UCLA is subjecting anthropology professor Kyeyoung Park to an unwarranted investigation after a student complained about comments critical of Zionism made by a guest lecturer during Park’s course on “Constructing Race.”
The May 14 lecture on “Islamophobia and the attacks against Palestine organizing and scholarship” was given by San Francisco State professor Rabab Abdulhadi, an expert on these topics.
The lecture touched on the history of Islamophobia and its interplay with concepts such as settler colonialism, imperial feminism, and “shared values” between settler-colonial states. In describing the ties between Islamophobic campaigns and pro-Israel groups in the United States, Abdulhadi noted that in the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, white nationalist Richard Spencer had proudly proclaimed himself a “white Zionist.”
During the question-and-answer session after the lecture, a student told Abdulhadi that as a Jew she identified with the political ideology of Zionism and was offended by being placed “in the same category as a white supremacist.”
Abdulhadi responded that she respects the student’s feelings but does not agree with them. She explained that Jews, like any ethnic or religious group, have diverse views, and can choose whether to support or oppose white supremacy and colonialism.
Over the next few minutes, another student announced that she thought Abdulhadi was “not deserving of the respect or the opportunity to speak in front of all these people at a very privileged institution,” and the two students repeatedly interrupted the professor, preventing her from responding to their comments. The students later reportedly called Abdulhadi “ignorant” and an “abomination.”
Later that week, the school paper wrote that several students had reported the lecture as hate speech and planned to file a formal discrimination complaint. The report spread through pro-Israel news outlets, sparking a round of vicious hate mail directed at Abdulhadi, who has long been a target of right-wing attacks.
UCLA later announced that the complaint had been forwarded to the Discrimination Prevention Office, which investigates faculty.
The UCLA Anthropology Graduate Student Association defended both the substance of the lecture and Park’s right to academic freedom. Noting repeated incidents of hostility toward faculty and graduate students of color, the group unequivocally condemned “attempts to bully graduate students into silence in the face of white supremacy and avoidance of topics that make up critical areas of our research and teaching.”
The UCLA Academic Senate’s Academic Freedom Committee also defended Park’s right to invite Abdulhadi, stating:
The right to bring in speakers or to use classroom materials that a professor considers necessary and important for student learning should be, in our committee’s view, inviolable. Indeed, the University’s Faculty Code of Conduct guarantees faculty the “right to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction.” It may well be that students find the words of such speakers or the content of classroom materials objectionable, but this does not alter the fact that a professor has the right to introduce such course content.
“The video of the class makes it clear that Abdulhadi’s lecture was thoughtful and well-researched and that she responded in a reasonable manner to students who felt differently,” said Palestine Legal staff attorney Zoha Khalili. “Having had over two weeks to view this video, it is unreasonable for UCLA to continue to subject Park to further investigation. In a case such as this where the evidence plainly demonstrates that there was no discrimination, a drawn-out investigation serves only to distract faculty from their work and to chill their academic freedom.”
“UCLA should end its investigation,” Khalili continued. “Having publicly linked the lecture to false accusations of antisemitism on its website, the university should also issue a statement clearing Abdulhadi and Park of these allegations.”
The outcry over the incident is part of the latest wave in the push to disingenuously characterize criticism of Israel—or in this case, commentary that makes supporters of Israel uncomfortable—as antisemitic.