Dear Friends and colleagues,
I never thought that I would find myself writing this letter. In fact, I never imagined that my academic research on terrorism and my administrative role as the Director of the Institute for Israel Studies would coincide in such a chilling way.
Less than forty eight hours after the horrific attacks in Paris, I feel that it is my responsibility to ask you to join me in an attempt to confront the radicalization process on campuses and to protect students staff and faculty members from intimidation and violence.
On Friday, November the 13th, 2015, our institute hosted Dr. Gil-Li Vardi from Stanford University who kindly accepted our invitation to present her thought provoking study on ‘The Birth of the Israeli Defense Forces Military Culture’.
As any scholar and student of Israel knows, or should know Israeli scholars in the humanities and the social sciences are known for their innovative, critical and thought provoking works. Since the formation of our Institute we committed to cultivate this exact type of atmosphere.
We are very proud of the outstanding scholars who visited us and taught for us over the years. Moreover, we are committed to supporting students who come to UT to learn Arabic, one of Israel’s two formal languages, in the successful Summer Institute that our colleagues Dr. Kristen Brustad and Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal established. We hope that in the future we will be able to invite students from the Arab World to study Hebrew in the same way.
Additionally, we are working closely with Palestinian scholars in developing joint research and teaching initiatives.
On a more personal level, over the last 11 years I was teaching courses on terrorism and Israel. I have always been gratified by the fact that Arab and Muslim students took my classes and very often were among the most engaged and enthusiastic students.
Throughout the years, I never had a single incident in which a student of any faith or background expressed dissatisfaction with the contents of the courses or with the classroom’s climate.
Thus, the events of the last 48 hours have been very disheartening. When I first saw a group of young men and women all wearing keffiyehs entering the seminar room and taking seats, I was delighted.
None of our numerous events have ever been interrupted. I had no reason to assume that the members of this particular group did not come to listen to the speaker and engage in an academic conversation.
Naively, I felt that we were finally achieving our goal of turning UT into a beacon of pluralistic and open debate about these contentious issues.
Little did I know.
This event required RSVPs so we could order a sufficient number of box lunches. Although these attendees did not RSVP, I invited them to eat and make themselves comfortable.
As soon as I introduced the speaker the whole group stood up as one and formed a human wall at the back of the room.
Many of them pulled out their cell phones and started recording and taking pictures.
Then their leader, who I later learned is a UT Law student named Mohammed Nabulsi, attempted to hijack the event.
It is important to pause here for a second and underscore the fact that Mr. Nabulsi’s online name is Georges Abdallah, of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions who murdered American Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Ray, and Israeli diplomat Yaakov Bar-Simantov in Paris, France in the summer of 1982.
After some more research we learned the Nabulsi was not the only member of the group who assumed the identity of a murderer online. For example Mr. Patrick Higgins, a former student in my graduate seminar, who recently completed his MA in Middle East Studies, refers to himself as Edward Despard a British officer of Irish descent, who radicalized, joined the Irish rebellion and plotted to assassinate King George III.
Back to Friday’s events. Nabulsi began to read his message, while his friends stood behind him holding the Palestinian Flag. His act was disruptive and offensive.
Among many other things, he claimed that he knew everything about our speaker and referred to her as war criminal due to her service in the IDF.
At that point, I still believed that I could convince Mr. Nabulsi to calm down and engage in a constructive discussion.
However, neither he nor his followers, showed any interest in talking to us. Rather, they argued that they refuse to talk to Israelis who are all war criminals.
Mr. Nabulsi’s followers seemed very agitated and started yelling ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Long live the Intifada’. We were left with no alternative but to call UTPD.
Meanwhile, I kept on telling them that based on their comments, they seem to know nothing about the history and politics of Israel and Palestine and I pleaded with them to stay and listen. I stood in front of Mr. Nabulsi in an attempt to make him shout directly at my face.
I didn’t touch Nabulsi. Quite the contrary, his followers who surrounded him started pushing me around. A minute or two later they suddenly left.
I was asked by a police officer to describe the events and also asked if I wanted to press charges. I believed that students should enjoy the freedom to learn and shape their views. Hence, I declined. Rather, I asked the officer to invite the protesters back as I was interested in opening a channel of communication with them.
(Update: On Saturday, after learning that these individuals use the names of known terrorists online, we pressed charges. On that day someone using unknown number left a threatening message on our voicemail).
Later that evening, as the news from Paris was arriving, I received several emails indicating that the group had executed a carefully planned media campaign.
Ignoring the horrific news from France, they launched a social media blitz that was a complete lie.
Mr. Nabulsi, for example, wrote an inciting and self-serving message.
Using a heavily edited picture in which we are facing each other, he described himself as the victim and me as the aggressor.
He probably didn’t stop for a second to look closely at the picture. While I seem very calm his expression is extremely aggressive and hateful.
He also failed to mention that we were surrounded by his followers who were pushing me back.
Moreover, he promised to release a video that according to his argument would prove that I escalated the situation. I assume that in order to release such a video the group needs to dedicate many hours to careful doctoring.
(Update: On Sunday, after 48 hours of editing, they released a heavily doctored video with slides that offer false description of the event. The actual footage discredits their narrative completely.)
Initially, I thought that the members of the group had a genuine interest in human rights and justice. Gradually, I realized that they are part of a group who have a long history of launching manipulative campaigns that aim at intimidating and terrorizing those who they perceive as their enemies.
What I saw was a tight group of young men and women who follow a charismatic leader who admire a notorious murderer. After spending two decades of learning how people turn to terrorism, I fear that what I witnessed on Friday should raise many red flags.
(Update: On Sunday night, after learning that their terrorist pseudonyms were unveiled, the facebook accounts went offline)
I believe in the First Amendment and in full academic freedom. However, neither the law nor its moral foundation protects coercion or direct attempts to impede freedom of speech and academic discourse.
We cannot let such individuals terrorize us.
I appeal to my friends and colleagues as well as to students and individuals who believe in freedom to stand up and counter this campaign of terror and intimidation.