Political journalism that meets the moment
 ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌
Can We All Get Along?
A Q&A with Eman Abdelhadi, a Palestinian University of Chicago professor, about encampments, dialogue, and mutual respect
Eman Abdelhadi is a sociologist, writer of radical speculative utopian fiction, and assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, where she is one of the leaders of protests against the war in Gaza. On May 9, we had a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom—edited here for length and clarity—on growing up Muslim in America, what it means to feel unsafe, and how Zionists and anti-Zionists can (and, at the U of C encampment, did) engage on terms of mutual respect.

Eman Abdelhadi: I grew up in a very tight-knit Muslim community in Mid-Missouri, in Columbia, in a pretty religious family. My mom’s Egyptian, my father was Palestinian. He passed away when I was quite young. 9/11 happened when I was 11, and by then I was already wearing a hijab. I think one of maybe two in my middle school who wore it. And because of that, and because of who I am as a person, my personality, I think I just became like the Islam spokesperson.

At the end of the second year, the teachers did these superlative awards for everyone, like Most Likely to Grow a Beard, or Most Likely to Move to a Farm. Mine was just the “Salam Award.” Like, “Just the one thing that you know everyone thinks that they need to know about you.”

Rick Perlstein: Kind of like if they named someone “Class Jew.”

You know, I didn’t see it as problematic. I saw it as like, oh, this is like, I’m doing this thing like for my people. And Palestine was a big part of that because the Intifada was going on around that time. My every school presentation would be about Palestine, starting in junior high.

I fundamentally believed as a kid that like no one could possibly know the facts and not see the way that Palestinians were being oppressed. On some level, I’m still that kid. I think it’s why I fight with people on Twitter. Deep in my heart, I’m just like a fierce empiricist who thinks the world is knowable if we just look at it with the right tools, that anyone presented with the same information would come to the same conclusion. It explains why I’m a scholar, and I think it’s also why my heart is broken all the time because I’m just like, “I don’t get it! I just don’t understand how you could see this and still think that.

I’m the same way. Was there a “pre-9/11” and “post-9/11”?

We were heavily surveilled. It was known that there were informants in our mosque in Columbia, Missouri—people in my community.

People in my community who had broken sanctions to send money to their families went to jail for more than a year. There was the year when the FBI shut down almost all the Muslim philanthropic organizations within months of each other, usually on charges of material support for terrorism. Which they didn’t have enough evidence to do, but they did, including the organization my mom worked for.

Then, when I was in high school, I did this thing called the Muslim Speakers Bureau. The goal was just to be like, “Hey, the Muslims you see on the news are all evil. But we are not all evil. Let me explain to you what Islam is.” I think that is very much needed in Mid-Missouri, where people think “falafel” is the sixth pilar of Islam or something. And it was fine as long as we were in Columbia. But I remember we were giving a talk at the public library in a small rural town, I think it was Rolla, Missouri, and there were massive protests. People brought guns. I read the newspaper article online, and the comments were like: holy shit. Ever since then, I don’t read the comments on anything.

Your mom is a public-health worker, right?

Yes, a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She wears a hijab, she’s very cute, she has an accent—and growing up we would have people yell at us on the streets at least a couple of times a year. People would call us names. It’s funny, because we just took it. It was like: “Of course.” It was just so normal for somebody to be like “You rag-head! Go back to where you came from!”

Every day I would call my mom to make sure that she got back from work. There was this one segment of highway where she always lost signal for about like 15 minutes. We would just be freaking out waiting for her to get past this segment of highway. One day she didn’t call us—because she didn’t call us. She is terrible with her phone, just leaves it in random places and wanders off. That day, we were just losing our shit.

My mom probably has the deepest well of empathy of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s a psychotherapist. So she’s talking to them about their thoughts and feelings and they’re saying racist shit to her. She so patient. She’s like, “You know they have really hard lives like they don’t have enough money.”
Let’s go back to high school. Was there a vibe between Muslims and Jews?

One of my best friends was Jewish. We would joke around about how the Christians were weird. She and I tried never to talk about Palestine, Israel. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. And the night before, we got into this huge fight about it. She and I have not talked recently.

I would read that YA novel.

Right? Then her mom wrote me this very clueless message in October where she was like, “My daughter isn’t safe. I just don’t understand this hate and where it comes from.”

