Ava Muhammad
Ava Muhammad, national spokesperson for Louis Farrakhan. Image from poster for Nov. 10 appearance in San Diego

The College of Education’s Dec. 18 newsletter proudly announced that four graduate students in the Joint Doctoral Program with Claremont Graduate University have received a whopping $170,000 from the Provost’s Office “to bring programming designed to improve the experience of Black students to SDSU during the spring semester.” The money comes from the mandatory Student Success Fee, a levy added to tuition to pay for hiring tenure-track professors and funding academic-related programming outside the classroom.

Three awards are uncontroversial. But one proposal received $68,000 for a “summit” on reparations for slavery. Ta-Nehisi Coates heads the list of proposed speakers, and fair enough, given that he wrote “The Case for Reparations.” But things quickly go downhill from there.

Particularly troublesome is the presence of Ava Muhammad, misleadingly listed as a “spiritual and religious leader.” In fact, she is a spokesperson for Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Like Farrakhan, she is viciously anti-Semitic.

At a 2017 event, a participant asked Muhammad whether Farrakhan’s attacks on the Jews advance the cause, and she responded with a five minute diatribe of anti-Jewish charges that climaxed with her calling Jews “godless” and “blood-sucking parasites [who] sell us alcohol, drugs, depraved sex, and every other type of low-life thing . . . .” These statements earned her a standing ovation.

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This is not the only such example. In June, 2019, Muhammad claimed that although President Obama “gave us a great deal of hope and inspiration,” but “his hands were tied” because of pressure on him from the Jewish community.”

Also listed among the proposed SDSU speakers is Omali Yeshitela, leader of Uhuru movement. Yeshitela is a Holocaust-denier (“I don’t know how many Jews were killed in Germany”), and claims that the Jews use the Holocaust “to hide the crimes that imperialism has committed against the rest of the world.” Unsurprisingly, Yeshitela also thinks that Israel does not have a right to exist (“The Uhuru Movement supports unconditionally the struggle of the Palestinian people to end the occupation and take back all of their stolen land”).

Another set of speakers, Yvette Carnell and attorney Antonio Moore of the ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves) Movement, are not so far as I know anti-Semites. Progressives for Immigration Reform, a radically right-wing immigration group, has praised ADOS as “a movement that understands the impact unbridled immigration has had on our country’s most vulnerable workers,” a position that surely jars with SDSU’s commitment to our immigrant students, both documented and undocumented. But Moore rejects any association with the right, and has written for the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies.

Prof. Marva Capello, who chairs the Joint Doctoral Program, had no problems with proposed speakers. Instead, she thinks this “summit” and the other proposals are wonderful: “I’m just thrilled and so proud of my students who are doing amazing work. They’re doing more than talking the talk. This is a real demonstration of advocacy.”

It’s deeply disturbing that bringing in Ava Muhammad now counts as “advocacy.” So I asked Prof. Capello about the appropriateness of student fees (some of which have to come from Jews) funding such speakers. She did not reply. I also asked President de la Torre for comment. She did not reply.

Instead, Stratcomm, SDSU’s office for “strategic communications,” issued a statement to me (it will also be sent to anyone who asks about the “summit”) signed by Provost Hector Ochoa, Chief Diversity Officer J. Luke Wood, and Interim Vice-President for Student Affairs Christy Samarkos, saying that the speakers, despite what the College of Education newsletter says, have not yet been approved. The statement continues:

“We have a commitment to ensure all members of our community are free to express their views both because free expression is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution and because it is part of our values as an institution of higher learning. SDSU is also supportive of student-led discussions about difficult matters, and in the case of this proposed event, including those discussing slavery, post-slavery impacts and reparations.”

“In some cases, speakers may be invited to speak on a specific topic of interest despite having viewpoints in other areas that are not in alignment with the values and beliefs of our community. This does not mean, however, that speech intended to denigrate or dehumanize others based on their backgrounds or social identities is consistent with SDSU’s values — which it is not. SDSU is committed to supporting an inclusive and respectful community. We seek to create an environment affirming respect for people from all backgrounds and promoting a pursuit of deeper understanding through the free and civil exchange of ideas.”

Clearly, Ava Muhammad has a First Amendment right to say whatever she wants. But so does the university, and note that the statement does not take the opportunity to explicitly condemn anti-Semitism. This reticence starkly contrasts with how the university has responded in the past to perceived racism.

Last year, for example, a homeless person wandered into the Black Resource Center, moved some furniture around and broke a television; the entire campus went into an uproar, with marches, offers of therapy, and healing circles.  I cannot imagine that if someone had invited David Duke or to speak on campus, the University would issue such a tepid response. In fact, the administration cancelled an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017, so it’s not like there isn’t precedent for the university stepping in when they find a speaker unacceptable.

The Joint Doctoral Program includes “social justice” in its mission statement, but as many have pointed out, that lofty goal does not necessarily exclude bias against Jews. Every day, it seems, brings another report of Jewish students on college campuses being told that their Jewishness disqualifies them from any claim to progressive politics.

A Jewish member of McGill University’s student government may be kicked off because she went on a Hillel-sponsored trip to Israel. When students at Berkeley complained about under-representation in student government, a junior reported that several speakers “used the meeting as an opportunity to spread anti-Zionist vitriol and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including the idea that the IDF trains American police to kill black people. ”

And now, woke anti-Semitism has come to San Diego State University. Even if the funding for this “summit” is revoked, and SDSU’s statement gives no such assurance, many questions still remain, starting with how this proposal got approved in the first place. The applications had to go through a winnowing process jointly run by Academic Affairs and the Campus Fee Advisory Committee, whose fourteen members include Prof. Mark Wheeler, the Chair of the Faculty Senate and Radmilla Prislin, the Associate Vice-President of Academic Affairs. Then the Provost’s Office gave its approval.

Why did nobody sound the alarm? Why did the faculty mentor not say anything? How did students, faculty and administrators supposedly committed to diversity and combating bias, who vigorously respond to any perceived racial slight, approve a proposal to bring in speakers known for spouting hate and conspiracy theories?

Did nobody think to vet the list of proposed speakers?

Or even worse, they did vet them, and approved the proposal anyway?

And why does SDSU not overtly and unambiguously condemn anti-Semitism in their statement on this “summit”?

We constantly hear that higher education’s purpose is to encourage critical thinking, which means subjecting arguments to scrutiny and distinguishing fact from fiction. What are we teaching if students, their teachers, and the university’s administrators do not notice or see nothing wrong with blatant anti-Semitism?

San Diego State has a lot to think about this holiday season.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.