voices. It shows how pathetic and desperate Israel is.
They’re losing the battle over the narrative and they’re losing in terms of popular support. The Jewish News, the Jewish Chronicle, and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, all platforms that are infamous for their racist stance against the Palestinians and their Islamophobic comments, all have fewer supporters than the Palestinians.
But they can create smoke bombs and they can get under the skin of people in power here, like at my university that bowed to their pressure. But my case highlights how Palestinians are going to be the most vulnerable to the IHRA misleading and flawed definition which discriminates against the Palestinians in its very nature.
If calling Israel or Zionist a racist endeavour is antisemitic, then I am antisemite by IHRA definition. By effect, my own history, my lived experience is dismissed in the process, which only confirms that racism is an inherent character of Zionism. That’s why resistance to the IHRA is a must.
The Jewish Chronicle threatened to publish some of your social media posts. What were these posts, and what was in them that is so dangerous?
It’s quite shocking that they would see someone rising to prominence, a success story, rising out of immense oppression and pain, and would try to silence me by whatever means necessary.
They don’t know me. They don’t know my family struggle. They don’t know what I’ve been through and what I survived. However, they do know that I am a victim of their terror, and that I posed a threat to their image, to Israel’s image. It’s so clear that it’s not about my posts; it’s about the liberation and anti-colonial causes that I stand for and represent.
So I don’t want to go into the tweets that they’re digging up from 10 years ago, when I was writing from under fire in Gaza. I want people to resist this deflection campaign from Israeli terrorists. I want them to resist the attempts to make people stop talking about Israeli oppression against the Palestinians. This oppression is going on right now and has been going on with British and U.S. support since before Israel came into existence in 1948.
So, it’s nothing. Do you really want me to go through what they’re smoking against me?
Only if you think it’s helpful
In 2012, I was 21 years old and had survived several attacks. Since I was very young, I was following international media to keep myself informed about the discourse that was contributing to the violence that was falling on our heads.
I was interested in the foreign policy regimes of the US, the UK, and the EU, and how they fuel this violence against us by always emphasising Israel’s so-called right to self-defence. But there is no such right for an occupying power guaranteed in international law. In fact, the opposite is true. Our right as occupied people is guaranteed under international law – our right to resist by any means necessary to achieve our liberation from settler-colonisation.
So protesting these crimes is completely within my rights – to resist for my people’s right to freedom, justice, equality and return – as an academic and as a person. I myself am living evidence of these crimes. I carry their traces and traumatic consequences.
These were the things that I was talking about. I was 21 years old and English is my second language. It’s not my native tongue, and I probably wouldn’t now express myself in the same way as I did 10 years ago. But what I said is legitimate if you put things in context.
But of course, the Zionists have this deliberate tendency to take things out of context in order to stereotype us as anti-Semites. It’s just such a low and disgusting way of weaponizing antisemitism because it actually distracts from the real anti-Semites. The way they use it strips the crime of antisemitism of its seriousness.
This is why we say that that Zionism is one of the worst forms of antisemitism as this politicised weaponization affects many Jews around the world. Waking up to this, Jews worldwide, including Israelis, are disassociating themselves from it believing that there is no such “safe haven” in a supremacist settler-colonial state built on ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
Many of them came in my support but you see Zionism from its beginning created a hostile atmosphere where even Jews are not equal when it comes to the Zionist enterprise’s interests.
It’s clear that Israel’s lobby is constructing a new term called “anti-Zionist antisemitism”, which they identify as the worst form of anti-Semitism that is threatening Jews. It is a deliberate conflation of a crime and a just cause. Anti-Zionism is a duty that people must embrace if they are actually and truly anti-racist.
Do you think there’s a connection between attacks on you and previous attacks on people like Jeremy Corbyn and David Miller?
Of course there is. It is part of the same witch hunt. Those are all respected people and have such massive support behind them. Labour Party membership doubled under Jeremy Corbyn, which shows the sort of person he is.
However, there is one distinction between us: I am a Palestinian who broke free from Israel’s oppression only to continue to be chased by Israeli oppression outside of Palestine. It shows how Palestinians are criminalised wherever they go.
I’m not white. I don’t have European citizenship. I’m stateless in this country and a refugee, and I’m vulnerable in so many ways, whether it comes to migration or on a professional level. That is a major distinction here. The cases are all interlinked, but the consequences are different.
David Miller, for example, is a middle-aged white British man who was silenced for standing in solidarity with the Palestinians. However, at least he had a chance to build a career for himself. I have barely started. I’m 30 years old, I’ve just submitted my PhD, just been appointed as an associate lecturer. I was suspended immediately after that and was targeted in this vicious manner.
