Zoom headquarters in San Jose. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Zoom headquarters in San Jose. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Protest at Zoom HQ seeks to block S.F. State Leila Khaled event

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Pro-Israel advocates and activists fighting antisemitism will be holding a protest at Zoom headquarters in San Jose on Tuesday, seeking to block the platform from hosting a virtual event at San Francisco State University featuring Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled.

Khaled, who hijacked two planes in 1969 and 1970 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is speaking on Wednesday through Zoom to students and the public after being invited by the university’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program. The PFLP is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department and the European Union.

The rally’s main organizer, End Jew Hatred, which describes itself as “a grassroots movement centering on Jewish liberation,” has brought on a number of other national Jewish groups for support. They include the New York-based legal fund the Lawfare Project, San Diego-based antisemitism educational nonprofit Shield of David and the network of pro-Israel youth groups Club Z

The protest’s stated goal is to convince the videoconferencing company to disallow the event on Zoom because of Khaled’s affiliation with the PFLP.

“We’re asking Zoom to not be a platform for this terrorist to speak,” said Brian Blacher, a co-founder of Shield of David. “I believe in the First Amendment. [But] this is unnecessary, to host a terrorist. And it’s unprecedented that we are giving them a platform.”

Zoom’s “acceptable use policy” says users may not “engage in any activity that supports or facilitates terrorism or terrorist organizations.” Zoom did not respond to a J. request for comment.

Khaled is a folk hero for 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 tool for the cause.

A depiction of Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled on the West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Photo/Wikimedia-Rehgina CC BY-SA 4.0)
A depiction of Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled on the West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Photo/Wikimedia-Rehgina CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Tuesday protest will feature several speakers, including Masha Merkulova, head of the Zionist youth Club Z, Rabbi Mendel Polichenco from Chabad Carmel Valley and 17 year-old Los Angeles high schooler Jennifer Karlin, according to the Lawfare Project.

The protest comes shortly after a Sept. 15 letter was sent by the Lawfare Project to the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, arguing that S.F. State’s hosting of Khaled “may give rise” to violations of U.S. law.

The letter points to a specific U.S. statute that prohibits Americans from providing “material support or resources” that furthers terrorism.

“I would say that the intent of the law is to prevent and to do everything possible from terrorist organizations going through with their destructive desires,” said Lawfare Project senior counsel Gerard Filitti.

Filitti said he had not yet received a response from the DOJ as of Monday afternoon. The DOJ did not respond to J.’s request for comment.

Thomas A. Durkin, a national security lawyer who has represented suspected terrorists in court, believes the Lawfare Project’s letter is a “rather heavy-handed attempt” to silence free speech.

He said that he’s never seen the government prosecute such a case.

“[I]t seems hard for me to imagine how it could be said that the university is knowingly providing material support to the organization by simply inviting Ms. Khaled to speak on the academic issues advertised,” said Durkin. He said an important distinction is that while Khaled may be affiliated with the PFLP, she herself is not designated a terrorist by the State Department.

S.F. State did not respond to a J. request for comment.

In previous interviews, university president Lynn Mahoney has argued that Khaled’s appearance is a free speech issue. In an interview with J. on Sept. 15, Mahoney said that while she “strongly” condemns violence and terrorism, not allowing Khaled to speak would amount to censorship.

“Where I will have failed is if a group that wants to present a very competing vision — in this case of the Middle East, but it could be anything — I will have failed as university president if that group isn’t allowed to do that,” Mahoney said in the interview.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.