On October 29, 2023, the leadership of Hebrew University of Jerusalem publicly called on Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at the Faculty of Law-Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare, to resign after she signed a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The call prompted threats of violence against her and her family.
The decision occurred against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,000 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-November, has reportedly killed more than 11,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campus across the world.
In late October, Shalhoub-Kevorkian, whose work focuses on gendered violence, abuses of power, and violence against children, joined a group of childhood researchers and students in signing a petition highlighting the effects of the bombardment of Gaza on children’s well-being and emotional, mental, and physical health. The petition referred to the situation in Gaza as “genocide.”
On October 29, Professors Asher Cohen and Tamir Sheafer, respectively the president and rector of Hebrew University, sent Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian a letter noting their “astonishment, disgust and deep disappointment” with the petition, particularly the claims of genocide by Israel. The letter concluded “We are sorry and ashamed that the Hebrew University includes a faculty member like you. In light of your feelings, we believe that it is appropriate for you to consider leaving your position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.” At the same time, Cohen and Sheafer also released the letter on social media.
Following the public release of the letter, Shalhoub-Kevorkian reported experiencing death threats against her and her family.
Scholars across the globe embarked on a letter writing campaign in support of Shalhoub-Kevorkian, arguing that the letter from Cohen and Sheafer was an attempt to silence Shaloub-Kevorkian and shut down criticism of Israeli government policy. For instance, the Middle East Studies Association wrote, “Your attack on Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian is an attempt to silence her, to undermine her contributions, and, by extension, to silence Palestinian and non-Palestinian scholars raising their voices against state violence and violations of Palestinian human rights.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about an attempt to pressure a professor’s resignation in retaliation for exercising the right to academic freedom and free expression on matters within her area of professional expertise. Higher education authorities have an obligation not to interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, investigations stemming from such activity have a chilling effect on academic freedom, and undermine institutional autonomy and democratic society more generally.