El Camino graduate’s speech sparks outrage, support and international coverage


El Camino College graduates listen as President Brenda Thames speaks during the 2023 commencement ceremony hosted on June 9. Outgoing Associated Students Organization Jana Abulaban gave a short speech that heavily criticized Israel which El Camino officials claims was not approved. The College gained national attention when a 20-second snippet from Abulaban’s speech became the subject of the New York Post’s original article, before being picked up by Daily Mail and Fox News. (Delfino Camacho | The Union)

A speech given by El Camino College’s student government president during a commencement ceremony sparked national coverage with some critics and publications calling the remarks “antisemitic” while others defended her right to speak.

Outgoing Associated Students Organization President Jana Abulaban, 18, gave a speech introducing the student commencement speaker during the June 9 Commencement Ceremony, in which she made comments in support of Palestinian people while accusing Israel of violence.

“I gift my graduation to all Palestinians who have lost their life and those who continue to lose their lives every day due to the oppressive apartheid state of Israel killing and torturing Palestinians as we speak,” Abulaban said.

In an official statement released five days after the speech, college officials said they did not authorize this portion of the address.

The comment, which was recorded in a livestream of the ceremony, was met with mild applause.

It later sparked national and international media coverage with the New York Post publishing a story and citing a Twitter post of the organization StopAntisemitism.org, an American antisemitism non-profit, which critiqued Abulaban’s words.

El Camino President Brenda Thames sent out an official statement on June 14, saying Abulaban’s “statement was not approved by El Camino College officials and does not reflect the values and views of El Camino College.”

A screenshot of the official statement from El Camino College Office of the President Brenda Thames regarding the 2023 commencement speech incident.

The El Camino College Muslim Student Association shared a story on Instagram with a message in support of Abulaban following Thames’ statement.

“Our 2022-23 Vice President Jana Abulaban used her platform to speak about Palestine. It is unfortunate so many people are against her. From the Muslim community in the South Bay, we stand with her. #freePalestine,” read the message.

The Union spoke with Kerri Webb, the college’s director of public information and government relations, who said the college is receiving messages and feedback from different views.

“We’re just taking the feedback and I do not know if we’re going to have any further responses,” Webb said.

Abulaban told the New York Post a school director looked over the speech two days before the ceremony and “basically backed me up on it.” The New York Post originally reported Interim Director of Student Services Ricardo Gonzalez approved the speech before the ceremony.

However, Webb confirmed to The Union Gonzalez approved the original script that did not include Abulaban’s “ad-lib.”

Webb added while it was not an excuse, every speaker who spoke at the event went off-script in one way or another.

Abulaban’s speech sparked a flurry of comments and reactions from critical to supportive to violent.

Fox News picked up the story on June 13 with an article and a presentation of the story on their news and talk show “Outnumbered” where former Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and other panelists critiqued Abulaban’s words and asked questions on whether El Camino administrators approved the speech beforehand.

Fox News contributor Douglas Murray accused Abulaban of being a “phony,” claiming the student is not a Palestinian refugee because she was born in Jordan. Abulaban’s family fled Palestine before she was born.

Abulaban moved to the U.S. when she was 12, as Warrior Life magazine reported.

Abulaban’s speech, the focus of the controversy, was a three-minute introduction in a three-hour ceremony.

Speaking to the New York Post, Abulaban said she was inspired to speak by fellow student Fatima Mousa Mohammed, who also accused Israel of killing Palestinians during her commencement speech at the City University of New York in May.

Abulaban declined to speak to The Union, saying she was taking some time to prepare a statement.

When asked if the college will adopt new rules to prevent instances in the future, Webb said she doesn’t know.

“We are going to take all this in, this whole experience into consideration and collaborate and see what we can do to make (future events) as smooth and celebratory as its intended,” Webb said.

Joseph Toubbeh, 23, is a recently graduated law student from Chapman University who grew up in Southern California. As a first-generation Palestinian Christian, Toubbeh was born in the U.S. but his father immigrated from Palestine to escape the conflict.

Responding to claims Abulaban is not a refugee because she was born in Jordan and not Palestine, Toubbeh said that kind of rhetoric “infuriates” him.

“It’s still her identity you know … she’s still a Palestinian; I don’t see why people are constantly trying to erase (that). I’m American-born, my dad is Palestinian and I still identify as Palestinian,” Toubbeh said. “People try to dictate where we’re from or who we are.”

Toubbeh supports Abulaban and doesn’t see her words as attacking a religion but attacking a government.

Standing across from the Associated Students Organization's (ASO) office in the Communications Building, Jana Abulaban led 35 members of El Camino's student government as the former president of ASO. During her time at El Camino College, Abulaban was also an active member of the forensics team and an advocate for immigrant and refugee rights. (Khoury Williams | The Union)
Standing across from the Associated Students Organization’s (ASO) office in the Communications Building, Jana Abulaban led 35 members of El Camino’s student government as the former president of ASO. During her time at El Camino College, Abulaban was also an active member of the forensics team and an advocate for immigrant and refugee rights. (Khoury Williams | The Union)

He relents perhaps there is a “misunderstanding in the communication,” but insists the criticism is necessary and urges people not to ignore the message. While he realizes antisemitism is “still rampant” he disagrees that the speech used hateful language.

“I would want people to recognize the severity of the issue, and that her words, they carry weight for a reason, they’re having this impact for a reason,” he said.

Sebastian Kessel is a South Bay community member who immigrated from South America to the U.S. in 2002. Kessel is a Jewish father and uncle to two upcoming high school seniors who were interested in El Camino due to its “good reputation.”

Kessel said the topic of Abulaban’s speech “was fair but her words were not.” By claiming all of Israel is killing Palestinians, Kessel said Abulaban was no longer criticizing; she was trying to be inflammatory by using offensive language.

In reference to some of the online and media reactions, Kessel said he worries about people turning this into a partisan issue.

“I actually spoke with a reporter of a different national media outlet who skews right, as does Fox News, and while I really appreciate people quote unquote speaking up for us, my main concern is that this becomes a partisan thing (between) Democrats and Republicans,” Kessel said.

Kessel is quoted in a follow-up New York Post article.

“I mean, let’s face it: Fox News, The New York Post, they have an agenda and that agenda is not protecting the Jewish people. It’s attacking their quote-unquote woke liberals,” he said to The Union.

The parent said he has seen antisemitism weaponized by “both sides” to further their goals. Kessel said he leans left politically, but while he supports Abulaban’s First Amendment rights, the right does not shield away from criticism and consequences.

“I just want the school to be what a school should be, which is a place where people go to form their opinions, whatever those opinions are. If a school is taking sides, then I have a problem with it,” he said, adding the school’s reaction to this will affect his family’s decision.

Webb said while the school is working to deal with and address the controversy, she ultimately hopes people will learn from this.

“A lot of people are going to learn a lot from this experience … We’re all taking notes and as trite as it sounds it’s an educational opportunity being experienced by an educational institution,” Webb said. “It’s a learning experience; unfortunately, some learning experiences hurt.”