Jewish students sue university in midst of tense atmosphere on campus
San Francisco, CA
Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, accused San Francisco State University (SFSU) officials of blundering his planned appearance at the school twice, and the incidents have now resulted in a lawsuit. In 2016, San Francisco Hillel, an extracurricular group for Jewish students at SFSU and other local institutions, invited Barkat to speak on campus. His talk was quickly interrupted by protesters from another student group, the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS), who chanted for over an hour about their opposition to Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” Eventually, Barkat left without finishing his remarks and vowed to come back a year later. He arranged a second appearance with the SFSU administration in 2017, but backed out after he claimed the university did not adequately publicize and plan for the event. The incidents surrounding Barkat join a string of campus mishaps at SFSU that some Jewish students claim perpetuate anti-Semitism among the administration and student body.
Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem, Israel, in 2008. Before that, Barkat spent five years as leader of the opposition in Jerusalem’s City Council. He was first invited to the SFSU campus by San Francisco Hillel in 2016.
Dr. Leslie E. Wong is president of San Francisco State University. According to his official biography, Wong joined SFSU in 2012 after eight years as president of Northern Michigan University and executive positions at two other institutions. His academic field is educational psychology. Barkat and the Jewish students of SFSU blamed the disruption of Barkat’s 2016 lecture on Wong’s negligence toward the Jewish community, and they allege that Barkat’s 2017 lecture was derailed due primarily to Wong’s unwillingness to repair relations with Barkat. Wong has since apologized for his actions in an open letter to the Jewish community and asked Barkat back to San Francisco. He is now the defendant in a lawsuit concerning anti-Semitism at SFSU.
Mayor Barkat’s speech, sponsored by San Francisco Hillel, was interrupted in 2016 by a group of students protesting Israel’s actions in Palestine. The students chanted for nearly an hour, sometimes through a megaphone. Newsweek reports that the protesters shouted, “Get the fuck off our campus” and called for intervention by a Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, of the sort that has previously broken out in Israel in recent years. A YouTube video shows the event’s attendees grouped tightly around Barkat as the protesters in the back of the theater successfully prevent them from hearing his remarks.
The University’s Jewish community alleges that the campus chief of police — who arrived in plain clothes and did not make himself known — attended the event and was ordered to “stand down” by university officials, according to The Washington Post. The protesting students defied university policy, which prohibits the “[w]illful, material and substantial disruption or obstruction of a University-related activity,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Outraged by the disruption, Barkat abandoned his attempts to speak and vowed to return to campus the following year. “Dozens of anti-Israel protesters disrupted my public lecture through intimidation and provocation, vulgarities and incitement that bordered on the anti-Semitic,” Barkat later commented.
University President Leslie E. Wong commissioned an independent investigation of the incident. The investigators concluded that the university did not handle the protest properly and had ignored complaints from three Jewish students, according to Inside Higher Ed. No students were punished for the protest. SFSU has since enacted new policies to increase security for speakers on campus. The university also amended its “Time, Place, and Manner Policy” that describes the conditions under which a protest is acceptable. The school is organizing “Time, Place, and Manner” training for students and faculty, according to a statement by Wong.
A year after the first incident, Barkat decided to deliver on his promise to return to SFSU. He cancelled, however, upon discovering that the university had failed “to provide the necessary public forum and properly publicize [the] lecture,” which he says “has contributed to the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state.” Barkat claimed that because the event was limited to ticketed guests and not adequately promoted, the university diminished the prospective audience.
Wong alleges, however, that Barkat did not allow enough time for the university to organize the event properly, notifying school officials of his trip just seven days in advance. Wong insists that he told Barkat’s staff the university would need three weeks to plan for an event of that magnitude. “Given the short notice of his visit, we quickly put together a plan that prioritized the safety of the mayor and our community while facilitating respectful dialogue,” Wong said.
The incident occurs at a time in which the decades-long territorial dispute between Israel and Palestine has become one of the most divisive foreign policy issues in the United States. The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that Democrats and Republicans have drifted further apart on the matter since 2001. The study also shows that there is a large generation gap in Americans’ opinions on the subject, with Millennials (Americans born after 1980) more likely than their parents to sympathize with Palestine. Because of this, college campuses have become battlegrounds for activism on both sides. “When it comes to the Middle East on campus, the environment is increasingly uneasy and even hostile. Many universities are grappling with how to balance students’ right to protest with Jewish students’ fears that their culture is under attack,” The New York Times reported in 2016.
Shortly after Barkat cancelled the second event, Wong penned an open letter in The Jewish News of Northern California in which he apologized for SFSU’s missteps and pledged to make the universty a safe space for all students. “University campuses are not quiet spaces, and I would argue that they shouldn’t be. But the noise should come from sessions where tough and difficult ideas are confronted in a spirit of learning and respect. Bullhorns don’t do it, and the idea of silencing and preventing the marketplace of ideas is both sad and disturbing,” Wong wrote.
Even with Wong’s assurances, the Jewish philanthropic organization, The Koret Foundation, pulled $1.7 million in promised funding from SFSU. Inside Higher Ed reports that Wong has asked Jewish faculty members to help repair the school’s relationship with the Foundation.
Jewish Students Sue University
In 2017, former and current Jewish students at SFSU partnered with a pro-Israel nonprofit organization, The Lawfare Project, to sue the school and its officials for violating “the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection, as well as a provision of the Civil Rights Act,” The Washington Post reports. Plaintiffs detail a hostile environment in which they are afraid to wear yarmulkes or Stars of David on campus, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Anti-Defamation League finds that anti-Semitic incidents increased 34 percent in 2016 and another 86 percent in 2017 in the United States. Fewer than 8 percent of the SFSU student body is Jewish, according to Hillel International.
The lawsuit alleges that the two incidents involving Barkat are just a hint of the controversy in the University’s tense, decades-long relationship with Jewish students and professors. The suit indicates that between 1992 and 2002, students supportive of Palestine erected a 10-foot mural (later sandblasted) that associated Jewish money with “African blood,” flew a banner that equated an Israeli flag with a swastika, promoted an event about genocide with a poster of a dead baby and an Israeli flag, and told a group of Jewish students that Hitler “didn’t finish the job.” In 2013, a pro-Palestinian student group was allegedly protected under the university’s speech code for spreading the message that “resistance is not terrorism,” accompanied by images of guns, according to The Washington Post. In early 2017, Hillel alleges that it was excluded from a Know Your Rights campaign co-organized by GUPS that was intended to educate vulnerable groups about their constitutional rights.
The suit names Wong as a defendant because plaintiffs say he has directly contributed to an allegedly hostile campus climate. Inside Higher Ed reports that in 2014 Wong allegedly threatened to eliminate the Jewish Studies Department for not performing financially, despite $7 million in endowments. A year later, he applauded GUPS in a speech that some say slighted Jewish organizations.
Students supportive of Palestine say they are affected by campus hostility as well, with some indicating that they found racist, anti-Arab posters on campus.
SFSU officials said that they do not agree with the legal complaint and that the university condemns “all forms of hate and anti-Semitism.” Other opponents of the lawsuit worry that it conflates opposition to the Israeli government with anti-Semitism, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The suit is pending in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Meanwhile, a San Francisco ABC News affiliate reports that both SFSU administrators and Barkat are open to the possibility of a third visit.
Prepared by Adelina Lancianese ‘17
August 22, 2017