How a Palestinian academic defeated a campaign to silence her

Shahd Abusalama’s case demonstrated the precarious situation Palestinian academics face in the UK.

Palestinian activist Shahd Abusalama holding up her first
Palestinian academic Shahd Abusalama was temporarily suspended from her teaching position at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK in January [Facebook]

When Shahd Abusalama told me about her new job as an associate lecturer at a UK university, I was beyond proud. But just two weeks later, she was suspended, after Sheffield Hallam University management capitulated to a racialised smear campaign launched against her by Zionist media. Instead of defending Shahd from libellous and defamatory attacks, the university added fuel to the fire, abdicating its duty of care towards a young woman of colour.

Shahd’s dismissal provoked a powerful international anti-racist campaign in her support. The attacks against her were levelled because of her outspoken and entirely legitimate criticism of the state of Israel, and the university eventually dropped its investigation of the unfounded allegations. While Shahd has been reinstated in her teaching post, she continues to face racist and hateful messages from Zionist media and trolls. Her suspension is evidence of the precarious situation many Palestinians in UK higher education find themselves in and the racist environment they face.

It is not easy starting a career in academia in the UK, and more so for a Palestinian woman refugee from Gaza. Shahd’s grandparents were forcibly expelled from their home village of Beit Jerja in 1948 – one of hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns depopulated and destroyed by Zionist forces in the last days of the British occupation of Palestine. In an act of ethnic cleansing, the newly founded state of Israel deprived hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, like the Abusalama family, of their land and livelihoods and made them refugees. Shahd’s grandparents were forced to settle in a refugee camp in Gaza, where she was born.

Shahd was raised in a besieged city where missile attacks are the norm. You never forget the horror of bombs exploding around you, the deafening sounds, the heartless destruction. I experienced it in 2012 while doing research in Gaza as a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberystwyth.

Shahd’s family graciously hosted me during my three-month stay in Gaza. One day, a missile struck a car and killed its passengers right outside their home. Indeed, the air strikes launched by Israel began months before it actually declared war on November 14. More than 100 Gaza residents were killed in the indiscriminate Israeli bombardment; entire families were simply wiped out. During this time of incessant air raids, the Abusalama family shared their courage with me in order to pull through.

I met Shahd on the night of her oldest sister, Majd’s, wedding. While the event was spectacular, the feeling was bittersweet, as Majd and her husband were planning to leave Gaza within days of getting married. A year later, all but one of the five Abusalama children would depart to pursue higher education away from the unliveable conditions of the besieged Gaza Strip.

This left the youngest, Mohamed, to care for the parents, whose only dream was to see their children safe, happy and successful. During the bombing of Gaza, I remember how Mohamed also cared for me, instructing me to leave my windows open despite the winter cold because the blasts from the explosion could shatter the glass if left closed.

Unlike the Palestinian residents of Gaza, I was able to escape the Israeli bombs on day six of the “official” war because I held a British passport. In tears, I kissed the Abusalama family goodbye and joined a convoy arranged by the United Nations to take non-Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip. I cried the whole way to the Rafah crossing, succumbing to the guilt of abandoning those who did not enjoy such international protection from Israeli land, sea and air bombardment.

Despite her traumatic past, Shahd thrived as a young student in the UK. She completed a Masters with distinction at the School of Oriental and African Studies and then received a scholarship to complete a doctorate at Sheffield Hallam University. Just this past December, she submitted her doctoral thesis, which investigates historical representations of Palestinian refugees in documentary cinema.

Shahd also rose to cultural fame in the UK, as British artist Marc Quinn immortalised her in a sculpture and she shared platforms with prominent Jewish scholars such as Andrew Feinstein, Paul Kelemen and Ilan Pappé. She brought Palestinian folklore music and dance to diverse audiences around the UK with the Hawiyya Dance Company, which she and a group of international multi-faith antiracist women co-founded in 2017.

When Shahd told me of her plans to pursue an academic career in the UK, I was delighted, thinking that due to her own perseverance she would excel here. I was unaware at the time of the inhospitable climate that would engulf UK higher education.

The academic environment in the country is currently marred by the harmful interference of the sitting government, which continues to display and foster Islamophobic, racist and anti-immigrant sentiments. In October 2020, then Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson demanded that universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which weaponises the term against those who criticise Israel’s colonial project.

Subsequently, a letter from 122 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals detailed the ways in which the IHRA definition and its attendant examples have been instrumentalised in several contexts to silence defenders of Palestinian rights. A University College of London working group also concluded that the definition is not “fit for purpose”, and even Professor Kenneth Stern, the main drafter of the definition, said it should not be used in a university setting.

Nonetheless, the Jewish News outlet invoked the definition to brand Shahd anti-Semitic, and Sheffield Hallam University, without an explanation or even a conversation with Shahd, initially cancelled the class she was scheduled to teach. The attack against Shahd was based on a Twitter thread in which she defended a first-year university student for writing on a placard, “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust”.

The defence for Shahd in response to this slander was extensive. It included UK-based artists, such as Lowkey, Palestinian scholar and activist Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Al Jazeera anchor Marc Lamont Hill and international social media chefs, Abu Julia and Rubio.

These voices joined the chorus of community support Shahd received from her adopted hometown, Sheffield, and from student groups from universities across the UK. This overwhelming support is not only a testament to the extensive community that Shahd has cultivated around herself as an activist, friend, teacher and student in Palestine and the UK, but it also reveals the growing anger at the targeting of Palestinians in this country and globally.

The campaign, assisted by the European Legal Support Center and university and trade unions, was successful in lifting Shahd’s suspension at Sheffield Hallam University and now endeavours to prevent such an attack from reoccurring. This character assassination attempt is not an isolated case but part of a UK-wide, systematic drive to use the IHRA definition to silence the voices of Palestinian academics and supporters of the Palestinian cause.

As courageous as always, Shahd stood up for herself and her people in Palestine, and with the help of a transnational movement of allies, she defeated those who tried to silence her.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.