I could not believe it. I was still kind to her because I believe in honoring past relationships. I was just like, “Yeah, that’s really upsetting, and I hope they do remain safe.” She [said], you know, “There’s been stuff on both sides.”

I was thinking: You really don’t get it.

So here you are, this person who has this formative experience of not being safe.
I’ve been thinking, preparing for this interview, that as a person who has had so much experience of unsafety, you might have something to teach to young Jews, including on college campuses, who are experiencing feelings of unsafety, maybe for the first time. Is that a weird question?

No. I get it. I think it’s hard because [long pause]—the experience of being hated, being in spaces where you know that people categorically hate you: People don’t realize that people can hate you, but not hurt you, right? That’s been most of my experience. That people can think something’s fundamentally wrong with your race, religion, whatever, and not necessarily hurt you.

Of course, occasionally, they do. And certainly you’re at a higher risk of being hurt if you’re surrounded by people who hate you. But for me, the discomfort of being in a space where someone fundamentally disagrees with you, is suspicious of you—which is not fun, and we should talk about it—is not the same thing as physical unsafety. I have a lot of friends who get harassed. I got harassed. Walking down the street with a bunch of friends, by a teenager: “You know, if you were in Gaza, you would be killed.”

I want to take really seriously the idea that some people feel unsafe. But I just spent eight days at an encampment where there were literally very few moments where there weren’t Zionist Jewish students just calmly having long debates. And I’m like, but you don’t look unsafe. You don’t look like you’re scared. You keep coming here! And I’m sure there were people who were scared and didn’t come. So perhaps I shouldn’t say that. But it’s hard to separate the rhetoric of safety from the reality of safety.

This is not a perspective on the encampments one hears much in mainstream media or politics. Acquaintances of mine who watch Morning Joe got the impression all the encampments were nigh unto Nuremberg rallies. The president seems to imply that, too. But what you’re describing sounds like something that honors the values of the University of Chicago.

Right. Free speech, free inquiry, hard conversations. Long conversations about politics, about history, about definitions.

Were there exceptions that you saw?

Author’s note: When I asked the question, I was thinking about the report from the encampment of a Jewish friend who disagrees with the protesters but visited out of curiosity. At an “onboarding session” (corporation logic is everywhere …) in the welcome tent, she was told attendees shouldn’t talk to police, the press, or Zionists. She was taken aback by the chant “There is only one solution/Intifada revolution,” which to her bore uncomfortable resonances with the Nazi’s “final solution.”

Eman heard the question in a different way than I intended, and took it in a different, but important, direction. I didn’t follow up. Perhaps I should have. But stories like that are everywhere now in the media. There are fewer like this:

Yeah, sure. Within 15 minutes of the encampment being set up, this guy came through, who’s kind of a known agitator. He’s a master’s student, it turns out. And he came with fart spray. I have video of this. People were just like, “Get out of here.” And he’s like, “Don’t touch me.” And nobody was touching him. He was really angry.

Eventually the police who were watching all this came over and were like, “What do you have in your hand?” And he threw it at them. And he was like, “What do you have in your hand?”

Was he arrested?

Nope, he walked away. He came back a few hours later. Imagine the opposite happening. Just imagine. There were many points where people came up and were yelling or trying to knock things down. Frat boys set up a beer pong table right outside the encampment in the middle of the night to keep people awake. They brought these speakers to play, like, “I’m Proud to Be an American.”

With no consequences?

No consequences.

You were targeted by an organization called Stop Antisemites, who screen-grabbed several tweets to support claims you are a “rabid antisemite” who “defends the 10/7 Hamas massacre as resistance” and “denies the rapes & atrocities against children of 10/7” and was “just another example of the antisemitic poison the has been inserted into higher education.” I didn’t think the tweets supported the claims. But I also understand you erased some tweets, so I have a journalistic responsibility to ask what were in those. Was that where the rape denials were?

I had tweeted on October 7 in Arabic something like, “it’s a morning of freedom.” A Palestinian woman named Hebh Jamal wrote a beautiful essay that explains how, before there were images of any of the atrocities on that day, the images that we were seeing were images of borders coming down, images of military checkpoints being taken down, images of children gathered on a bulldozer. At those images, a lot of us were just like, “Whoa, that felt like a people accessing freedom.”

