Universities Should Not Be Hosting — and Legitimizing — Terrorists
On Friday October 23, 2020, an event titled, “We Will Not Be Silenced: Against the Censorship and Criminalization of Academic Political Speech,” was hosted by the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, co-sponsored by the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies, the American Studies Program, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Among those featured in the NYU webinar was Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — a US-designated terrorist organization. Khaled is the unrepentant hijacker of TWA Flight 840 in 1969 and TWA Flight 741, one of three flights the PFLP targeted in the Dawson’s Field hijackings of 1970.
The three webinar speakers were: CUNY law student Nerdeen Kiswani, a founder and chair of Within Our Lifetime-United for Palestine; Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal; and Fred Moten, a professor in NYU Tisch’s Performance Studies Department and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.
Moderating the event was NYU professor Andrew Ross, member of the US Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and secretary of NYU’s chapter of AAUP. In 2019, Ross’ department of Social and Cultural Analysis, pledged non-cooperation with NYU’s own campus in Tel Aviv. (The senior leadership of NYU does not condone BDS or support academic boycotts.)
Khaled was featured last month at a San Francisco State University (SFSU) event, which Zoom refused to carry because of the event’s violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service. At NYU’s event, she is shown in a pre-recorded clip reiterating her defense of “armed struggle” (10:05).
To those speaking at the webinar, Khaled was and remains a freedom fighter and an icon. Moten praises her when he says: “Leila Khaled not only refuses to be silenced; she refuses to speak the language and the false pieties of those who prosecute the war in which we live” (30:45).
Another panelist, Kiswani, who once threatened to light a person on fire for wearing a sweatshirt featuring an Israel Defense Forces logo, says of Khaled’s crimes, “Many of the people who were on the [hijacked] planes that day were interviewed later on and they said that they didn’t feel fear. I even watched an interview of a little boy where he said [of the hijacking] … it was cool and he had fun” (14:15).
“The terrorist narrative,” she claims, “is being used by Zionists and their ilk and legitimized by services like Zoom who think they can say who is and isn’t a terrorist” (15:28).
Despite Kiswani’s refusal to view hijacking as an act of terror, Khaled herself acknowledges the fear she instilled in her captives when she recalls in her autobiography that an older female hostage wet herself.
Independent organizations at universities should invite a variety of speakers, some of whose views may be controversial. However, as Moshe Raab, a passenger who was a young teenager on TWA Flight 741, eloquently states, “When I was a student in university, I often faced new ideas that ran contrary to my beliefs. But these perspectives were presented by knowledgeable, respectable academics. Some were Nobel Prize winners. None were terrorists.”
Speaking of SFSU President Lynn Mahoney, Raab says, “I cannot imagine how Mahoney, or any decent person, can claim Khaled’s presentation will be an educational experience.”
I believe in the power of the university to serve as a facilitator of difficult conversations. To attend university is a privilege, and I will always be grateful to NYU for providing me with the tools to listen, learn, and lead.
Yet, as someone who knows victims of terror and their traumatized families, I also know the toll inflicted by the act itself as well as its subsequent justification. For university faculty members to reframe terrorism as educational and even progressive insults all victims of terror and the memory of anyone who yearned for peace and was murdered in its name.
Doria Kahn is a senior at New York University.