Genderqueer. Jewish. Anti-Zionist. - FAU Professor Resigns Over School’s Pro-Israel Stance

Nicole Morse speaks on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace South Florida at a march organized by the South Florida Coalition for Palestine on November 11, 2023, in South Beach, Miami. Photo by Glory Jones.

Nicole Morse is Jewish, and genderqueer. They’re also anti-Zionist. 

Earlier this semester they resigned their position as the director of the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at Florida Atlantic University. They announced it publicly in an editorial for TruthOut. More recently, they also submitted their letter of resignation as an associate professor, where they taught sexuality and gender studies at the graduate level and sexual identities at the undergraduate level.

Ever since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, and the subsequent retaliation and incursion by Israel into the Gaza Strip – their outspokenness against the State of Israel has caused tensions to flare.

Their resignation letter reads in part:

“...the institution’s response to what the International Court of Justice determined is a plausible genocide in Gaza makes it impossible for me to continue as a faculty member. As a deeply faithful and observant Jew, I cannot in good conscience work at an institution that so decisively prioritizes Zionist ideology over the well-being of its diverse students, staff, and faculty while privileging ethnonationalist propaganda over freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry, and the pursuit of truth,” they wrote in the letter. “It has been devastating that my attempts to advocate for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students have been met by ridicule, stonewalling, and threats that I myself might be investigated for ‘policy violations.’ I have been treated as a problem and even as a terrorist sympathizer, rather than as an accomplished scholar, teacher, and committed member of the campus community.”

Two protests took place following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, one on Oct. 9 where students came out to show their support for Israel, and a second one on Oct. 11 where students came out to show their support for Palestine.

OutSFL interviewed Morse in February, after they announced their resignation as the director WGSS, but before their resignation as a professor was announced.

Below is my conversation with Morse. It’s been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell me what it was like the day before the war broke out, and how quickly did you feel singled out?

I started at FAU in 2018. From the moment that I came to FAU, I was concerned that this would eventually become an issue for my employment because I have been in the anti-Zionist Jewish community, including my synagogue, for over 10 years.

It was very clear from messaging at the university level, and also from state law such as a 2019 law that criminalized criticism of the State of Israel, that there was going to be a level of repression around Zionism and Israel in the context of FAU. But up until I would say Oct. 9, I was able to balance these things, although it was sometimes challenging, especially when my research intersected with questions of Palestine, research and teaching.

What was so deeply disturbing to me — the week of Oct. 9 — was seeing the way that the university immediately abandoned the community of students, staff and faculty who are Palestinian, or who are connected to Palestine, whether by being Arab or Muslim, or being in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and particularly the way that the two marches were handled. It really became starkly evident that the university's priorities were not just at odds with my own personal commitments, but that the university was distorting the facts on the ground in order to prop up a narrative that favored one side. Particularly public statements that the President [of FAU] made that misrepresented the Oct. 9 march as fully peaceful and stigmatized the Oct. 11 march by framing it as wild and violent in ways that are not the responsibility of the Palestinian student organizers.

Can you just briefly explain the Oct. 9 and Oct. 11 marches?

It's just such a complicated question. Because you know, what, what was happening before Oct. 7, there was, you know, a 16-year siege — following 50 some years of occupation — following 75 years of ethnic cleansing. On a personal level, it was manageable. So on Oct. 9, Owls for Israel held a march on campus, and during that march, I was surrounded, threatened. My sign was punched out of my hand. I was called an “it” and a “zonah” — which is Hebrew for prostitute, because I was holding a sign that was critical of Israel. And that advocated for no U.S. funding for war crimes. At that point the State of Israel had announced it planned to engage in things like collective punishment that are war crimes. So that was Oct. 9.

That was a planned pro-Israel march, so you were there as a counter protester?

Yes. My understanding was that most Palestinian students and staff had chosen not even to come to campus that day because they were concerned for their safety. I consulted with my rabbi, and he encouraged me to quietly accompany the march to communicate that there are multiple Jewish perspectives. That's what I did. I said nothing to the marchers. I merely had this sign, and I was attacked quite viciously. Specifically, they said, things that were highly gendered, rape threats, calling me a “zonah,” a prostitute and calling me an “it,” which I believe is a reference to the fact that I'm visibly genderqueer.

