Additional reporting by Ian Sumner
Tensions are rising between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian supporters on campus, as both groups speak out against the unsettling climate they feel the University administration has created.
President Leslie E. Wong’s rocky history with the local Jewish community, including the two attempts to have Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat speak on campus, were highlighted in a series of articles published last week by J. The Jewish News of Northern California.
“If speakers are shouted down and people don’t feel safe expressing their ideas, from this side or that side of an issue, what kind of a university is that?” Fred Astren, Jewish studies department chair, asked rhetorically. “We need our campus leader to tell us: what kind of university is San Francisco State?”
Jewish studies professors and students claim that the University’s lack of support has a history that goes back decades. Though SF State is unique for offering a Jewish studies major program, an opinion piece by Astren and Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger allege it was under threat in 2014.
Astren and Dollinger wrote in the article: “In 2014, three of the most powerful University administrators called together every member of the Jewish studies faculty and threatened to revoke our status as a University department.”
“Never in my time here, from the first minute to this very moment, have I ever said that,” Wong said when asked about the claim. “I’ve met with the department often; we’ve talked about building for the future.”
But Astern offers a conflicting narrative.
“The administrators suggested that we were not pulling our weight,” Astren told Xpress. “We came away from that meeting feeling pretty low.
“We were told that some of our numbers were inadequate and there could be threats coming to us from the CSU.”
Wong replied, saying “there was never a threat.”
“These metrics put significant pressure on all departments within the university,” Wong said. “I also reiterated that with Dr. Astren and Dr. Dollinger at a subsequent meeting.”
In a recent development, the David Horowitz Freedom Center distributed posters on campus on May 4 that criticized Palestinian activists and their supporters, alleging they are linked to terrorism.
Following the incident, Wong sent out a campus-wide email that condemned both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, particularly in cases where they cause students to feel unsafe or compromise the University’s learning environment.
“Tensions, for me, help me get better,” Wong said. “I always worry when tensions get us off target. And I don’t think this got us off target as much as it said: pay attention. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Some students and faculty still say the University president has not done enough to support the Jewish community on campus.
“I appreciate the email and it’s reassuring at a very small level, but I think there are many actions that need to be taken that haven’t been thus far,” said Vanessa Better, Jewish studies major and San Francisco Hillel Social Media and Promotional Intern. “Condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is just common sense.”
J. The Jewish News of Northern California editorial board’s opinion piece called the campus climate “disturbing” and something that “cannot be minimized,” while another article claimed that SF State “excommunicates Jewish students and pro-Israel speakers.”
The paper reported a recent incident on campus where SF State Jewish studies professors and SF Hillel claim the organization was purposely excluded from an informational human rights fair called “Know Your Rights” by the event organizers through a last-minute change of the cut-off date for registration.
The University is currently investigating the incident and on April 12, Hillel expressed in an email that they had not received any comment from Wong regarding the fair. Wong, however, announced in his campus-wide email that Vice President Luoluo Hong will provide weekly briefings on the status of the investigation.
“Sometimes a lot of it is students not understanding that, for example, investigations take time,” Wong said. “We’re trying to figure out where we can be more prompt and speed things up.”
Wong’s email also announced he will appoint a cross-University and community task force to “develop a set of clear goals and an action plan.” He encouraged students to fill out an online form to advise the task force on improving the campus climate.
The General Union of Palestinian Students, one of the “Know Your Rights” event sponsors, has also expressed concern for the University’s silence during past on-campus incidents. Last October, another set of posters was distributed on campus alleging that the Arab and Muslim ethnicities and diasporas studies professor Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi was collaborating with terrorists.
GUPS and faculty in AMED studies have boycotted Xpress and declined to comment for this article, but statements from GUPS’s online Medium account are quoted directly.
“It is the refusal of SFSU to come out publicly in support of the academic freedoms and freedom of speech for all its faculty, students and staff including Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, and the ambiguity with which it handled multiple racist, Islamophobic and violent attacks in the past that result in emboldening the violent and racist attacks that we witness today,” GUPS wrote in an online statement after the posters were distributed last October.
The University’s struggle to balance free speech, the right to protest and student safety climaxed in April 2016 when members of GUPS and other student organizations drowned out Barkat’s speech to SF State students, ultimately causing a disruption he could not speak over.
“Providing a platform for Barkat on our campus erases the violent and brutal realities faced by Palestinians,” wrote GUPS in an online statement following the incident. “The Israeli technological sector underpins and makes possible the Israeli military occupation, the structures of apartheid in Palestine and denying the right to return for Palestinian refugees.”
GUPS emphasized in a follow-up statement that their group did not target anyone based on race, ethnicity or religious identity, but rather focused on protesting Barkat for his policies.
Wong faced backlash from members of the Jewish community on campus for allowing the incident to take place, and SF Hillel filed an official complaint with the University.
“It was frustrating because I felt my presence was seen as a support for Mayor Barkat and what his policies are, but I wasn’t able to truly question what was going on at this political level because other students deemed that it was more important to shout him down and to shout other students out as well,” Vanessa Better said.
Though no protester faced disciplinary action, Wong ordered an investigation into the incident and later implemented new protocol for future protests on campus.
“There needs to be a clear message to everybody on campus so that we understand what the leadership of this institution wants, and how the leadership understands what a public university is here in the United States of America,” Astren said. “Is it a place where it’s okay to shout down a speaker?”
Nearly a year after the first incident, Wong personally invited Barkat back to speak.
“We had disrupted his first speech and I felt our honor is, you know what? ‘We can do this,’” Wong said. “I think we go down a slippery slope if we start saying we need to vet speakers and visitors broadly.”
Barkat decided to cancel the speech one day before its scheduled date, writing in an open letter that the University “… did not offer the lecture that would provide the kind of healing needed after the assault on free speech last year. By failing to provide the necessary public forum and properly publicize my lecture, the University has contributed to the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state.”
Wong said he was “really disappointed” when Barkat declined to speak as scheduled in April. “I told him, we’ve set it up, I’ve got over a hundred plus people coming,” Wong said. “I would love to engage you in this and I never got that chance.”
Wong said he will continue to train employees and incoming students on safety and awareness protocol for future events that may take place. Time will tell if Wong’s plans make an impact on the polarized campus climate.
“My position is not about the Israel-Palestine debate or about going after any student group on this campus,” Astren said. “It’s about the nature of the public space on our campus. If we can have protests, and we can have free speech, and we can have critical learning in our classrooms, then we will get close to what the University should be.”