Virtual meeting giant puts the kibosh on webinar featuring terrorist
By Rolene Marks
One of the few silver linings coming out of the Covid-19 global pandemic is that even though we are all responsibly social distancing (well most of us!), we have been able to connect with each other using technology platforms like Zoom. With the aid of Zoom, which is a meeting platform, we have been able to take virtual tours, listen to lectures from experts, attend weddings and sadly funerals and more.
Unfortunately, this has also created a gathering place for the many that use social media as an opportunity to disseminate hate. The various platforms have created communities intent on galvanising hatred. At a time when the world is seemingly distracted by the global pandemic and its effect on economies and societies, so these types of groups find opportunity to come together, to plan, to recruit and to potentially mobilise. The opportunity presented by social media to connect all of us, no matter where we are, is appreciated as borders are still mostly closed. Just as many of us “use our powers for good” so others see this as prime time to do the opposite.
Recently, San Francisco State University planned to host a webinar featuring Leila Khaled. Khaled is known far less for any speaking prowess than she is for being an arch terrorist. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Khaled is more famous for her part in two plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970. She infamously threatened to blow up one of the planes with a grenade and today takes a perverse pleasure in still being allowed to fly. She is also a favoured poster child for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), often trotted out for their fundraising events. Hardly Brené Brown or Tony Robbins!
The panel would have featured a Who’s Who of the anti-Israel establishment, including former South African Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who is well known for supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. He is famous for this quote, “BDS represents three words that will help bring about the defeat of Zionist Israel and victory for Palestine.” Decked in de rigeur keffiyehs, the accessory of choice for most self-respecting anti-Zionists, it did not take a genius to figure out that the event touted as a discussion on “gender, justice and resistance” would fast descend into what these kinds of forums often do – an excuse to spout some of the most vile antisemitic invective.
News of the impending webinar drew fire from advocacy groups such as the Lawfare Project, which argued that Zoom could face legal liability for hosting it because the US has labeled Khaled’s group, the PFLP, a terrorist organization. The Lawfare Project argued that the event violated Zoom’s terms of service for that very reason. Zoom took these arguments very seriously and effectively and informed the organisers that they could not use Zoom to host their event.
“In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a US designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event,”a Zoom spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the firm is“committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations.”
The organisers, more than a little ticked off, decided to then move the event to other platforms. Facebook denied them immediately and removed the listening for the event because it went against a company policy “prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations”. YouTube removed the video of Khaled’s talk after 20 minutes, saying that it violated its terms of service. Most recently, YouTube has banned arch-antisemite Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam for hate speech.
Some have asked the question – where is the line between hate speech and the freedom of speech? Hate speech is often defined as that kind of rhetoric that leads to a violent action or harm against a person or a group of people and Leila Khaled firmly fits into that category.
Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper said, “No matter how many layers of whitewash academics apply to Leila Khaled, she remains a terrorist who continues to promote hate, violence and terrorism.”
SFSU spokesperson Kent Bravo said in a statement to the Jewish Journal that just because Khaled is speaking at a university Zoom event doesn’t mean the university endorses her views.
“Higher education and the college experience are an opportunity to hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences,” Bravo said. “An important outcome of the college experience is to learn to think critically and come to independent, personal conclusions about events of local and global importance. A university is a marketplace of ideas and San Francisco State University supports the rights of all individuals to express their viewpoints and other speech protected by law, even when those viewpoints may be controversial. We also strive to be a welcoming and nurturing campus for students from a variety of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We recognize that the exercise of free speech and academic freedom can result in discomfort or pain for others. We have systems in place to support our students, including our Division of Diversity and Community Inclusion.”
With antisemitism rising to alarming levels around the world and university campuses becoming battlegrounds of hatred against Jewish students, it has become incumbent on faculty to be more careful and much more aware of who they invite – and terrorists are surely not proponents of free speech and open debate.
After years of campaigns by many to warn social media platforms about the dangers of allowing hate speech, they are finally waking up and taking action and the answer to those wishing to share their hateful speech is “not on our platform!”
It is time for universities and other forums to pull up the welcome mat and say that while in the pursuit of mutually respectful discourse, divergent opinion is encouraged – hate speech and avowed terrorists are not.
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