Monday, February 17, 2020

The Forward hires Hamas apologist/mouthpiece Muhammad Shehada as a columnist (Petra Marquardt-Bigman)

Meet Muhammad Shehada – the Forward’s (not so) new columnist and Hamas apologist

When the Forward announced at the end of last year that they were “adding five contributing columnists” to write for their op-ed pages, I felt that professor Deborah Lipstadt had gotten a rather bad deal. As a highly regarded scholar, she was by far the most prominent among the new columnists, and the Forward rightly noted that she is also widely known outside academia ever since she “famously vanquished Holocaust denier David Irving in court after he sued her for libel.” But now this fierce fighter against antisemitism was listed just above professional Hamas apologist Muhammad Shehada.

For Shehada, this is of course a great line-up. Almost exactly five years before he officially became a Forward columnist alongside Deborah Lipstadt, he had proudly posted what he called “a selfi with the ex-Prime Minister Of #Gaza and the leader of #Hamas: #Ismail_Haniya.” The photo shows Shehada smiling and with his hand on the shoulder of Ismail Haniyeh, one of the veteran leaders of the Islamist terror group Hamas.

So it’s quite pointless to get upset about Shehada writing articles that whitewash Hamas. The Forward and other media outlets – notably the Israeli paper Ha’aretz – that publish him regularly do so precisely because Shehada skillfully poses as a likeable and eminently reasonable progressive Palestinian who ardently defends Hamas as a legitimate group that must not ever be condemned for terrorism, while at the same time pretending to be all for some kind of vague kumbaya-style coexistence.

As far as Shehada is concerned, “Hamas incurred the ‘terror’ label for political reasons,” and it would only be fair if everyone realized that the thousands of rockets that have been launched from Gaza since Israel withdrew from the territory should be dismissed as “Hamas’s occasional projectile attacks,” while the violent Hamas-orchestrated border riots incited with murderous antisemitic slogans should be appreciated as a “non-violent grassroots protest.”  And in any case, if there ever is anything for which Hamas might deserve a slightly raised eyebrow, it’s Israel’s fault. You can see that idea nicely reflected in the hyperlink for Shehada’s recent Forward article: -- it’s of course Israel that “is clearing the way for more violence.”

But while Shehada considers Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian group that deserves to be defended, he has some really harsh words for the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, which he has denounced as “tyrannical, careless and unpopular.”

Shehada’s eagerness to serve as a Hamas apologist while also pretending to be vaguely for peaceful coexistence (presumably under the benevolent rule of Hamas from the river to the sea) imbue his usually very well written articles with a marked disingenuity. Camera highlighted some of the omissions and distortions in several of his articles last year. But the question who Muhammad Shehada really is, or what he really stands for, seems also worthwhile asking given that, for a young man from Gaza who appears to be on very friendly and familiar terms with a senior Hamas leader, he has managed very quickly to establish himself as a regular contributor for a major American Jewish site like the Forward – for which he has written regularly since January 2018 – and Israel’s Ha’aretz – for which he has written regularly since July 2017.

It seems that Shehada first tried to make a name for himself as a writer in English in May 2016. Nowadays Shehada usually presents himself as “a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of development studies at Lund University, Sweden,” as well as a former “PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.” However, when Shehada started out in mid-2016, he chose a very different biography: “Born in Egypt, raised in diaspora, Palestinian by blood, Egyptian by birth. With progressive endeavours towards democratic reforms and deradicalization, religious tolerance and coexistence, social equity and feminism, I aspire to construct an intellectual debate that corrects the misconceptions about the Middle East and offers a clear picture of Palestinian daily life, which will be my main focus.”

So if Shehada was “raised in diaspora,” where did he grow up? Perhaps he regards Gaza as some kind of “diaspora,” because he seems to have spent at least part of his childhood and his teen years in Gaza. This is at least what he claims in an article marking the anniversary of the end of Operation Cast Lead, where Shehada offers a harrowing account of living through this war in 2008/09 as a fourteen-year-old.

There are several noteworthy points regarding this article from January 2018. First, it was published by Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada – and Abunimah, who is an outspoken supporter of Hamas, can be counted on to publish only articles by authors he considers as reliable allies. Secondly, the article offers a glimpse of Shehada’s life in Gaza: while he refers to “a family house in Cairo,” he writes that in Gaza, his family lived in the Tal al-Hawa area, which – though he doesn’t mention it – is regarded as a fairly affluent neighborhood not far from the Hamas-dominated Islamic University. Indeed, Shehada’s family lived in a house that even had underground parking, and they owned a car.

It seems that Shehada eventually went to study computer engineering at the Islamic University. At the university, he became friends with a murky figure who makes an appearance in the work of British antisemitism researcher David Collier. In the course of a project that focused on supposedly independent “activists” from Gaza with a sizeable social media following, David encountered Walid Mahmoud/Walid Mahmoud Rouk, whose “reporting” from Gaza always seemed to echo Hamas propaganda. More bizarrely, Walid Mahmoud was involved in, and even administering, Facebook pages followed by tens of thousands of supporters of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. These Facebook pages included countless posts demonizing Israel, Zionism and Jews. But it turned out that Walid Mahmoud also used his social media clout to fundraise for all sorts of ostensibly charitable projects that he claimed to have started – and he actually managed to take in tens of thousands of dollars in various campaigns (see e.g. here).

