UofG rector refers to Lenin in installation speech, says University may be complicit in genocide

By Jan Jasinski, Alan Rubin Castejon

Ghassan Abu-Sittah has since been detained by German police when attempting to enter the country

Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a British-Palestinian surgeon, was installed as the new Rector of the University of Glasgow on 11 April, following his landslide victory in the rectorial election. He received nearly 80% of first-preference votes, handily defeating incumbent Rector Lady Rita Rae, Paul Sweeney MSP, and comedian Susie McCabe.

On the day after his installation, 12 April, Abu-Sittah was detained while entering Germany to speak at a conference on the war in Gaza. In an interview with Middle East Eye, Abu-Sittah said he was held in an interrogation room in Berlin airport for three and a half hours before being asked to book a flight back to the UK. A University spokesperson told The Glasgow Guardian the University Secretary has been in touch with the Rector to offer support.

In his installation speech, Abu-Sittah spoke of his long career as a war-zone medic, and emphasised that never before had he experienced anything like what he saw in the Al-Shifa hospital, where he worked for 49 days at the outset of the conflict. The hospital has since been demolished by the Israel Defence Force.

He said that “Gaza is the laboratory in which global capital is looking at the management of surplus populations,” and that the “drones fitted with sniper rifles tested in Gaza” will be later used in “Mumbai, in Nairobi and in Sao Paulo” and later “Easterhouse and Springburn.” He said the conflict could not be blamed on just Israel, asserting that America, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Australia were all part of “an axis of genocide,” while the University itself was part of a “genocidal iceberg.” Abu-Sittah also quoted from Rosa Luxembourg, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Bobby Sands, and referred to Lenin.

He dedicated his rectorship to the family and friends he lost in Gaza, including some who were killed in the clearing of Al-Shifa Hospital just 10 days prior.

Abu-Sittah outlined several strategies for his rectorship. He will pressure the University to divest from its investments in the arms and fossil fuel industries, and use this money to set up a fund named after slain UofG alumnus Dima Al Haj to rebuild educational institutions in Gaza. He says this is necessary for “de-risking,” and keeping the University from being potentially legally liable for being complicit in genocide. He will encourage a boycott of “all Israeli educational institutions,” who are “no longer complicit in apartheid, but genocide.”

He also wants the University to abandon the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism, which according to Abu-Sittah “conflates anti-Zionism with anti-semitism,” and replace it with the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

During the campaign, the Glasgow Jewish Campaign and the Union of Jewish Students called on Abu Sittah to drop this campaign pledge, saying that “a campus environment where the appointed rector seeks to redefine antisemitism against the express wishes of those directly affected by it undermines the Jewish students’ sense of security.”

On 22 March, Abu Sittah said that he had met with Jewish students on campus and that he would “consult with the Jewish community on campus to get a variety of opinions on a new definition of antisemitism that does not conflate anti-zionism with anti-semitism.”

However, the Glasgow Jewish Society has told The Glasgow Guardian that Ghassan’s post “mischaracterised” the meeting: “Jewish students met with him and shared our perspective. He has not apologised or enacted our suggestions to ensure Jewish safety on campus.

When asked for comment on this policy, a University spokesperson said: “We are wholly committed as an institution to upholding and retaining the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, which the University formally adopted back in 2021.”

Abu-Sittah also emphasised his intention to campaign intersectionally, together with Jewish, BAME, LGBTQ, and other minority communities against “a new form of global fascism” He will also campaign for a “campus free from gender-based violence” and fight student poverty, 

SRC President Hailie Pentleton-Owens, who led the event, congratulated Abu-Sittah and his campaign team on a successful campaign, and emphasised that his victory was a reflection of the students’ priorities in the context of the “ongoing genocide in Gaza.” Abu-Sittah alone received more than twice as many votes as the total votes cast in the SRC elections in February.

