Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor Sheffield Hallam University about Shahd Abusalama

Dear Professor Husbands,

I wish to add my voice in protest against your ill-advised treatment of Ms. Shahd Abusalama, a young Palestinian academic whom you have suspended from teaching, apparently on grounds of spurious accusations of antisemitism.

I have read the series of tweets she wrote in December last year in response to an incident in which a first-year student made a poster with the slogan “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust” and was accused (by another, Jewish student) of antisemitism for using the word Holocaust. Her comments, spelled out in less than 400 words, are a lucid deconstruction of the use of the word ‘holocaust’, and a model of responsible academic engagement with social media. I am also cognisant of her response on Facebook three years ago to attacks on her by various Zionist organisations for her cultural activities, in which she criticised her younger self and, far from being antisemitic, aligned her position with Jewish anti-Zionists like Jews for Peace, etc. All this can be discovered in a few clicks.

I believe you are infringing Ms. Abusalama’s academic freedom. Academic freedom is enshrined in law, in the 1988 Education Reform Act, as the right of academics “to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs”. The Equality Act (2010) prohibits racist acts against Jews, but it does not prohibit criticism of the state of Israel. The two are not in contradiction. I also believe you have been caught in a trap set two years ago by the then Education Secretary when he enjoined universities to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. I hope you are aware that the IHRA definition has been widely criticised for its tendentious ‘illustrative examples’, which, far from identifying antisemitism, conflate antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

I urge you to recognise that Ms. Abusalama is the victim of those who wish to silence debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and is fully entitled to speak out about it in the way that she has. Your University needs to recognise that there is nothing in itself antisemitic in the criticism of Israel or of Zionism.

I do not know Ms. Abusalama, and have nothing to disclose except that I am a secular British Jew who agrees with her.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Chanan
Professor Emeritus
University of Roehampton​​

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