Friends of kidnapped Princeton student warn ‘lies’ could get her killed

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy Photo

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy Photo

Friends and colleagues of Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Russian-Israeli dual citizen who was kidnapped by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq earlier this year, are speaking out against what they describe as dangerous lies being spread online about the PhD student from Princeton.

Tsurkov, 36, disappeared in March after traveling to Iran on a research trip for her thesis, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement this week, adding that she had been abducted by Kataib Hezbollah, a notorious militia designated as a terrorist organization by the United States

“She is an academic who traveled to Iraq with her Russian passport, on her own initiative as part of her doctorate and her academic research for Princeton University in the United States,” says the Wednesday press release. “Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being.”

But now friends, peers and others who follow Tsurkov’s work are speaking out against the tidal wave of social media attacks on the academic, ranging from criticism of his decision to go to Iraq as an Israeli citizen to accuse her of operating as an Israeli. to spy.

“I am disgusted and appalled by those who attack Elizabeth and use this as an opportunity to spread complete lies about her,” said Gary Spedding, a human rights activist who has been friends with Tsurkov for more than a year. decade, at the Daily Beast. “People who try to defame her and smear her are aware of the precariousness of her situation… It is absolutely horrible, infuriating. They’re filthy cowards, and they know exactly what they’re doing. They seem happy about it and it’s shameful, absolutely shameful.

Spedding, who met Tsurkov in 2012 and worked with her on several human rights projects for Palestinian refugees, said he stayed in touch with the researcher even after he was banned from entering. Israel in 2014. (The Israeli government reportedly considered Spedding a ‘security risk’ for his involvement in organizing a student protest against an Israeli lecturer in the UK)

“It’s absolutely horrifying. I was really freaked out and very upset that this is now huge news. It’s such a horrible situation. She doesn’t just have detractors who criticize her for being a potential spy: she also has right-wing Israelis who despise the fact that she supports Palestinian rights by calling her a traitor and saying that the Israeli government shouldn’t not bother to help him. All of this is absolutely shameful,” he said.

Online critics of Tsurkov pointed to tweets from more than 10 years ago — and her apparent conscription into the Israeli army’s intelligence unit in 2006 — to bolster theories that the researcher was traveling to Iraq. as a spy.

Spedding and others who spoke to The Daily Beast described the claims as “completely ridiculous and offensive”, citing his history of criticism of Israeli government policies and his consistent support for Palestinian rights in recent years.

“People have this ability to progress, change and grow. And Elizabeth has certainly grown. To suggest that something from 2009, 2010 is representative of his views today? It completely erases all of his hard work,” Spedding said.

Robin Yassin-Kassab, a Middle East expert familiar with Tsurkov and his work, raised similar points about Tsurkov’s activism in the region.

“She was an outspoken critic of Israeli policy…and she worked for justice and equality across the region. At the end of the day, people like her are a benefit to the region and to the locals,” he told the Daily Beast, adding that he was “appalled” by some of the comments made about Tsurkov at the following his abduction.

“The people who kidnapped her are monsters who have committed enormous crimes against the Arab people of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon. I hope we are all free from it, and I hope we can come to a situation where people are not targeted solely because of their ethnic, national or religious background,” he said.

A reporter who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity and who described Tsurkov as a “dear friend”, called the espionage allegations against Tsurkov “seriously repugnant and inhumane”.

“Taking tweets from over a decade ago out of context to smear her… she already responded years ago to these same false accusations to the same people,” the reporter said, referring to social media posts of Tsurkov explaining that she was “raised by very right-wing parents”.

Dimi Rider, another journalist who consulted Tsurkov as an expert source in his reporting, described Tsurkov as “a fierce, committed and unwavering critic of the Israeli government and its practices, and in particular the atrocities it commits against the Palestinians”.

Speaking to The Daily Beast, he said that while he understands why most Palestinians won’t have much sympathy for Tsurkov, especially without knowing her well, “what is deeply concerning here is the the ease and levity with which people who really should know better…academics, journalists and activists who have at least minimal knowledge of the area speculated that she was a “spy”.

“There is no evidence that this is the case,” he said in a message to The Daily Beast. “But his captors and their paymasters read Twitter as much as anyone, and this unsubstantiated narrative allowed to take hold may have very direct implications for his safety, and even his survival.”

Those close to Tsurkov, meanwhile, maintained that the researcher understood the risks associated with her visit to Iraq.

“Of course, she had concerns. She understood regional geopolitical sensitivities all too well. She used to tell me she was managing the risks by taking precautions,” Tsurkov’s sister Emma said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “She always calculated the risks of her fieldwork. She didn’t meet any militia members, only ordinary people.

Referring to the decision not to go public with the news of Tsurkov’s disappearance earlier, Emma told the outlet that the family “hopes that we can find a quick and discreet solution to this situation without it becoming a international sensation. We weren’t silenced. It was our choice.”

On Friday, an Iraqi government spokesman said an investigation had been opened into Tsurkov’s kidnapping, but declined to provide further information in a statement to The Associated Press.

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