SF Hillel holds vigil remembering victims of terror

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Joel Umanzor Jr.

Uri Bar-Lev participated in SF Hillel’s vigil for victims of terror in a pre-recorded video in which he is interviewed by SF Hillel member Garrett Fornander (Joel Umanzor Jr./ Golden Gate Xpress)

A vigil organized by SF Hillel, SF State’s dominant Jewish organization, was held online on Wednesday night honoring victims of terrorism and denouncing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

Members of the SF Hillel community were joined over Zoom by the Anti-Defamation League, the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest and various Bay Area chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council. The groups worked as co-sponsors in organizing the event on the same day as a separate virtual forum on Wednesday afternoon that featured the controversial panelist Leila Khaled. Zoom refused service for the event, and Youtube took down its livestream roughly 20 minutes after it started.

Ocean Noah, student president at SF Hillel’s SF State chapter, said that Jewish students at the university are feeling the added weight of anti-Semitism on top of the current social and economic problems the country is facing.

“Somehow, on top of these responsibilities, we have been called yet again to respond to hate and division on our campus,” Noah said. “So we came together to affirm and share our values. Jewish students at SF State are tired. Some of us are even hopeless. Will there ever be a day when anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-normalization are not repeat parts of our college experience?”

Very little was mentioned by participants about Khaled, with the exception of former Capt. Uri Bar-Lev, the pilot instrumental in thwarting Khaled’s September 1970 hijacking of an Israeli airline flight from Amsterdam to New York City, which was rerouted and landed in London. Bar-Lev, who resides in Israel, participated in the vigil with a pre-recorded interview conducted by SF Hillel. He spoke about his experience diverting the hijacking of his plane and how he opposed the invitation extended to Khaled by the university.

 “Of course I oppose it,” he said. “There is no sense of it. There are always reasons for why political people believe in their politics, but there is never a reason to kill passengers and civilian people. Never.”

No one died in the hijackings. Khaled, 76, is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. Khaled is seen as a feminist icon for some Palestinians, as her actions brought worldwide attention to Palestinian issues and marked her as the world’s first female hijacker. 

Following the removal of the livestream event from Youtube, SF State’s student-run General Union of Palestinian Students issued a statement expressing discontent with the outcome of the situation.

The first thing [I thought] was it’s fake news… Impossible. She is a terrorist. A real terrorist.”

— Uri Bar-Lev

“The joint open classroom event … has been shut down by Zoom because Palestinian resistance leader Leila Khaled is scheduled to speak as part of the panel. This is after an orchestrated attack by Zionists organizations to pressure Zoom to shut down the webinar,” part of the statement read. “This is an obvious attack on academic freedom, specifically in regards to Palestinian resistance.”

For Bar-Lev and members of SF Hillel, however, Khaled’s invitation struck a nerve with them and raised concerns of academic responsibility.

“The first thing [I thought] was it’s fake news… Impossible. She is a terrorist. A real terrorist,” he said. 

California State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Jewish lawmaker whose congressional district represents San Francisco, commended the students of SF Hillel for their stand against violence under “very difficult circumstances.” 

Wiener expressed solidarity with the students at SF Hillel as not only a state senator, but also a representative of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

“Violence, all violence, against innocent civilians is a terrible thing,” Wiener said. “Whether it impacts Americans, Israelis, Palestinians or anyone else on our planet.”

Violence, all violence, against innocent civilians is a terrible thing,” Wiener said. “Whether it impacts Americans, Israelis, Palestinians or anyone else on our planet.”

— California state Sen. Scott Wiener

In an interview with Xpress on Sept. 15, SF Hillel Executive Director Rachel Nilson Ralston expressed the concern that Khaled’s appearance falls in context of the U.S. experiencing its highest levels of anti-Semitism since it began being recorded in 1979. According to the 2019 “Audit of Antisemitic Incidents” conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish non-governmental organization based in the U.S., the number of anti-semitic incidents reported in the U.S. increased 12% from 2018, with a 56% jump in assaults.

At the vigil, Ralston drew from her own experience as a former student of SF State.

“I have served our students at SF Hillel for nine years, and before that I was a student at SF State myself,” Ralston said. “The on-campus issues that prompted tonight’s vigil are not new. We have seen students with Jewish and Zionist identities, regardless of their political views, demonized and misrepresented.”

Ralston said that the some members of the faculty have held in high regard voices that aim to “murder, terrorize and traumatize” civilians and that this is an issue not up for debate. This echoes a tweet made by Commissioner Brendan Carr of the Federal Communications Commission, who said he “[doesn’t] need to hear both sides.”

SF State President Lynn Mahoney also spoke at the vigil expressing a desire to improve university relations with Jewish students. In an interview with Xpress last Friday, Mahoney said she is seeking to fill the now-vacant university positions of Jewish and Muslim student life coordinator. With faculty and student input, she said she hopes to have the positions filled by the end of the semester.    

“I will continue to condemn anti-Semitism and assure our Jewish students and colleagues to their right to full participation in the university and their right to dissent,” Mahoney said at the vigil. “Students’ rights to express their identities, fully participate and do so safely is a foundational element of the educational experience.”

Ralson said that SF Hillel students are currently working in partnership with the SF State’s Division of Equity and Community Inclusion to host a speaker series for this school year that will be announced at a later date.