University Principal Sir Anton Muscatelli was notably absent from the event. Muscatelli attended Lady Rae’s installation in 2021, while then-Chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman attended Aamer Anwar’s installation in 2017. UofG COO David Duncan and Vice-Principal Martin Hendry were present, along with a number of other senior staff members, but they did not join the crowd of students and staff in applauding Abu-Sittah during or after his speech, nor react to Abu-Sittah’s accusation of the University being complicit in genocide. The University said:

“The Principal has not attended all Rector installations since he has been in the role and was unavailable on Thursday. He was represented by a Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal/Clerk of the Senate.”

The Glasgow Guardian understands that while the installation and Abu-Sittah’s speech was originally planned to be live-streamed by the University, this was later cancelled without public explanation, leaving the SRC itself to record the event. The recording has not been released yet. The University has released no social media or press coverage of the event, unlike the installation of Lady Rae in 2021. A University spokesperson said:

“The Rectorial installation is always a student-led/SRC event. We don’t typically livestream these events – an exception was made during the pandemic when all events were moved online. We don’t believe a request was made to livestream the installation event.”

In an interview with The Glasgow Guardian following the installation, the organisers of Abu-Sittah’s campaign said the University was “hostile” to the campaign, and attempted to push the medic off the ballot at least three times, over alleged breaches of the campaigning code of conduct. GU Palestine Society Vice-President Malek El Mastour Beesan Shroof said that while they originally hoped to recruit Abu-Sittah as a non-active Rector, a vote for whom would be a sign of protest, it was Abu-Sittah’s initiative to be an active, on-campus rector.

Also attending the installation were previous rector Aamer Anwar, and Dr Ang Swee Chai, co-founder of the Medical Aid for Palestinians charity. Abu-Sittah received congratulations on his election from Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald via Twitter.

After his election, the Glasgow Jewish Society denounced Dr Abu Sittah in a public statement for “laud[ing] the memories” of late members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The PFLP is a political grouping labelled as a terrorist organisation by the US, the European Union, and Canada. However, the British government differentiates the PFLP and the PFLP-GC, a paramilitary wing which broke off in 1968, as distinct organisations, with only the latter being recognised as a terrorist organisation.

Additionally, in an Instagram post, the Jewish Society highlighted the Rector’s eulogy of Maher Al Yamani, co-founder of the PFLP, which was first reported on by the Jewish Chronicle. Al-Yamani helped plan the hijacking of El Al Flight 253 in 1968, which resulted in the death of an Israeli national. Abu-Sittah told the Jewish Chronicle that Al Yamani was one of his patients and close friends. He went on to deny being a member of the PFLP or any Palestinian terrorist organisations.

The allegations have instigated an investigation by the University as reported by the United Kingdom Lawyers for Israel (UKFLI), an advocacy group which challenges the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Principal Muscatelli responded to the UKFLI by saying: “Given the serious nature of the allegations set out in your letter, I have asked our Clerk of Senate – the returning officer for the election of Rector – to investigate.”

Abu-Sittah distanced himself from the allegations in a letter sent to Professor Martin Hendry, the clerk of the Senate.

In the letter seen by The Glasgow Guardian, Abu Sittah stated: “I reaffirm the fact that I do not support any organizations that are proscribed in the United Kingdom nor have supported any acts which are illegal under UK law and confirm that I do not support the actions of individuals who commit acts of terrorism.”

Following the election results, the rector alleged that he has “been subject to an organized campaign of defamation. For the Zionists the aim of this campaign is to distract from the essence of what is happening: Israel has wantingly killed over 15,000 children.’’

The Principal also emphasised the existence of other representation channels for students who may not feel represented by the Rector. Michael Ellis MP, the former Attorney General, told the Jewish Chronicle these alternate methods would be “tantamount to segregation.” A University spokesperson said:

“There have always been different options for representation open to all students and it is therefore inaccurate to describe this as an act of segregation. The Principal never mentioned the creation of any new alternative methods. This was misreported.

“All students seeking representation can speak to the Student Representative Council rather than the Rector if they wish to; they can also access the formal complaints system. In addition, we have student support officers in every college of the University, a team of professional safeguarding officers and an online reporting system which students can use in name or anonymously.”


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments