A San Francisco State University invitation to Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled to speak at a virtual event this month is roiling Bay Area Jewish organizations.
Khaled, 76, was a key player in two hijackings as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in 1969 on a Tel Aviv-bound flight and in 1970 on an El Al flight to New York. The PFLP has been designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.
Hosted by the university’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program (AMED), the Sept. 23 roundtable discussion, “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance,” is facing strong rebukes this week from an array of organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, San Francisco Hillel and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.
“It is bitterly ironic that a notorious hijacker and terrorist will be welcomed at an institution of higher learning where the free exchange of ideas ought to be paramount,” said Seth Brysk, director of the ADL’s Central Pacific region. “An individual with a demonstrated commitment to violent extremism will undoubtedly discourage students from free expression and exploration.”
While the ADL “respects and defends academic freedom,” Brysk added, it is urging the university to “reject violence” and “reassure” the safety of its students.
The event will be moderated by the AMED program’s senior scholar, associate professor Rabab Abdulhadi, an outspoken critic of Israel and a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Women’s studies professor Tomomi Kinukawa also will moderate. The event’s Facebook page so far shows 276 people planning to attend and 1,200 people interested.
Abdulhadi and Kinukawa did not respond to requests for comment.
“At a time of unrest and deep divisions in our country, holding a program that advocates and even glorifies violent solutions to the world’s problems, in [a] public forum that will be broadcast into student’s private homes, is unconscionable,” said JCRC’s Middle East project director Karen Stiller. “Leila Khaled’s appearance may be considered an exercise of free speech, but SFSU must protect students and exercise its own free speech rights by clearly stating that this program does not represent its mission and core values.”
In a statement provided by an SFSU spokesperson, the university cited free speech in backing the right to include Khaled as a speaker.
“An invitation to a public figure to speak to a class should not be construed as an endorsement of point of view,” the statement read. “Higher education and the college experience are an opportunity to hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences.”
The statement also read, “We recognize that the exercise of free speech and academic freedom can result in discomfort or pain for others.”
S.F. Hillel’s executive director Rachel Nilson Ralston said she is alarmed by Khaled’s participation in a university event.
“We call on the university to use their leadership voices to make clear that Khaled’s actions do not represent the values of our university,” Ralston wrote in a statement. “We look to them to ensure the safety and inclusion of all students, including Jews and Zionists.”
The event will include other speakers, including Laura Whitehorn, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace who was in prison for 14 years for her involvement in a 1983 bombing at the U.S. Capitol; Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army; Ronnie Kasrils, a South African politician and Israel critic; and Rula Abu Dahou of Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Khaled is a folk hero of sorts in the Palestinian resistance movement; a photo of her wearing a kaffiyeh and holding an AK-47 has been reproduced on murals in Bethlehem, Belfast and elsewhere. She has never renounced her past, and in frequent interviews continues to hold that Israel and Zionism “are terrorism” and that violence against Israel is a legitimate weapon.
It is also not the first time that Khaled has been controversial in the Bay Area.
Earlier this year, a display at UC Berkeley by Bears of Palestine, a campus group that promotes Palestinian history and culture, included the iconic photo of Khaled along a row of female Palestinian militants, including Rasmea Odeh. Odeh was convicted for her participation in a 1969 bombing of a Jerusalem market that killed two college students. A student government resolution to condemn the photos failed to pass in February.
S.F. State, too, has been a longtime battleground between Israeli and Palestinian activists.
In April 2016, a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was shouted down by pro-Palestinian students, an incident that drew the condemnation of then-S.F. State president Les Wong. A year later, Barkat abruptly canceled another invitation to speak at the university after both Jewish and Palestinian students wrote letters to oppose his appearance on campus.
In February 2017, an investigation by S.F. State found that the university’s Hillel was “improperly excluded” from a campus civil rights information fair. In June of that year, a lawsuit was filed in federal court against 13 professors and administrators, alleging discrimination against Jewish students.
In February 2018, two Jewish students filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court against the board of trustees of California State University, alleging that SFSU discriminates against Jewish students in violation of their civil rights.
Abdulhadi, listed as a defendant in that case, also was cited in the suit. She defended Hillel’s exclusion from the 2017 information fair in an essay in the pro-Palestinian publication Mondoweiss.
The case was settled in March 2019. As part of the settlement, SFSU promised to protect the rights of Jewish students and to pay $36,000 toward the plaintiffs’ fees.
The settlement also mandated the establishment of a Jewish life coordinator on campus. The job was filled by former S.F. Hillel staffer Sasha Joseph, who left the post in February 2020 after less than a year. The university has yet to find a replacement for the position.