“The Middle East, Israel in particular, have always been hot topics for this campus,” Assistant Director to San Francisco Hillel Rachel Nilson said before introducing Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat for an open dialogue with SF State students and community members. Her statement turned out to be prophetic when, minutes after Barkat started his opening speech, members of the General Union of Palestine Students stormed Seven Hills Conference Center demanding Barkat’s expulsion from the campus.
“We don’t want you on our campus!” they shouted. “Get the hell off our campus!”
GUPS was joined by members of the Black Student Union, the League of Filipino Students, and Defend and Advance Ethnic Studies. The crowd of about 40 students quickly took up chants, clapping, waving Palestinian flags and thrusting their fists in the air.
“Free, free, free Palestine!” one of the lead protesters chanted, which the crowd behind her echoed. “If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace!”
While Barkat stood silently at the pulpit, Nilson and Jacob Mandel, student leader of the event, attempted to communicate with the protesters.
“We have heard your concerns; can you please have a seat?” Mandel said, his request quickly drowned out by the continued chants.
The protests initially caused a small amount of panic, causing Barkat’s bodyguard to immediately spring to his feet and a campus police officer to enter the conference center. However, after 10 minutes of uninterrupted chanting, the audience tried to be uninvolved as possible, talking amongst themselves, checking their phones and refusing to look at the protesters. Barkat did not try to engage with the protesters, and instead met and took photos with audience members.
“We have a right to hear what (Barkat) has to say, and we can’t hear it with all that,” physiology major Sarah Herman said, gesturing to the protestors.
San Francisco Hillel staff clustered together and talked briefly with Barkat before ushering attendees to gather on one side of the room around Barkat to allow him to finish his speech and receive questions.
“We’re trying to have a dialogue with all sides,” Engagement Associate Sasha Joseph said. “We don’t want to spark anything.”
Despite being provided with a microphone, Barkat was still largely drowned out by the protesters, who migrated closer to the audience. Three campus police officers stood at the front of the conference center, barring the demonstrators from getting any closer.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that we’re not allowed an environment where we can have an open dialogue,” political science major Antonia Ford said. “I have no issue with having different opinions and being angry, but they’re not here to talk, they’re here to yell, and that will never achieve anything.”
After almost an hour of nonstop chanting, Barkat finally said his goodbyes to attendees and exited, drawing triumphant cheers from the protesters, many continuing to scream for Barkat to get out. They filed out after Barkat, while San Francisco Hillel staff escorted audience members out through another exit.
“We were expecting protests. Protests have happened in the past,” Mandel said. “I’m very disappointed in how they acted. If they wanted to come and talk, I would’ve loved it. I would’ve loved if they engaged in the dialogue, but they don’t because they’re extremists.”
As the chants continued outside, Mandel said that he hoped that the university would respond seriously to what he felt were violations of the student code of conduct. Despite the interruption, though, Mandel is resolute that he and the Jewish community at SF State will not back down.
“The most important thing for me is that Jewish and non-Jewish students got to hear what was going on in Israel, and engage in a dialogue with each other and Mayor Barkat, and that’s what happened, and I’m so glad,” Mandal said. “The Jewish students on campus are not afraid.”
Memebers of GUPS present at the event declined to comment on the protests.
UPDATE: President Wong released a statement regarding Barkat’s visit:
Dear SF State community,
I am concerned for the state of civil discourse on our campus. There have been a number of events this academic year which have caused me to think extensively about our values and our mission.
Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem was invited to speak yesterday on campus by SF Hillel, a student organization. The Mayor’s talk, held at Seven Hills, was disrupted by a small but loud group of protesters. Members of our community who attended the event were deprived of an opportunity to hear from the Mayor.
As an inclusive academic institution, we strive to make San Francisco State University a welcoming environment for all. Students are encouraged to engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about difficult or controversial issues and, at the same time, to respect the rights of others to do the same. While there is a right to dissent, we must also uphold the right to speak and to learn.
The Dean of Students and University Police will perform a full investigation of this incident to determine if any violations of campus policy occurred. In addition, I am committed to examining the university’s planning and response mechanisms to better ensure that student events of this nature can occur unimpeded in the future.
We must come together as a campus to foster a supportive and collegial environment in which disagreements can occur thoughtfully and respectfully. We must strive to live our values — and to be a safe place where all the members of our community are free to listen and to learn.
I would appreciate your support in promoting this core value so the entire SF State community can feel welcome and safe to engage in the free exchange of ideas and views that is essential to our campus.
San Francisco State University