Defeating the IHRA witch hunt: An interview with Palestinian activist and scholar Shahd Abusalama

Shahd Abusalama (S.A. Facebook page)

Ramona Wadi

Mondoweiss  /  February 7, 2022

Shahd Abusalama reflects on her unjust suspension from Sheffield Hallam University based on false charges of antisemitism, and the popular movement that helped get her reinstated.

Sheffield Hallam University suspended Shahd Abusalama from her position as associate lecturer after anonymous complaints were leveled against her last month. The move generated an outpouring of support for the Palestinian academic and sparked a discussion on how governments and institutions collude with Israel over adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel, as well as throttle Palestinian narratives. 

Abusalama was suspended following a series of tweets in which she gave her opinion over a first-year student’s use of the words “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust” on a poster in December 2021. Jewish News UK reported the university was investigating the tweets. On January 21, while preparing for a class, Abusalama was notified of the suspension and her classes cancelled. The nature of the complaint and the identity behind it remain under wraps.  

It is not the first time that Abusalama, a PhD student and activist from Gaza who moved to the UK in 2014, has been targeted by Zionist propagandists for her activism. Speaking to Mondoweiss, Abusalama notes that her case has been equated with that of Jeremy Corbyn and David Miller, both of whom have been targeted by Zionists. “But we have to make the distinction. Yes, you are victims to the same witch hunt, but the consequences are different because we live in an unequal society where some people are more privileged than others. Both of them are white, older, and they have European citizenship. I don’t have all of these qualities, you know. I’ve vulnerable in so many ways that the fact that the IHRA definition has been used by the university for the first time against a Palestinian, shows how we are the most vulnerable to this sinister and insidious definition.” 

Abusalama describes the campaign against her as malicious. “But it also shows a historical pattern of how Palestinians are treated as an exception to the rule.” Palestinians, she says, have been treated as an exception when it comes to human rights and self-determination, and the university’s actions in her regard have extended Israel’s entrenched policy of racism and colonialism – basically subjugating the Palestinians, their stories and their experiences, to maintain the privileges bestowed upon the colonizers.

During an earlier meeting with the head of human resources at the university, Abusalama said that regret was expressed over the mishandling of the situation and the disregard for the students’ well-being, whose classes were abruptly cancelled. “Because let’s not forget that my suspension meant that the classes would be cancelled until further notice, and so even my students were affected by the miscalculated behavior and response on behalf of the university. It’s a step in the right direction that they would recognize all the wrongdoing, but the investigation is still going ahead, so this is not over. The investigation is based upon the IHRA definition and the university spoke to the Zionist press without approaching me first. They literally gave in to the defamation campaign led by Zionist outlets, communicating with them about my business without approaching me first, and telling them that my university is going to investigate me, without my knowledge.”

The image Israel built through decades of relying on colonial support is slowly cracking, thanks to the majority, as Abusalama defines Palestinians and the oppressed. “Popular pressure works and if we fight back, we can win,” Abusalama asserts, “because of all this outpouring of support that came from all the corners of the world – multi-international, multi-faith, multi-racial supporters around the world, and this support is a key player in the struggle for Palestine. We have to remember that we are the majority and we have justice on our side, UN resolutions, international law and all international conventions – the International Court of Justice is on our side. Even Israeli human rights organizations are on our side.” 

Indeed, the outpouring of support for Abusalama on social media platforms stands in contrast to the workings of the Zionist lobby which relies on intimidation and silencing campaigns. Weaponizing the IHRA definition, which is ambiguous enough to suit Israel’s political strategy of supremacy, is one tactic which should come under close scrutiny.

There have long been concerns that the IHRA definition would be used to stifle criticism of Israel, notably targeting either persons whose nationalities are politically intertwined with Israel’s policies, such as the Palestinians or Lebanese people for example, or else academics whose line of research includes analysis about Israeli politics. Others outside academia have worried the elimination of criticism of Israel would bring about “the censure and erasure of Palestinian opposition to the violence that continues to dispossess them.” At this point it appears clear that when universities adopt the IHRA definition, it constitutes direct participation in Zionist hostility against Palestinians and pro-Palestine voices. It also disregards the Palestinians’ collective memory and lived experience of Israel’s ongoing Nakba.

“If you ask a person like me if Israel is a racist endeavor – it goes without saying that they are. I am a victim of their ethnic cleansing. My family is a victim of their ethnic cleansing – 531 Palestinian villages and town completely depopulated of its native populations and destroyed, which is an act of memoricide that is called out by so many people, even Israeli historians,” Abusalama says. “Israel desperately tries to pretend to claim the victim role, but only to distract from the actual victim of its crime, and this has been called out before the formation of the state.”

Abusalama notes that there were Jews on the colonial board of the British government who spoke out against the construction of Judaism as a national identity. “It was a great injustice to even consider building a Zionist state where the Palestinians are completely disregarded, and this was going on simultaneously with Britain promising the Arabs of Palestine self-determination. Which was the whole point of mandatory power at that time after World War I;  they claimed to be leading those occupied people to independence and autonomy. But when most of the world’s colonized community moved towards decolonization, Palestinians remained stuck under colonialism and colonial power was extended from Britain to Israel. Britain left Palestine after three decades of destruction and settler colonialism, on May 14, 1948. There were just hours between the British withdrawal from Palestine and the declaration of the Israel state on May 15, 1948. That was in the background of the ethnic cleansing that was crushing and destroying the landscape of Palestine and its people. And this process continues today in Sheikh Jarrah, in Jerusalem, in most neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in Beita, Hebron, and everywhere, even in the north of Palestine. And this is so clear in B’Tselem reports that condemned Israeli apartheid. An apartheid regime that stretches between the Jordanian river and the Mediterranean sea.”

Against a backdrop of historical evidence of Israel’s ethnic cleansing and the ongoing repercussions of its settler-colonial expansion, activism is now being criminalized instead of holding Israel accountable in accordance with international law. 

Abusalama says, “When we say free Palestine from the river to the sea we mean that these oppressive practices from the river to the sea and beyond, as my case highlights, need to stop. They need to stop. But even that beautiful liberation chant is accused of antisemitism. Even ‘solidarity is a verb’ in this atmosphere is antisemitism. It’s concerning and it must concern people who care about humanity and human rights. No one is safe. No one is safe while there’s any injustice going on around the world. Suffice to see how Israel is using its model of oppression against the Palestinians and selling it to other oppressive states to use against their unwanted others.”

Abusalama was adamant she would not accept any investigations based on the IHRA definition. “I won’t accept to be investigated based on a wrong foundation and I believe that this investigation should be dropped. It’s an inherently racist and misleading motivation that is being imposed against universities by government officials here in the UK. Cutting their funds if they don’t adopt the IHRA definition. Gavin Williamson, the UK’s education secretary has been imposing the IHRA definition on Universities and even gave a deadline by which failure to adopt the IHRA definition would result in withdrawing funding. And this is a breach of university autonomy that cannot be accepted, whether you’re Palestinian or not. The government’s interference in university business shows how political this tool of IHRA definition is and how it only serves British and Israeli and imperial interests basically.”

Since our conversation Abusalama has been reinstated. On February 2, the University and College Union of Sheffield Hallam passed a motion requiring the university to issue a public apology, to end any investigations against her which are based upon the IHRA definition, and to impose a moratorium on using the definition in the university’s disciplinary actions.

The next day, Abusalama was informed by the university that no further investigation would be conducted. She is now wholly exonerated of the false antisemitic charges brought against her under the IHRA definition and has been offered a more secure contract with the university. 

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger; her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile, and Latin America

If you have been affected by the issues described in this article, the European Legal Support Center specializes in providing legal support and advice to Palestinian rights advocates across Europe and the UK. You can contact them here.