SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 20, 2022

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Sheffield Hallam University

Region & Country:Europe | United Kingdom

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 20, 2022, Sheffield Hallam University’s administration suspended Ph.D student Shahd Abusalama from her teaching position after a complaint against her led to an investigation, apparently for her social media commentary about Palestine.

Abusalama is a well-known Palestinian activist and academic who moved from the Gaza Strip to the UK in 2014 as a refugee. Since relocating to the UK, she has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both online and at protests and events. Abusalama was recently hired as an associate lecturer by Sheffield Hallam University, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. and completed her dissertation on the representation of Palestinian refugees in documentary films.

According to The New Arab, pro-Israel organizations and media apparently increased their pressure against her after she published a thread of tweets in December 2021 discussing a poster created by a first-year student with the phrase “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust,” which a Jewish student had called anti-Semitic. In the thread, Abusalama stated that she understood why a student would evoke the Holocaust to highlight Palestinian suffering, but that she personally would not have used the word due to its modern, politicized meaning, which she argued overlooks non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust and is “often used to justify the racist state of Israel.”

Critics of Abusalama claimed her commentary on the poster conflicted with the university’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which opponents of the definition, including Abusalama, argue conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with racism. The IHRA’s webpage for the definition provides “contemporary examples of antisemitism,” including “[d]rawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Quoted in a December 24 article in Jewish News, a university spokesperson said that a “student conduct team [was] looking into [Abusalama’s] social media posts” and affirmed that it had adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

In a tweet on January 19, Abusalama spoke out about the increased pressure and criticism against her. She wrote that she was being subjected to “renewed online bullying to discredit [her] academic reputation” and was “getting creepy emails about people trying to hack” her Twitter account.

Then, on January 20, she was informed by a university administrator that her class, which was set to begin the next day, had been canceled due to a university investigation into her. The university launched the investigation in response to a complaint filed against Abusalama, but did not disclose the details and source of the complaint.

Following a week of international outcry in support of Abusalama by students, academics, and activists, the university reinstated her on January 29. Mondoweiss then reported that 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.” On February 3, Abusalama announced on her Twitter page that the university had ceased its investigation and would be providing her with a more secure employee contract.

Scholars at Risk is concerned by the suspension of a lecturer due to her peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression – conduct which is protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United Kingdom is a party. University authorities have an obligation to refrain from politically or ideologically motivated restrictions on expressive and academic activity. Members of civil society who disagree with the content of academic or expressive activity should also refrain from coercive actions intended to chill or punish such activity. In addition to harm to the immediate victim, suspensions and harassment intended to restrict or retaliate against scholars undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.

Sources: (website where scholar is a contributor)