Israel is made out to be a very [LGBTQ-friendly place]. So for them to engage in those sorts of attacks on you. Were you shocked or surprised?

I was not. My experience being a public anti-Zionist Jew for about a decade is that there is a very strong trend of conservatism in any movement that is ethnonationalist, and that believes in the supremacy of one group over others. That tends to produce a range of prejudices, including misogyny, including homophobia, transphobia.
You mentioned pinkwashing. So you're aware of that, and the ways that queer people are used, and queer rights are used to make Israel look gay friendly when in fact, Israel is known for outing Palestinians in order to compel them to be collaborators in using LGBTQ issues, and LGBTQ identities in really dark and dangerous ways.

All of this is kind of the troubling underside of it and my own experience has been that when I am at a march, or if I am handing out information as part of Jewish Voice for Peace, if I'm participating in anything that is critical of Israel, those are the times when I get attacked, misgendered, or I guess perhaps you could even call it being quote unquote, gendered correctly if people are recognizing that I'm genderqueer, but it is of course very dehumanizing to be referred to as an “it.” So yeah, that did not surprise me, but I did find it disturbing — it always is.

So the Oct. 11 march, that was the march for Palestine?

So that was organized by some young student activists, and they were so cautious and careful to make sure that the march was safe. Unfortunately, there were 15 to 20 counter protesters, and unlike me on the ninth these people were shouting aggressively at the marchers, they were in particular saying a lot of gendered and misogynist comments.

They were shouting whore and prostitute in English, Arabic and Hebrew. They were shouting rape threats. In both of these situations, police were present. But on the ninth, the police observed what was happening — they did make sure that I wasn't physically harmed. Although they also did not document it, and I have not been able to get the police to investigate what happened.

On the 11th state troopers were called in and FAU police escalated very quickly following the heckling of the counter protesters to hassle and escalate the atmosphere and myself and many other people, you know, witnessed what from what we saw was unprovoked police brutality, and then that was represented as evidence that the Palestinian students were violent and in another situation, a counter protester. So, someone who was protesting the Palestine march hit someone and was temporarily arrested and that arrest was also attributed to the Palestine march, even though of course, his behavior cannot be the responsibility of people he was coming out to heckle and harass.

So you’re saying the way it was framed is that there was this violence that broke out, but it wasn't explained or clearly [communicated] that the violence actually came from the counter protesters.

Right, and so, that second public statement from the university was incredibly disturbing. It created an atmosphere of anxiety, alienation and danger, honestly, for Palestinian moments. I because I am publicly known to be someone who is willing to criticize Israel. Even at this institution I heard from students anonymously, and occasionally, students I knew about their experiences and about the struggle they had trying to get support from the institution. I also had the dean of students and others reaching out to me regularly asking me how the students were doing and every time I would convey that the students really just needed a public statement that said that the university supported them and was concerned for their well-being to go along with the statements of support for Israeli and Jewish students. That has still not happened.

The university did not even acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian students and what they were experiencing. That was kind of shocking [that the university did not even acknowledge those students].

That's horrifying, but it's also shockingly common at this university. I've had administrators say to me, “What do you mean Palestinian students are suffering,” and when I said, “Well, you know that for some of our students like their family is being killed. They have lost family members, sometimes multiple family members. Their families have been evicted from their homes in the West Bank, even if other family isn't in Gaza.”

I had administrators who were shocked who were unaware, and didn't realize that that is what Palestinians are experiencing.

So the level of ignorance was also really disturbing. But then instead of responding, by wanting to know more, by wanting to learn more from myself, from scholars at the University, who specialized in this from students whose real experience it is, you know, what ended up happening was that I was targeted for a series of investigations.

Constantly being asked to produce more documentation about my work and pressure to resign. That is especially disturbing given that we're in a moment where LGBTQ studies is being targeted, and I have been a very strong defender of LGBTQ studies, gender studies and of queer trans students at FAU and have been effective in that role.

