PHILADELPHIA — Kareem Tannous said he was getting good reviews after he started his job in 2020 as an assistant business professor at Cabrini University.
But then Tannous was abruptly fired in August — not because of something that happened in the classroom but because of his 2022 tweets on his personal social media account, he said.
“#zionism is the disease #Free Palestine is the cure dismantle #ApartheidIsrael by any means necessary,” tweeted Tannous, 45, a Philadelphia-born Palestinian Christian.
In another tweet from May 2022, he likened Israel to the Nazis: “Today in Zionazi Ukraine, one upping zionazi Israel.” And among other tweets was this one from April 2022: “Israel and Ukraine are societal cancers and must be eradicated.”
The decision to terminate Tannous came after leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia fired off a letter to Cabrini, a private university in Wayne, Pennsylvania, asking that Tannous be censured for “spreading antisemitic and anti-Israel commentary and making posts in support of the destruction of the State of Israel.”
The federation leaders cited the crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in January 2022, when a British Pakistani man took people hostage, and the violent antisemitic attacks that have taken place in recent years against the American Jewish community. They said they were “appalled” that Tannous wrote some of the posts on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Posts by Professor Tannous exploit the sacred memory of the Holocaust for the purpose of painting its primary victim, the Jewish people, as the ‘new’ oppressor in the form of the State of Israel,” the federation wrote. “By making false Holocaust analogies, Professor Tannous trivializes the memory of the Holocaust and grossly distorts the reality of what happened in Nazi Germany and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Another group, StopAntisemitism.org, labeled Tannous “Antisemite of the Week” and “Professor of Hate.”
Cabrini declined to comment on Tannous’ case, citing the privacy of personnel.
Tannous in an interview argued that his comments were not antisemitic and that he had a First Amendment right to say them.
“I’m just reporting and showing the world and speaking about the atrocities going on,” said Tannous, whose lawyer plans to file a lawsuit against Cabrini later this month for wrongful termination under the Civil Rights Act. “If you look at what they did to Jews in Nazi Germany, it’s the same thing they are doing to Palestinians now in the Zionist state of Israel.”
Tannous’ case is not an unfamiliar narrative. As antisemitism rises, more academics are being called to task for their public comments, especially on social media, about the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians. Colleges are then left fielding a debate that ranges from judging the nature of posts — are they antisemitic or merely political criticism — to dissecting whether accusations of antisemitism act to shield Israel of criticism. Also, when is any of it protected free speech?
The academic fallout for professors who express critical views of Israel has run the gamut:
— The Harvard Kennedy School in January reversed itself and decided to reoffer a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former director of Human Rights Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who had been critical of Israel.
— At Temple University, professor Marc Lamont Hill in 2018 drew detractors for criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but the administration, while condemning the statements, defended his right to say them. Hill used the phrase “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” words that have been associated with anti-Israel terror groups and threatening the existence of Israel.
— Steven G. Salaita, who had a job offer at the University of Illinois rescinded in 2014 after posting anti-Israel comments on social media, sued the university, which in 2015 settled the case for $875,000, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 2019, Salaita told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he couldn’t get another job in academia and was driving a school bus.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of the history of education, who has ardently defended free speech, disagreed with Cabrini’s decision to fire Tannous. While his rants appear “antisemitic and hateful … what we don’t want is a university to be scrutinizing everybody’s digital footprint to see if they said something so bad that they should not be part of the community,” he said.
Instead, those who find his tweets offensive should speak out against his views, Zimmerman said.
“I believe in freedom to call out racist statements,” he said. “I would encourage everybody in Cabrini and outside who doesn’t like what this guy has to say to raise their voices about that.”
Sahar Aziz, professor of law and chancellor’s social justice scholar at Rutgers Law School, said organizations are increasingly screening social media posts of professors, particularly those of Arab or Muslim descent, for anything anti-Israel and contacting their universities to demand action against them.
“Unfortunately,these groups weaponize the very real problem of antisemitism as a tool to censor criticism against a nation state’s human rights record, in this case Israel,” said Aziz, author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom and founding director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers.
But she disputed Tannous’ comparison of Israel to the Nazis.