Needless to say, Walid Mahmoud was not accountable to anyone and free to use the money as he pleased, but as David Collier rightly points out, it is hard to imagine that Hamas would be unaware of a social media activist in Gaza “with an audience of 100,000s, access to sympathetic political players in the UK and the ability to generate hard foreign currency.”

At one point, Walid Mahmoud apparently also tried to use his fundraising skills for the benefit of his friend Muhammad Shehada; nowadays the two continue to collaborate on journalistic projects (see e.g. Walid Mahmoud’s author page at Al Jazeera, where all articles are co-authored with Shehada).

But back to Shehada’s time as a student at Gaza’s Islamic University. In 2015, he was interviewed by a fringe website, where he was introduced as a “21 year-old engineering student” and a “a community translator and researcher for outspoken author and critic of Israel, Professor Norman Finkelstein.” Given that Finkelstein’s work has made him “a superstar for antisemitic websites,” it seems safe to assume that having a soft spot for Islamist terrorists and obsessively hating Israel is a requirement for working for him.

Shehada called Finkelstein “my dear friend” in a Facebook post in March 2017, when Finkelstein apparently gave a talk at Harvard that Shehada joined via Internet. And in fall 2016, when Shehada was leaving Gaza for Malaysia – much to the regret of his friend Walid Mahmoud – Finkelstein shared on his website an appeal for donations ‘to help a Gaza student resettle in Malaysia.’

In this fundraising appeal, Shehada described himself as “a junior 21-year-old writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip” who was planning to “start a program of Business Administration at the University of Malaya, for the next three years.”

But luckily for Shehada, his worries about how things would work out for him in Malaysia proved unwarranted.

When the veteran Malaysian politician Mahathir Mohamad – who also happens to be a notorious Jew-hater – won elections in May 2018, Shehada offered his heartfelt congratulations in a Facebook post, accompanied by a photo that showed him shaking hands with Mahathir Mohamad. As Shehada explained: “Malaysia was one of the most crucial milestones in my life! There, I was reunited with my heart and soul. It is where I met some of the most extraordinary friends who overwhelmed me with unique kindness and selflessness. In my first few days in Kuala Lumpur, I was introduced to the founder of modern Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, a sweet dedicated father and lovable grandfather who nonetheless commands enormous respect. His support of the Palestinian cause is greatly remarkable.”

Well, it is certainly a fabulous stroke of good luck if you come to a foreign country as a penniless 21-year-old student and happen to be introduced to one of the country’s most prominent and powerful politicians right away.

Those of us who don’t believe all that much in such extremely happy coincidences can of course only speculate about the connections that got Shehada his lucky break. The most obvious possibility is that Shehada had contact with the network of Hamas operatives based in Malaysia. The country has been described as “Hamas’ gateway to Asia,” and only a few weeks ago, Mahathir Mohamad was happy to receive Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and to tweet about their get-together extensively (see this thread and the retweets here and here).

But whatever happened to make Malaysia “one of the most crucial milestones” in Shehada’s life, he apparently didn’t stay there too long. Instead of studying business administration at the University of Malaya, he seems to have moved on to Sweden some time in 2017 to pursue development studies at Lund University.

Perhaps his association with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (Euro-Med Monitor) had something to do with this move. As mentioned previously, Shehada claims in some of the biographies for his op-eds that he was a “PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.” In his current Twitter biography, he claims to be “Manager at @EuroMedHR” and links to the organization’s website, where he is indeed featured as the first of the “leadership team,” though it seems somewhat odd that his area of responsibility is given as “Europe Affairs.”

According to its website, the Euro-Med Monitor was founded in 2011 “by a group of European youth from diverse origins, MENA [Middle East &North Africa] immigrants and students living in Europe, who were inspired by the people’s will to rebel against tyranny and oppression that swept through the Arab region in 2011.” The organization emphasizes in bold print that it is “youth-led,” though they make up for it with their Board of Trustees: the current chairman is none other than veteran Israel-hater Richard Falk, an ardent supporter of Hamas who also managed to gain notoriety as a “9/11 truther and promoter of anti-Semitism.” So in a way, Muhammad Shehada had a point when he described Falk as “legendary.”

Another not-so-youthful board member is John Whitbeck, who clearly shares Falk’s hatred for Israel and is apparently also fond of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

* * *

While it is not clear if Shehada’s eagerness to serve as an apologist for Hamas is due to any actual ties to the Islamist terror group, it is quite obvious that even though he managed to leave Gaza, he always stayed in a world where hatred of the world’s only Jewish state is not just normal, but actually useful for your career. 

Shehada knows and admires an awful lot of people who hate Israel (and Jews) just as much as Hamas does. For a young man of 26, he has already a rather promising career, and he may well have bright prospects. Hopefully he will come to realize at one point that a better Middle East, which is something he supposedly wants, can emerge only once Islamist terror groups like Hamas are firmly rejected instead of whitewashed. And perhaps now that he is officially a Forward columnist – which he currently notes proudly in his Twitter profile – he will try to widen his horizon by checking out the work of his fellow Forward columnist Deborah Lipstadt. He could start by reading this Forward column, and of course he could read her book on “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”

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