Letter to the Editors: Response to Op-Ed on Hoda Katebi


As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In that spirit, I write to respond to the recent Op-Ed on Hoda Katebi, published by The Forum.

I feel the need to respond to the Op-Ed because I am the person who organized the panel. In my role as Latin’s Difficult Dialogues Coordinator, I invited Ms. Katebi to be a part of our panel, and I stand by that decision. While I sincerely appreciate the editors’ and other students’ encouragement to think more deeply about the implications of that decision, I strongly disagree with this Op-Ed as a means to continue that discussion.

First, to offer some much-needed context, this panel arose, in part, out of conversations with members of our community who responded to my fall message about difficult dialogues and the protests in Iran. Reflecting on those conversations as well as the ongoing coverage of the protests and international responses, it became clear that this was a far more complex issue than many of us had originally assumed. This insightful Op-Ed from the Baltimore Sun by the Maryland Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations does a great job summarizing many of those concerns. To explore that complexity as well as its implications for broader questions of choice and women’s rights, I and other faculty decided that a panel of experts, who could shine a floodlight instead of a spotlight on these issues, would be the best way to continue exploring the topic.

As I reached out to many different contacts – colleagues, parents, and others – Ms. Katebi was repeatedly mentioned, “as a highly effective, engaged, young Irani voice (who also happens to wear the hijab herself) who speaks with a deep understanding of her country of origin and is unafraid to speak truth to power.” Researching her work, I also found that Ms. Katebi had recently been featured in the New York Times “Visionaries” series, as well as other mainstream media like Vogue, NPR, and Crain’s “20 in their 20s” annual list.

While I was not aware of the tweet highlighted by the editors, I understand the concerns they raise about the sentiment. Clearly, as supporters of Israel, any movement that explicitly threatens the current status of Israel would rightly seem like a reasonable threat. At the same time, I sincerely appreciate the writers’ attempt to separate legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel from more pernicious sentiments of antisemitism.

Beyond that, I strongly agree with some of the editors’ arguments, such as the idea that difficult dialogues cannot work with “those whose speech distorts the truth for the sake of destruction.” That makes me particularly distressed about the clear distortions in this Op-Ed, including the misrepresentation or inaccurate contextualization of its sources as well as the outright inaccuracies about the current condition of Palestinians – all of which are revealed in the sources actually linked within the Op-Ed.

For example, the editors use the phrase, “its UN-granted land” and then link to a history of the 1947 UN Partition borders without any context for how those borders changed in 1949, 1967, and 1982. They also accuse Ms. Katebi of misusing the critique of a “two-sides” argument but then deploy that same logic against her, while, at the same time, misrepresenting another source. Contextualizing the one tweet that serves as the basis for their critique, the editors write, “Israeli soldiers responded to cross-border bombs” and yet the article hyperlinked in that statement is primarily focused on the fact that “38 protesters have been killed by Israeli live fire and more than 1,600 wounded in the weekly protests” that included some protestors throwing “explosives, firebombs and rocks.”

Most glaringly, the writers explicitly deny the experience of Palestinians in Israel, arguing, “Israel currently has roughly 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, who share the same legal rights as any other Israeli citizen.” However, yet again, their own source betrays that fact, as it states, “Though Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote and participate in political life, they face a web of institutionalized discrimination and exclusion.”

I am also concerned about the overall tone and optics of publishing such a piece. Because of her outspoken criticism of the current regime in Iran, Ms. Katebi is under constant threat. As she described during our debriefing lunch, she regularly deals with everything from attempts at assassinating her character to legitimate death threats. Due to the seriousness of these threats, she has received dispensation to not attend in-person classes at the University of California Law School during her final year – an unprecedented accommodation that reflects the risk she also takes in speaking publicly. Despite all of those concerns, she still willingly joined our panel and, in my opinion, did an excellent job bringing to life the nuance and complexity of the situation in Iran. Rewarding that courage with a public takedown will certainly undermine our community’s ability to invite other speakers in the future.

Finally, I am struck by the decision to not mention me or any other administrators by name. While those intentions may have been pure, I wonder if the writers have reflected on the fact that they decided to not name me, as the organizer of the panel, even as they were willing to publicly attack a woman of color, who the writers have never met or spoken to directly.

I support the ideals of open communication and standing against hate that were expressed in the editors’ Op-Ed. I simply hope that we can continue to strive to live up to those ideals. I look forward to partnering with students and others as we continue to tackle that complex work.