I think you could hold both that there were atrocities committed on October 7, and people who were killed shouldn’t have been killed, and the fact that there was, as Judith Butler called it, an uprising, in a sense. We need to think about the root of this violence.

So anyway, those are the tweets. I’m sure there were rapes. But the mass rape allegations as they were presented by the Israeli media remain unsubstantiated. That’s why I stand by that. I have nothing to apologize for. I think I deleted it at some point because it was early in the time when my Twitter following went from, I don’t know, 8,000 to like 20,000. It took me a while to figure out how to manage that and to sit with that.

I think my first viral tweet after this was like, “No form of Palestinian resistance has ever been acceptable.” I stand by that. That is true. Not the violent kind, not the nonviolent kind. This was in a moment where everyone was like, “Where’s their Nelson Mandela?” I’m like, LOL, you know nothing about Nelson Mandela if that’s what you’re asking.

They called me out the same morning that I did a ton of press as the encampment was ending. The consequences are that my Twitter is more trash than usual. I tweet Sister Minnie, a cat that her owner dresses up in little hijabs. And it’s: “Fuck you, you Hamas bitch.” I’ve gotten “You deserve to be raped,” “You deserve to be assaulted,” “You deserve to be killed.” I did think about that when I was like walking away from the encampment at like three in the morning on Sunday night.

How do we de-escalate? What do you say to Jewish students who sincerely feel unsafe? What do you say to them as an activist about why they should not as Zionists feel afraid?

I would say: Come to some events and hang out with us. Take a buddy if you don’t feel safe! Come, sit.

But I hear they physically block you and scream at you if you have a Jewish star …

Yeah, um, not the case, actually!

I think one of the most touching moments for me was at this event that we had, I think in November or something. Some students recognized their fellow students as being part of Maroons for Israel or one of these organizations. And the [anti-Zionist] students were confused as why the [Zionist students] were there: Are they here to dox us? Should we call them out? Should we say something to them?

And I was like, “You know just let them be, they’re not doing anything, they’re not taking photos of anybody.”

They sat, and they listened, and it was a beautiful event. It just felt like a community gathering, and at the very end one of the students raised his hand: “This is a hard question for me to ask.”

It makes me tear up every time I think about this story.

He asked, “Is there a place in the Palestinian movement for someone who is devastated by what is going on, what Israel is doing right now, but also feels like Jewish people need a place to feel safe after so much oppression? Is there room for me?”

Basically: “I don’t know what to do.” You know: torn.

There were both students and faculty on the panel. One of the students said, “Well, we’re just focused on the genocide.” But then I said, “First of all, you’re so brave for being here. First of all, thank you for being here, it’s really hard in a room of people that are fired up with something and disagree with you. I’m proud of you for being here.” Then I told him, “You just need to find people that you feel safe talking to.”

For the friends that I’ve had who have moved away from Zionism or who have like changed their minds, it’s been because of other Jewish folks who have done that work with them, and have sat with them through this process.

Come to the event. See what it’s like. Talk to somebody.

Has anything else made you tear up over these last weeks?

I have to say, as a kid from Missouri who was constantly trying to explain my culture and my religion and my people and my history, being at the encampment and seeing Palestinian flags everywhere a few feet from where I worked and hearing them play songs that I grew up with, seeing people just get up and feel safe to pray in the middle of the quad and have their non-Muslim friends hold up keffiyehs to give them privacy: I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life.

It sounds like Jewish summer camp.

The beauty of it was that it wasn’t Muslim. It was people being around Islam unproblematically. I didn’t feel like we were weird outsiders in that space.

So, what you’ve been waiting for since your childhood in Mark Twain country. Did it make you feel more American?

In a way. Yeah, in a way.

Extra! Extra! Got Infernally Triangular questions you’d like to see answered in a future column? Send them to
Follow Rick Perlstein on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram
Click to Share this Newsletter
The American Prospect, Inc., 1225 I Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005, United States
Copyright (c) 2024 The American Prospect. All rights reserved.

To opt out of American Prospect membership messaging, click here.
To manage your newsletter preferences, click here.
To unsubscribe from all American Prospect emails, including newsletters, click here.

Email Marketing by ActiveCampaign