The people attacking me think I am an easy target because I’m a Palestinian woman of colour and a refugee here. But the popular support that came in my defence shows that they were wrong.
This shows that they are losing many battles. I believe so strongly deep in my heart that we will see a free Palestine, and that Israeli apartheid will fall and join the fate of the South African apartheid. This is why they’re becoming frantic right now.
I’m sure you are aware of similar attacks on German academics, as your brother Majed lives in Berlin. How much contact do you have with people here who are being silenced for talking about Palestine?
I’m speaking to so many people and my support network is just so massive. There are many other people who have been victimised and silenced by Israel. There are many amazing anti-Zionist Jews. It’s a beautiful international, multicultural, multi-faith community that is supporting me and speaking out and fighting back. We have no option but to fight back.
I’ve been following a lot of what is going on in Germany. I was supporting a lot of campaigns in Berlin, like Palestine Speaks and BDS Berlin. I attended a few conferences there and came to support my brother when he was brought into court for daring to challenge a racist member of the Knesset [the Israeli parliament]. This Israeli politician is a warmonger and was using platforms at Humboldt University to whitewash Israeli crimes; art-wash and pink-wash them.
Instead of standing on the right side of history and on the side of the oppressed, we saw how the court system in Germany tolerates Zionist attacks. But in the end, my brother and his anti-Zionist Israeli activists emerged victorious. So I know how tense the atmosphere is. I feel that out of all the European states, the hostility is most horrible in the UK and Germany.
However, that doesn’t reflect on the people. These countries are not acting on the mandate of representing their people. After every attack against Gaza, we’ve seen popular mobilisations occupying the main streets of Europe. If it shows anything, it’s that the politicians in the EU are not listening to the demands of their people; they’re choosing to support Israel and maintain its apartheid regime over achieving justice for the Palestinians.
This is a very important point to make. I believe the narrative is changing. All these different smear campaigns are only showing the political effectiveness of global Palestine campaigns, which are hitting Israel’s reputation and its economy hard. They are targeting the chain of complicity that fuels the violence against the Palestinians.
We should take consolation in this and be hopeful that justice will be served in Palestine soon.
There is a lot of outrage in the British media about Cancel Culture. Usually this involves a rich, white celebrity who is given lots of media space to complain about someone who has criticized them. Are the press reporting your case in the same way?
Originally there was an attempt to cancel people like me who are vocal for Palestine. But often the response to Palestine activists getting cancelled is so overwhelming that it reverses the impact and exposes Israel further.
If we want to speak about cancel culture and how it works here in the UK, I want to address the hypocrisy of how so many Zionists go around and they say racist and Islamophobic things and write on massive platforms. Some of the people saying these things, like Trump, for example, are openly antisemitic. But of course, Zionists wouldn’t call out real anti-Semites like him because they’re in harmony with the imperial interests of Israel and the US.
We saw Biden, for example, saying that if there was no Israel, we’d invent have to invent one. All presidents of the US have mounted platforms of the Zionist lobby AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] before they made it to the presidency.
The things that I discuss in public and in my social media are related to what I’ve just described. They are valid concerns and grievances. It’s very important to call out those shared imperial interests that are enforcing and emboldening Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. But these Zionists and real anti-Semites and Islamophobes, these transphobes and homophobes – none of these people are challenged as much as somebody like me fighting for my people’s basic rights.
Within academia, for example, there are proud members of UK Lawyers for Israel, who have probably been monitoring me. It is likely that they are contributing behind the scenes who has been causing all this hatred waged against me and trying to impede my political effectiveness. These people go around to platforms saying things like, “Ethnic cleansing is a trope, Israel killing children in Gaza is a trope, Israel’s settler expansion is a trope, apartheid is a trope.” These are openly Islamophobic
And no one challenges this kind of hypocrisy of people actually fuelling violence and division on campus or internationally – they are the people who were most devoutly pushing IHRA [the contested definition of antisemitism issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance].
There have even been members of UK Lawyers for Israel on the committee that discussed the IHRA definition in my university. I was recommended to attend noting the absence of Palestinian voices but I was never contacted. Why would the board include someone who is a proud member of UK Lawyers for Israel and one of the leading campaigners for IHRA definition, when no Palestinian is represented despite being directly affected by the IHRA? As my case highlights, the Palestinians will be the most vulnerable to the IHRA definition of antisemitism as it directly conflict with our need to expose Israel’s systematic oppression against us.
How could this consultation body actually be independent, transparent or neutral? The Palestine Society was also recommended to be there, and we had sent a letter opposing the adoption of the IHRA and suggesting an alternative framework that went dismissed, which shows how systematic the silencing of the Palestinian perspective is.
