Plattsburgh State gender and women’s studies Professor Simona Sharoni has received a slew of online threats after making comments about feminism and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, particularly in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, BDS, movement.
The threats were received by Sharoni through both her PSUC and personal email accounts, as well as tweets directed to her Twitter handle.
“The vast majority of of the messages were sexist in tone and incoherent in substance. They consisted of attacks on my character and academic reputation with several messages that included threats to my career and job security and two messages, which included direct threats to my safety,” Sharoni said in a letter addressed to PSUC colleagues. “One threatened me with rape and the other with both rape and physical violence.”
The initial twitter campaign against Sharoni was initiated April 19 by user @ElderofZiyon, whose bio on the social media site states he is a “International man of mystery, who just happens to run the world. Zionism, Israel, the Arab world, Palestinians, all from a different viewpoint.”
Twitter user @Mrvigilante tweeted to Sharoni, “may be [sic] you should try rape and terrorism to see the difference. Can be arranged.”
Sharoni’s interview that sparked these threats took place March 5, prior to a lecture she gave at Columbia University. The lecture, titled “Analyzing Violence, Demanding Accountability: Feminist Perspectives on Israeli Apartheid and the Campus Sexual Assault Crisis,”
The root of the threats rests in Sharoni’s support of the BDS movement. According to an interview published by The Establishment, a multimedia company ran and funded by women, the mission of the BDS campaign is to exert political and economic pressure on Israel in order to secure change in Palestine.
The movement looks to accomplish three main goals: “to compel Israel to end occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, to provide Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel with equal rights and to respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees,” according to the interview.
Sharoni also tackled ideas on sexual assault not only in Israel, but on college campuses as well.
“I think strategically, making the connection between the two struggles [Israeli Apartheid and campus sexual assault] makes sense. We do need to move from this narrowly defined strategies of identity politics,” Sharoni said of the importance of broad-based solidarity movements.
She said the issues are similar in nature because they both focus on power, dehumanizing the victim, victim-blaming, disbelieving the victim and retaliation against victims.
After the initial threats were received in April, Sharoni said she contacted University Police.
She said she “was fairly satisfied with the response of campus police and IT specialists,” though she still felt vulnerable on campus.
Sharoni said she chose to contact colleagues by letter at the start of the school year as opposed to last semester because she “did not have the emotional and mental strength” to spend her summer “dealing with the matter.”
On Sept. 6, Sharoni was contacted by Director of Management Services and Assistant to the Vice President for Administration Sean Dermody. He informed her that Freedom of Information Law requests had been made.
These requests, also known as FOIL requests, provide the public with records of government workers, including professors and other public figures.
Sharoni believes these FOIL requests are being made in order to tarnish her reputation or threaten her job security. The people responsible for the requests were looking for information pertaining to Sharoni’s hiring at PSUC, her tenure and conference attendance.
“The person who filed the initial requests was Jonathan Slosser,” Sharoni alleged. “A name I recognized right away because he was among the people who sent offensive emails in late August.”
Dermody said the law is in place to create better public policy, as a government transparency method, and any New York State government agency is subjected to follow FOIL.
“In terms of reason, they are not required to tell me a reason. And in fact, generally, I can’t take that into account,” Dermody said of individuals requesting records.
Dermody said the FOIL requests made for Sharoni’s records are being reviewed in accordance of state laws.
“I can’t speak to the motivations of individuals,” Dermody said. “I can tell you what the law is intended to do.”
FOIL requests could be denied if the records being sought after fall into certain exceptions. Dermody said one exception example would be the individual’s health and safety.
“Based on a review of the evidence of the individual case, and determinations by qualified officials at the institution, we could apply that exception. That is an exception that could be utilized,” Dermody said, “But again that’s based on the individual circumstances of the case itself.”
Exceptions allow the state institution to withhold a document or redact portions of a document.
“I hope that the administration would protect my rights and not release information that could fuel future attacks,” Sharoni said. “I will continue to pursue my teaching and scholarly interest and work to expose the individuals and groups behind these intimidation and silencing efforts.”
According to Sharoni, Slosser, along with a second individual making FOIL requests, Debra Glazer, are members of one of those groups.
The “Stand With Us” group is an Israel advocacy group that has received funding from the Israeli government, according to an article published by The Electronic Intifada, an independent online news publication focusing on Palestine, revolving around Sharoni’s harassment.
“The group is behind a number of campaigns targeting activists and scholars who work with the Palestine solidarity community in the United States,” the article said.
Sharoni has received an outflow of support from several media outlets and cultural associations, including the Middle East Studies Association, MESA, and the International Studies Association, ISA.
In a letter to PSUC President John Ettling, Provost Jake Liska and Dean Andrew Buckser, MESA President Beth Baron and Executive Director Amy Newhall said the organization is “committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression.”
While the organization has no official stance on the BDS movement at the center of the harassment, MESA believes everyone should be free to express their beliefs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or any issue of public concern.
The letter called upon PSUC officials to “exercise extreme caution and responsible judgement,” in approving FOIL requests, as they are being used to continue harassment against Sharoni.
The ISA also issued a letter addressed to Ettling to say the organization believes “Sharoni’s academic freedom has been compromised in this instance.”
Ettling issued a campus-wide email statement Sept. 14, regarding freedom of speech and academic rights to freedom.
While he did not specifically mention Sharoni or her allegations, he did say it was PSUC’s policy to uphold principles of academic freedom. These freedoms include encouraging and maintaining full freedom of inquiry, teaching and research, according to his statement.
“Consistent with regulations of the SUNY Board of Trustees, the College seeks to encourage and preserve freedom of expression and inquiry within the entire college community. Some of these expressions may contradict widely-held or popular values, theories, and beliefs,” Ettling said in his statement. “We have a special commitment to protect these expressions and should not attempt to repress a particular view because it is considered morally or personally offensive to members of the college community or the general public.”
Ettling concluded his statement saying a commitment to the rights of college community members, both faculty and staff, as well as respect for different viewpoints, will ensure the upholding of PSUC’s mission.
“While I am pleased with President Ettling’s message to the campus community about the importance of academic freedom, given the escalating attack against me,” Sharoni said in a letter to colleagues, “I need more than a general statement to feel safe and be able to focus on my job.”
Sharoni said her initial interview remarks that sparked the harassment were not controversial. She said she does not use harassment or intimidation in her teachings, but rather, works to broaden students’ horizons and expose them the different perspectives and current events in an open and respectful environment.
“If you build a movement that moves away from narrow identity politics to coalition politics, you’re going to have people who are not comfortable,” Sharoni said, “because they still have this single issue, one identity understanding of the struggle.”
Email Marissa Russo at firstname.lastname@example.org