The chapel at St. Mary's College in Moraga
The chapel at St. Mary's College in Moraga

St. Mary’s postpones event with Israel critic Hatem Bazian

An event at St. Mary’s College in Moraga featuring Hatem Bazian, an Islamic law and theology scholar who is an outspoken critic of Israel, has been postponed after “concerns” were raised about the speaker, according to a campus-wide email from the Catholic college’s president.

“How to be an Ally While Challenging Islamophobia” had been scheduled for Wednesday night at 7 p.m. The event is in a hybrid format, both in person and available over Zoom. 

“Due to the multiple perspectives and information shared by members of our community, the organizers have decided to postpone the event until they can investigate further and decide how best to meet their goals for the planned event,” Richard Plumb, president of SMC, wrote in the email.

Bazian just last week was called out by the Anti-Defamation League for retweeting an image of an Israeli soldier holding the heart of a Palestinian man. Some of Bazian’s past tweets and statements have also been described by critics as antisemitic. He is co-founder of the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, Zaytuna College in Berkeley, and a lecturer at UC Berkeley in the Department of Ethnic Studies.

The St. Mary’s event was sponsored by the Center for Women and Gender Equity (CWGE) and the Muslim Student Association.

Hatem Bazian
Hatem Bazian

The event’s description, which was still online as of Wednesday afternoon, said it was part of a regular CWGE Wednesday series and that it was timed to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Questions surrounding the event were first communicated to the St. Mary’s community on Monday, when four top administrators sent a campus-wide email stating that a group would convene “to discuss collectively the many facets of this issue” and then issue an announcement.

“We acknowledge the pain, anger and disappointment that many in our community are feeling,” the Sept. 6 email read, signed by Interim Provost Corey Cook, Vice President for Student Life Anthony Garrison-Engbrecht, Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kathy Littles and Vice President for Mission Frances Sweeney. “We are trying to be respectful and inclusive of the many members of the community affected, including the Muslim Student Association and our Jewish faculty, staff and students.”

The next day, when Plumb announced that the event had been postponed, he added that senior administrators and the college’s academic senate, an elected faculty body, would be deliberating on how to proceed.

Plumb said that decision-makers will first “gather information, review the concerns surrounding the speaker and the community’s response” to determine whether the event will occur at some point. 

Plumb also said that the college would be clarifying its policy surrounding internal and public-facing campus events, as well as its “processes for inviting potentially controversial speakers” to help create “more explicit guidelines with which to work.”

Toward the end of his email, Plumb wrote that the college “adamantly” supports academic freedom. 

The CWGE’s executive director, Sharon Sobotta, Bazian and the Muslim Student Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Bazian has clashed previously with members of the Jewish community at UC Berkeley, where he lectures in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies.

In 2017, Bazian apologized after he retweeted two cartoons. One was of a Jewish man celebrating, with the caption, “I can now kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians.” 

The other featured North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wearing a kippah and stating that he’d converted his country to Judaism. “Donald [Trump]: Now my nukes are legal & I can annex South Korea & you need to start paying me 34 billion a year in welfare,” the tweet read.

The retweets were condemned by UC Berkeley officials as having “crossed the line” into antisemitism. Four Jewish students then penned an open letter that urged the university to take “decisive action” against Bazian, a call that was supported by 16 professors at the university

A year later, rabbis in Berkeley raised objections to Bazian’s nomination as a standby officer to a former city council member. Those concerns were also shared by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who at the time said he was also opposed to Bazian’s appointment to the city’s Peace and Justice Commission because of the scholar’s “antisemitic statements and actions.” 

The postponement of the St. Mary’s event came after the ADL condemned a Sept. 2 retweet by Bazian, saying it inappropriately propagated an antisemitic organ-harvesting theory. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ responded to the ADL in a letter the next day, stating that she found the image “disturbing and offensive” and “associated with historical antisemitism.”

But the chancellor stopped short from pursuing any sort of “remediation” that had been requested by the ADL.

“When acting in their private capacities, University employees have the same rights and responsibilities as any other member of the public, including freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the Constitution,” Christ wrote. “It matters not if they are a part-time lecturer, a full professor, or an executive with actual authority. The University does not have the legal ability to sanction employees based on their beliefs or their constitutionally protected expression. At the same time, individual employees do not speak for or represent the values, perspectives or positions of the University.”

When reached for comment about the Sept. 2 retweet, Bazian responded to J. with a series of links to articles by the Guardian and ABC News that detailed the admission by an Israeli doctor in 2009 that the state had harvested the organs of dead Palestinians until the 1990s.

Founded in 1863, St. Mary’s had 2,358 undergraduate and 972 graduate students in fall 2020, according to the college’s most recent available figures. Bazian was a visiting professor of religious studies at the college from 2001 to 2007.

In February, a statue located on the St. Mary’s campus was temporarily removed after students discovered the artist’s Nazi past. After a community forum in May, the college placed the statue in storage for possible future educational purposes.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.