I have one final question. People will read this interview and follow your case in the media and will be astounded. They’ll want to know how they can show solidarity. What can people do to offer you practical support?
I’m asking people right now to go on social media and express their outrage and concern for the silencing of Palestinian voices and use the hashtag #InSupportofShahd.
Also, please write letters of support to my university managers, demanding that the university make a public apology and recognise that they are practicing racist tolerance of attacks made in very bad faith, targeting a stateless Palestinian woman of colour. And of course, demand that I resume teaching as usual and that any investigation that is motivated by the IHRA definition as a framework, must be dropped.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’d just like to thank you so much and to thank everyone through your platform and to just remember that this is not about me. My persecutors don’t really know me, and they have no sympathy whatsoever for Palestinian grievances and lived experiences of Israeli terror.
Just keep talking about Palestine and keep advancing the campaigns that hit Israel and its economy and reputation. Strike against the chain of complicity between your country and Israel that continues to embolden Israel’s impunity.
It’s time that justice is served for the Palestinians. It is long overdue. We now have the fourth generation of Palestinian refugees who are born in refugee camps. And while any Jew around the world can “return” to the so-called Promised Land, Palestinians who are the indigenous people of the land are not allowed to return. What is racist if this is not racist?
It has to be made clear that the organising principle of Zionism was advancing Jewish supremacy over indigenous Palestinian Arabs. We are all victims of this ethnic cleansing and horror that has affected my family in Palestine and Europe who continue to be criminalised wherever we go. It’s just not fair, and we have to do everything possible to stop this injustice.
Supplementary question: Since we first talked, you won a victory in your campaign for academic freedom. Could you explain what happened, and what comes next?
On Thursday, 27 January I met with the heads of human resources, and I was joined by union reps. HR asked for our meeting to be confidential, but I reminded them that my confidentiality was breached when they continued to contact the Zionist press without approaching me first.
In the meeting, it became clear that the complaints that were made against me were made by external powers from the likes of the Zionist outlets of Jewish News and Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Jewish Chronicle. These haven’t left me alone in the past and they won’t do so in the future. I have to fight for the investigation to be dropped after recognising its wrong foundation, and to put policies in place to ensure that no one is targeted in this malicious manner.
At the meeting, HR told me that I am reinstated with immediate effect. But let’s not underestimate the mental pressure that I have been under: being criminalized and suspended without warning, being treated as a non-person with no rights in my own university where I’ve been for four years.
We must disrupt this entrenched attitude that basically says that human rights, democracy, social responsibility and humanity are rights for everybody except for Palestine. We have to challenge this.
The mobilisation in support of me has been really inspiring and has been keeping me going, but the fight doesn’t end here. We must challenge the political tools that are being imposed on educational institutions, which violate the university’s autonomy, and make it complicit with the colonisers, while distracting from the oppression that they are inflicting on the colonised, on the Palestinians.
We need every voice to speak up against this silencing of the Palestinians. We know that justice is on our side and it will be served to the Palestinians. We have to reverse the effect of the IHRA definition of antisemitism that deliberately conflates anti-Zionism with the crime of antisemitism, as a means of silencing us from demanding accountability for Israeli crimes.
The fight goes on until freedom, justice and equality is delivered to the Palestinians.
Follow Shahd Abusalama on @ShahdAbusalama on Twitter and Facebook and @Shahdismailpaints on Instagram. Shahd writes the blog Palestine From My Eyes. Use the hashtag #InSupportofShahd to let people know about Shahd’s case. Students can support Shahd by signing this letter of support.
Here are some media articles about Shahd’s campaign for justice:
- Public letter from The Association of Student Activism for Palestine A.S.A.P
- British Society for Middle Eastern Studies: Letter to Sheffield Hallam University regarding Shahd Abusalama
- Shahd Abusalama: Protesting the Dehumanisation and Demonisation of the Palestinian People
- Nora Barrows-Friedma: UK Israel lobby takes aim at Palestinian university lecturer
- Riham Darwish: Palestinian Suspended From Teaching at UK University After Israeli Pressure
- The New Arab Staff: ‘Racist’ pro-Israel campaign led to job loss, ‘cyberbullying’, Palestinian academic claims
- Palestine Chronicle Staff Palestinian Academic Suspended by UK University Following Israeli Lobby Pressure
- Aya Youssef: “Israel” silencing a Palestinian lecturer with “anti-Semitic” claims
- 5Pillars: Sheffield Hallam University suspends Palestinian lecturer over anti-Israel tweets
- Saad Hasan: Controversial antisemitism definition claims another UK academic
- Amany Elsafady: Israel launches smear campaign against Palestinian academic
Thanks to Majed Abusalama for this collection of links