President Wong fails to unify
photo by Adelyn Tirado
» WHAT HAPPENED «
In the weeks following the campus-wide apology email February 23 from SF State President Leslie E. Wong to the Jewish community, the long-standing political and ideological tensions on campus reignited, tearing into the fabric of campus life.
The two major groups at the center of the clashing ideologies are SF Hillel and the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS).
Wong’s email, which was criticized by a number of students and faculty, was released the day after a closed-door, invite-only meeting with various representatives from Jewish SF State student organizations, hosted by SF Hillel. Vice President of Student Affairs & Enrollment Management Luoluo Hong was also present.
“Let me make this clear: Zionists are welcome on our campus,” Wong said in the email.
The email once again raised questions about the meaning of Zionism and the consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict, hotly debated far beyond the borders of SF State.
In a letter to President Wong prior to his statement’s release, students belonging to SF Hillel expressed their worries of potential backlash from fellow students if he framed the apology without adequate context.
The letter from the students who attended the meeting attempted to unravel the threads of their grievances by highlighting that Wong should have acknowledged four points:
- His personal congratulations of the GUPS’ leadership at a reception to celebrate Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies’ (AMED) accomplishments in April 2015.
- The alleged “intentional exclusion” of a Jewish student group from the Know Your Rights Fair in February of last year.
- Hillel’s contribution to “a campus climate of education, dialogue and discourse,” and
- Acknowledgment of his role in the “failure of the President’s Task Force for Campus Climate.”
All of the actions of which, the students and Director of SF Hillel Ollie Benn alleges, promoted anti-semitism and violence against Jewish students.
Benn’s definition of Zionism is “the right of the Jewish people for national self-determination.”
He also said Jewish students have the right to determine their own self-identity, including what Zionism means to them.
Only hours after Wong’s email, “Zionism is racism” flyers were posted across campus — a view which Benn said is inconsistent with the “self-belief” of SF State Jewish students.
Lex De La Herrán, a political science major and Jewish student leader, believes in the core idea of Zionism, which to him is the “right of the self determination of the Jewish people to have a land to call their own.” The deeply held belief is rooted in his own family history — his grandparents fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis.
And while Herrán said he carries a great shame for Israel’s modern-day relations with Palestine, he believes equating Zionism to racism is “problematic” because it is a “gradient,” noting that Judaism and Zionism are not interchangeable identities.
“It’s a concept that has been defined in different ways over the years. It would take us an entire semester to figure out the various meanings and the evolution of the concept,” said Eran Kaplan, the Rhoda and Richard Goldman chair in Israel studies at SF State. “But the shortest definition is that Zionism was a political movement that aimed to create an independent, sovereign Jewish state.”
» THE REACTION «
One of the major criticisms regarding the email was the lack of context Wong provided to the general student body — many of whom had no prior exposure to the tensions and were consequently perplexed by the nature of the apology.
To some, however, there was just confusion.
“It’s not helping whatever kind of feelings that other students on campus had towards him or towards one another when it comes to such sensitive issues,” said a sophomore business student who requested to stay anonymous.
She was blindsided and confused by the apology and upon reading it, questioned whether others were too, as she had not kept up with the existing tensions.
Instead, the student would have preferred if Wong had condemned hate speech and encouraged the campus to practice and protect free speech. Wong, in her eyes, failed to act as the mediator for different student organizations and neglected to be inclusive of other campus student groups.
“It’s almost like he’s throwing everyone under the bus,” said the student, noting that the email read as though he’s pinning different student groups against each other.
To others, the tensions have not been felt as deeply. Kaplan has heard echoes but said he doesn’t get the sense that Wong tried to exclude any groups with his email.
Student representatives initially asked to read the email prior to it being sent out to the student body, according to Alicia Quintero, the president of the Jewish interest sorority Lambda Chi Mu and one of the students who signed the letter to Wong.
“He did not allow us to see it prior because it [would be] unfair, even though the apology was directed at us,” said Quintero.
Almost immediately after Wong’s email was sent out that morning, GUPS called for Wong to retract his statement and issue an apology for silencing “anti-Zionist Jewish voices.”
“President Wong has made a false declaration of equating Zionism to Jewishness. This does not speak for our Jewish members, friends, and allies who denounce Zionism and the destruction it has caused,” said GUPS in their statement.
Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, director of AMED at SF State, found Wong’s email welcoming Zionists on campus to be “a declaration of war.”
“I am ashamed to be affiliated with SFSU administration and demand the immediate retraction of this racist, Islamophobic and colonialist statement, and the restoration of SFSU social justice mission,” said Abdulhadi in a statement on Facebook on February 23.
The common thread between the responses to Wong’s email was the disappointment in his neglect of making a distinction between Judaism and Zionism in his apology and in the weeks thereafter.
Abdulhadi said, “It’s a very clear statement of anti-semitism to say that Zionism is the same as Jewishness….historically, there has never been a consensus in the Jewish communities over the question of Zionism.”
On March 2, the Women and Gender Studies department (WGS) echoed this sentiment in a statement, stating that Zionism, as a political ideology, should be up for debate and should not “hold protected status as a discourse of “safety” set apart from other historical, political and ideological movements that impact members of the SFSU community.”
“Wong’s statement fails to express concern or support for Palestinian, Arab, and Middle Eastern students and their allies that are harmed by Zionism,” said WGS in their statement.
The department subsequently rejected the equation of Zionism and Judaism, noting that anti-Zionism is not anti-semitism — that it does not represent all Jewish people, nor does Hillel.
» WONG’S RESPONSE «
Wong did not immediately respond to Abdulhadi’s statement, but he released a message on March 26 stating that Abdulhadi’s opinions are not backed by the University.