Why did you resign as the director?

The reason I resigned from the directorship was because I was no longer able to be an effective leader. Especially in this time when leadership is needed so badly for Women Gender and Sexuality Studies for LGBTQ students. I was no longer able to be an effective leader because so much of my time and energy was being taken up. Responding to accusations to requests for further information, meetings to question me about my political and religious beliefs etc. That was interfering with my ability to do the work that the center needs.

If you were just a professor, would they have treated you the same way?

What we've seen nationwide is incredible repression of academics and students at every level, in my situation, the message that I was given repeatedly is that leaders at FAU are expected to support the State of Israel. And while I don't believe that that should be the case. I found that I was in a position where I could no longer effectively lead without making a change. And I was certainly unwilling to change my religious beliefs and specifically what I was asked is, you know why I couldn't or whether I would be. I was asked whether I would be disaffiliated from anti-Zionist Jewish groups, and since my synagogue is an anti-Zionist Jewish organization, I chose to resign.

Yeah, they are allowed, but they are under attack and at FAU, just like there was no appetite to defend my right to pursue my religious beliefs separately from my position. There has been minimal appetite to defend our right to study and teach LGBTQ studies, and that has been very disturbing to me.

So I am still teaching these classes. But I have had to repeatedly fight to defend the courses and the program of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. And the administration has not been as active in defending these programs, as I believe they should be because the laws that have been passed are designed to scare people, but the actual text of the law does not forbid studying these disciplines. So there's no reason to over comply and further harm LGBTQ communities and scholars and teachers in Florida by pretty actively doing things that the laws don't actually even require because that would be unconstitutional.

I know you said you didn't want to mention names, and I respect that.

I want to be really clear, because I have had outreach from the university and I believe that, you know, there would be a preference to portray this as, you know, a bad apple or someone who made a mistake. The fact is that this was pervasive. It was something I encountered in every aspect of my job. So it's simply wasn't one individual. It also was pervasive because this is the culture that has been cultivated at FAU through years of stronger and stronger ties to the State of Israel. Stronger and stronger donor relations with people who make support for Israel, a precondition of their support of the University, and this means that FAU is not able to support all of its community members, all of its students. And also limits the research and teaching that can be done. That's not appropriate for a state institution. Of course, we also know that, Gov. Ron DeSantis is similarly trying to repress voices that disagree with him on Israel. So, you know, it's a broad problem in Florida, but at FAU, it is particularly strong.

Did you feel like there was anybody at the university that had your back or supported you?

Students and colleagues have been incredibly supportive, which I deeply appreciate.

You said that you did feel your safety was threatened?

The one time I felt my safety was threatened was on Oct. 9 when I was surrounded by numbers of Owls for Israel. In that moment, the police did protect my right to free speech. But because subsequently the police did not — I was stonewalled as I tried to record it and try to follow up about that. I certainly don't feel supported by the institution. I don't feel that my safety is a concern of theirs. But the biggest concern I have is for the students because students, especially students who are visibly Muslim, have really been suffering this year, and they have tried and tried to report this, and they have not been heard, and they have not received the support that they need. And in many cases, all they have been asking for is a public statement that says that Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students are members of our community. That would send a message to the people who are harassing them, who are subjecting them to death threats. This institution doesn't stand behind that kind of behavior, but instead what we're seeing is this atmosphere that, you know, implicitly condones what's going on.

Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

I would just want to emphasize is that whatever I have experienced it is, you know, the students who are suffering the most; whether it's Palestinian students who feel unsupported and unheard as their people are experiencing a genocide; or whether it's queer and trans students who want to find support on campus and are not able to find that because someone like me gets targeted for something that should be protected and that actually is a core value of the discipline.

The National Women's Studies Association has affirmed support for Palestine Liberation, multiple times. So this is part of the discipline. Just as affirming, queer and trans people is part of our discipline and in all these ways, we're being attacked by the government in Florida. It just It breaks my heart that it reached a point where I was unable to effectively advocate for my students because of the way I was being targeted by the institution.


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