“I don’t think that it is valuable and, arguably, not accurate to compare Israel to the Nazis, but in many other cases the criticism of Israel is usually based on human rights reports that, for example, show a reality on the ground that alarmingly nears apartheid,” she said, citing work by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In any case, professors should only be fired when they fail to competently perform their jobs, not for their speech in their personal and private capacities, she said.
Tannous’ lawyer, Mark Schwartz, who is Jewish, asserted that his client’s comments were not antisemitic, although “perhaps they’re anti-Israeli.” In either case, he said, colleges should be the place where such political views can be aired and debated.
“Do I believe that Ukraine is an aggressor? No,” he said. “But I believe people have the right to discuss it. Instead they are trying to suppress that. To me, it’s antithetical to what a college is supposed to be about.”
Schwartz has also represented two teachers who were fired from Friends Central in 2017 after inviting a Palestinian professor and peace activist to speak to students at the Main Line Quaker school. The speech by then-Swarthmore College professor Sa’ed Atshan was canceled after some Jewish parents and others complained about Atshan’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Friends Central said at the time it did not renew the contracts of those teachers because they attended student protests against the cancellation.
Now, Atshan, who is an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University, is slated to return in the fall to Swarthmore, where he will chair the department of peace and conflict studies, the college announced in December.
Atshan is not familiar with Tannous’ tweets and didn’t want to comment specifically on his case, but, he noted, “There is a pattern that we see, which is that criticism of the Israel state and its violations of human rights abuses gets conflated with antisemitism.
“That, I think, is very dangerous,” he said.
People should be able to criticize Israel and call out any abuses without having it destroy their careers and their lives, he said. He said he’s also critical of Saudi Arabia and its human-rights violation, but would not want that conflated with Islamophobia.
However, he emphasized, antisemitism is a real problem that should be identified and fought.
“I don’t want to deny that in any way,” he said.
Jason Holtzman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is part of the federation, emphasized that the federation did not call for Tannous to be fired, but he maintained that Tannous’ tweets were unequivocally antisemitic and hateful.
In its letter, the Jewish Federation questioned whether Tannous was sharing these views with students in the classroom.
“If I were a Jewish student who went to Cabrini, knowing there is someone on the faculty who spreads antisemitism, I don’t know if I would feel safe on campus,” Holtzman said. “I certainly wouldn’t feel safe to take his class.”
Tannous said he did not share his tweets or those views in class, nor has a student brought up his tweets.
“I wasn’t teaching the history of the Middle East,” he said. “I was teaching accounting.”
Born and raised in Chestnut Hill, Tannous — whose mother was born in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and his father in Amman, Jordan — said that for as long as he can remember he has had strong feelings about Palestinian human rights.
Tannous, who now lives in King of Prussia, attended Catholic schools and then moved to Florida, where he got his bachelor’s in business administration and MBA in accounting and finance from Jacksonville University. He said he earned his doctorate in business administration from Walden University and a master’s in applied economics from the University of North Dakota. During that time, he worked at a bank and taught at several colleges before getting a call from Cabrini in 2020 after COVID-19 had hit. The job was full-time, tenured track, and expected to last for six years, he said.
He described a successful first year and a half teaching, until someone complained about his tweets in winter 2022, he said. That led to a meeting with school leaders, who mentioned the February 2022 letter from the Jewish Federation, he said. He left that meeting believing that they understood he was just expressing political views.
He said he heard nothing more until interim President Helen Drinan contacted him in July. She had been getting tagged about his tweets, he said. Over a Zoom call, he was terminated, he said.
Gwynedd Mercy University subsequently hired him as an adjunct but then withdrew the offer after it learned about his tweets, he said. He had taught only one class.
“We can say that Mr. Tannous had no history with the university prior to his brief time as an adjunct instructor,” said a spokesperson for Gwynedd Mercy. “We are committed to creating a safe and welcoming teaching and learning environment that is reflective of our Mercy mission and core values of respect, integrity, service and social justice.”
Tannous said he has since been working in real estate and mortgage brokering, struggling to pay his bills and loans.
“He’s permanently blacklisted at this point,” Schwartz said.