“While she is entitled to voice her own opinion, it cannot be done in a way that implies university endorsement or association,” said Wong in the statement. “Dr. Abdulhadi’s post does not reflect the opinions, values, or policies of San Francisco State University. To the contrary, SF State promotes the principles of inclusion, thoughtful intellectual discourse, and sharing of ideas that are central to our academic environment.”
However, Abdulhadi believes Wong’s original statement is antithetical to the school’s promotion of social justice.
“Why should our campus … that’s one of the proudest campuses in social justice in the world, why would our campus identify with that?” said Abdulhadi.
Wong expressed in his initial email that he had hoped that the meeting with Jewish student leaders — students invited by SF Hillel to represent the Jewish campus community per Wong’s request, said Benn — and the public apology was a step forward to reconciliation.
» EXISTING TENSIONS «
Coming into SF State at the beginning of his presidency in 2012, Wong said he was made well aware of the tensions between student groups on campus and that its history of student activism is what drew him to the University in the first place.
“The philosophy [of] protests through the years has changed,” said Wong. “There’s this sense — and this is my opinion only — there’s this sense that we’re much more vicious now.” He continued on to say that student activism helps him and his administration understand campus issues better and that his administration has done a good job of facilitating that.
According to Benn, the “most egregious” example of discrimination against Jewish students was during last year’s Know Your Rights Fair, as previously mentioned in the student letter to Wong.
The fair aimed to inform the student body of their rights in the current political climate. Benn said they were purposely excluded and thus created an “atmosphere of discrimination on campus.”
“He [Wong] said he should have made a statement at the time,” said Benn. According to participants of the meeting, the fair was a recurring topic throughout the course of their discussion. Wong made no promises to publicly acknowledge the fair in any future statements.
These tensions, however, existed far longer than the fair.
Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat visited the University once in April 2016 and attempted to visit again in April 2017 after student demonstrators demanded he leave the first time. Barkat’s arrival to SF State was highly controversial, drawing both intense opposition and support.
Exactly a year after his first visit, Barkat canceled his second appearance in a Twitter statement and criticized the University for protecting the rights of students who participate in “inciting violence.”
However, an independent review of the incident in 2016 found that while the protesters were disruptive, there were no physical or verbal threats and concluded that there was “no credible threat of public safety.”
A federal judge rejected a student lawsuit against the University in March and found that the school could not be held liable as the fair was organized by students, and the school did not show “deliberate indifference” because they investigated both incidents.
SF State has struggled to manage these tensions as far back as 1987 during the first intifada –– the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. The United Nations has historically condemned the occupation.
Active political student leaders at SF State at the time were swept by the firestorm of public criticisms or support.
When asked whether other student groups –– specifically Muslim students –– are discriminated against also, Benn said, “I believe that there are many groups that are suffering on this campus and there’s a lot of pain being felt on this campus.”
» REBUILDING BRIDGES «
“It was an important first step,” said Benn after reading Wong’s original statement. He questioned whether any further steps would be taken by Wong to “ensure Jewish students are as welcome and included on campus as any other type of student.”
For Abdulhadi, there is still much left for Wong to do in order to rectify campus relationships.
“Mending the relationship with groups will take time. It doesn’t happen overnight. But first we want him to retract the statement and issue an apology because this is quite offensive,” said Abdulhadi.
Quintero felt that overall, the meeting with Wong only proved that change will be a slow process.
“I don’t think [the meeting] resolved anything. I think it’s a tiny step in the right direction,” said Quintero. “Working with President Wong things take time…it would be lovely to have [improvements] happen right away. We’re not holding our breath on that.”
According to Wong, efforts by him and his administration are being made to improve relationships on campus.
“We’re actually trying to figure out a way to get everybody to a good table to talk about campus climate,” said Wong.
Wong previously attempted to do this by assembling a task force in the fall of 2017 to discuss and resolve issues on campus climate. The task force was short-lived and suspended after a number of its members resigned, claiming the task force failed to be diverse.
The President, however, attributed the disassembly of the task force to improper timing.
“We tried to put together a piece, and it just didn’t work out. I don’t ascribe blame or anything like that. [We] tried to get something in motion to tackle something very hard so I’m really thankful to the people that did join the task force,” said Wong.
As for any tensions on campus, Wong stated that his goal is to ensure any conversations or disagreements contribute to furthering understanding or success for students.
“The key question often times with groups is how is it contributing to the educational mission of a curriculum? How is it helping students become learners? Leaders?” asked Wong. “We want people to learn how to make peace as well as to show their voice and that will be our future challenge.”
As for Benn, he said that his primary concern is not with other student groups, but takes issues with the way the school administration has enabled discrimination against Jewish students. As for meeting with GUPS and other affected student groups, Benn said, “That’s a standing invitation but … Jewish students have been the ones discriminated against and marginalized so the question is: whose role is it in that situation to engage and to try and rebuild bridges.”
Benn also said he and his students have reached out on multiple occasions. At this time, GUPS and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) said they have not heard from SF Hillel.
“It is possible to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine,” said Herrán. “There are grassroots organizations like [Combatants for Peace] that have both Israelis and Palestinians coming together to resist the occupation of the Palestinian nation.”
Herrán is of the personal belief that there is a desire to share stories and pain for the ultimate goal of peace.
“It is up to us to create a better campus for all, to humanize a conflict that polarizes and shakes us to our core,” said Herrán. “We must dare ourselves to look into the shades of grey than to paint in the absoluteness of black and white.
The perceived failure of the Wong administration to uphold, what many say, is their responsibility to facilitate robust, thoughtful dialogue while protecting student rights is widely felt by students, faculty and staff.
As of right now, there are no concrete plans for reconciliation.