The shame of Sheffield Hallam University – letter of protest

Introduction

Along with many others, I have written to Sheffield Hallam University protesting the suspension of Shahd Abusalama from her teaching post. That letter appears below after this brief introduction.

The suspension appears to be based on accusations made by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group Campaign Against Antisemitism that she had been fostering hostility to Jews. She was preparing to teach her first class on 21 January when an administrator informed her the evening before that her class was canceled and her students would be notified.

The basis of the accusation appears to be based on Twitter posts in which she discussed accusations of antisemitism made against a member of the Sheffield Hallam Palestine Society, this arising from a banner created during a banner-making session, which stated “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust”. She made clear that she herself would not use that term in relation to Palestine.

More background can be found here, here,, and here.

My letter:

Professor Sir Chris Husbands
Vice-Chancellor
Sheffield Hallam University
By Email: c.husbands@shu.ac.uk

26 January 2022

Dear Professor Sir Chris Husbands,

Re: The investigation of Shahd Abusalama and cancellation of the class she was scheduled to teach.

According to reports, Ms Abusalama is under investigation by Sheffield Hallam University for social media posts published on Twitter on 4 December 2021.  There is no need to repeat the details here – they have been set out across social media and in other letters to the university – save to say that Ms Abusalama sought to explain what might have motivated Palestinian students to create a banner stating ‘Stop the Palestinian Holocaust’.  At the same time, she made clear that she would not herself have used the term ‘Holocaust’ in the context of Palestine. Ms Abusalama’s speaking about this, apparently, has been sufficient to sustain a prima facia accusation of antisemitism against her.

The first and obvious point to make is that, on the facts of the matter, Ms Abusalama was fulfilling the role of educator and critical interlocutor to the students in an exemplary manner. In other words, her actions, as reported, were directed to explaining, to critiquing, to, in effect, challenging the students’ thinking in respect of linking the term ‘Holocaust’ to Palestinian issues.  An aspect of this process was articulating, and respecting, the perspective of the Palestinian students who created the banner. Anyone who has even the faintest understanding of the brutality daily visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli state should have some insight into the surrounding circumstances that prompted those particular words on that particular banner.      

It is sometime since I attended university, but my understanding has always been that one of the key functions of a university is to serve as a haven where ideas can be freely explored, and challenged, without fear of penalty or retribution. In this matter, it appears that Sheffield Hallam University has been derelict in its duty to secure that space for, in this case, Ms Abusalama and indeed Palestinian students in general.  This should be a cause of shame for your institution.

It appears that the undergirding for the accusation of antisemitism is based on the university’s formal endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This is a definition that has attracted extensive and authoritative critique and disavowal by scholars – Jewish and not Jewish – legal experts and civil society groups. And, as a Jew, it gives me no comfort at all; and I object to its use in attempting to negate Palestinian voices.   The IHRA definition is a messy, confused, over-embellished jumble of ideas that is having, as predicted, a chilling effect on free speech in relation to Palestine/Israel issues. Indeed, one of the authors of the definition – Kenneth Stern – has made it clear that the IHRA definition is not designed to be a guide as to what constitutes permissible speech in universities.

The definition has in fact become weaponised by those who wish to silence legitimate Israel-critical speech. Your university now stands charged with being complicit in this silencing and is so doing joins those who wish to stifle, indeed erase, Palestinian voices.  It is a shameful for a university to put itself in this position, in effect hollowing-out your university’s own pledge in respect of the IHRA definition:

‘Adoption of this definition will not limit legitimate criticism and debate. The University will continue to uphold and protect the rights of students and staff to hold legitimate debates on issues related to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.’

In closing, I endorse the demands as formulated by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies that Sheffield Hallam University:

  • immediately inform Ms Abusalama of any accusations against her; of the evidence of any such accusations; and give her the right in consultation with her union to respond to those accusations;
  • uphold Ms Abusalama’s right to freedom of expression such as it is guaranteed under the law, particularly when it comes to speaking about her experiences as a Palestinian refugee from Gaza;
  • publicly apologise to Ms Abusalama for the breach of confidentiality committed against her when the university informed the media of an investigation into her social media posts;
  • revoke the decision to cancel the class she teaches;
  • uphold its duty of care towards Ms Abusalama both as a student and member of staff at Sheffield Hallam University;
  • rescind the use of the IRHA definition of antisemitism as a tool in complaints and disciplinary procedures.

Yours sincerely,

Bernard Spiegal

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