A former athletic trainer for the Agnes Irwin School has filed a federal discrimination charge, alleging she was unlawfully fired by the Main Line private school after parents complained about years-old social media posts criticizing Israel.
Natalie Abulhawa, a 24-year-old Palestinian American, says she was fired in November, 10 days after starting as an athletic trainer at the all-girls school. The issue cited by school officials, she said, was a profile about her hosted by a website that bills itself as documenting “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
Abulhawa and the Council on American Islamic Relations — which this week announced it had filed the charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Abulhawa’s behalf — say the website is Islamophobic and targets college students active in advocating for Palestine.
“They paint me to be a very violent and anti-Semitic person, which is very, very far from the truth,” Abulhawa said Thursday of the Canary Mission’s website, which has been referred to by the Jewish Forward as a “shadowy online blacklist.” She did not dispute the accuracy of the tweets the site attributed to her but said they were selected “to confirm their narrative” and sometimes lacked context — including whether she was responding to another person or whether she had written subsequent messages.
“Israel doesn’t have the right to exist,” one tweet reads — a 2016 post that still appears on Abulhawa’s Twitter account. Many of the other posts compiled by the site, all of which date to 2016 or earlier, appear to have been deleted; among them are posts referring to “stocking up on rocks” while mentioning the presence of Israeli soldiers, and calling for Zionists to “rot in fking hell.”
A 2019 Temple University graduate, Abulhawa said she was studying in Palestine in 2016. She said the Canary Mission’s section on her involvement with Temple’s Students for Justice in Palestine club was misleading, given that some of the listed incidents involving the club took place before she was a student there.
The site also notes Abulhawa’s participation in an anti-Israel protest with her mother, a Palestinian author.
Whatever statements Abulhawa made in years past on social media “are not as important as the decision to terminate her and the way she was terminated,” said Timothy Welbeck, a lawyer with CAIR-Philadelphia, which argues that Agnes Irwin discriminated against Abulhawa in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
In the complaint filed with the EEOC, CAIR said Abulhawa had learned of “substantially similar social media posts” made by other Agnes Irwin employees who were not reprimanded or fired.
Abulhawa said she wasn’t allowed to offer any explanation after the school’s athletic director notified her that parents and faculty members had made complaints related to the Canary Mission’s site.
In a subsequent meeting with the head of school, Abulhawa said she was told that her termination was effective immediately.
“That was the part that was most difficult: You fell into this hate platform profiling me, and you gave them what they wanted,” she said.
A spokesperson for Agnes Irwin said the school “is aware of a pending complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involving a former employee” but declined to comment specifically on the case.
“We can share that Agnes Irwin has an established equal employment opportunity policy that prohibits discrimination of any kind,” said the spokesperson, Jubin Kwon. “Respect is a core value of our school, and we strive to treat all with dignity and understanding, welcoming differences in backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures. We also believe that our school must be a safe space for all members to learn, teach and work collaboratively.”
A lawsuit against the school could be possible, but the EEOC has to issue a finding first, Welbeck said.
Abulhawa said she’s struggled to find full-time work since the firing and is working for another school per diem, filling in for a friend on maternity leave.
While she was aware of the Canary Mission’s profile of her, Abulhawa said she was “caught off guard” when the school cited it in her termination, despite no mention during what she said was an otherwise thorough hiring process.
“A simple Google search would have brought this up,” she said.