Lawsuit Filed Against San Francisco State for Fostering Anti-Semitism

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Last spring, a Tel Aviv University study of anti-Semitism in 40 countries found that violent anti-Semitic attacks declined in the past few years, while non-violent incidents, such as vandalism and hate speech, increased.  The United Kingdom experienced an 11 percent jump in non-violent events between 2015 and 2016; American college campuses were identified as a “hotbed of anti-Semitism,” with a 45 percent uptick in non-violent occurrences over the same period.

Recently, The Jewish News of Northern California chronicled a series of incidents at San Francisco State University, and the lackluster response from University president Leslie Wong, as a source of consternation among SFSU’s Jewish community.  Students and faculty accuse Wong of contributing to a climate of institutionalized anti-Semitism, in which discrimination is implicitly condoned through a lack of disciplinary action and public condemnation.

Jewish advocates point to Wong’s disparate responses to anti-Semitic versus anti-Islamic incidents, his refusal to acknowledge that students who espouse Zionism have a place at the University, and a lack of disciplinary actions towards protestors who disrupted a campus visit by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. In addition, a Jewish student group was allegedly excluded from a campus civil rights fair.

Last month, students filed a lawsuit against SFSU, alleging that campus officials have fostered anti-Semitism for almost 25 years, including the recent disruption of Barkat’s speech and the civil rights fair incident. The suit, filed with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, also cited a 1994 event in which Star of David images interwoven with dollar signs were displayed at the student union.

Although Wong wrote a May opinion piece for The Jewish News, in which he expressed his desire that Jewish students feel safe and welcome at the University, some believe the message and the medium were insufficient. 

“I’ve been a leader in the movement to change the intellectual climate for Jews and all students on campus,” said Marc Dollinger, SFSU professor of Jewish Studies. “None of these incidents have been resolved or barely addressed.”

Wong’s critics include San Francisco Hillel, which serves several public universities, including SFSU, as well as the Jewish Community Federation’s chief executive officer, Danny Grossman, and Tracy Turoff, vice president of Hillel International, who have both met with Wong to discuss their concerns. Abby Porth, executive director of San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, has also criticized the University administration’s lack of support for Jewish students.

“We’re part of a broad coalition of groups and we know that there are many people in the Jewish community who are highly concerned about the situation at the University,” said Jeremy Russell, director of marketing and communications, JCRC. “Because of how things have been handled by the administration recently, concerns have been heightened. The campus climate situation isn’t simply affecting Jewish students. Dialogue and inclusivity need to be encouraged to improve the campus climate in a broader sense.”

Tensions flared last year when students from the General Union of Palestine protested a Hillel-sponsored campus appearance by Barkat. The protestors deployed megaphones to disrupt Barkat’s speech; no disciplinary action was taken by the University. According to Dollinger, last winter Wong initiated a follow-up invitation to Barkat, but waited until days before the scheduled event to publicize it, causing Hillel members to scramble to prepare for Barkat’s arrival.  Barkat subsequently cancelled the trip.

“He invited him back and barely told anyone,” said Dollinger. “He arranged for him to speak in the farthest reaches of campus. When the Mayor learned of the arrangement, he canceled. The idea was that it was a political stunt to make up for last year; maximum gain with minimum pain. I didn’t even know that he had been invited.”

Last winter, SF Hillel was allegedly excluded from participating in a campus civil rights event, “Know Your Rights.”  According to a The Jewish News article, SF Hillel staff member, Jason Steckler, accepted an invitation to attend the event proffered by one of its organizers.  He later received a phone call from a planner asking about Hillel’s position on anti-Islamic posters found on campus, which Steckler condemned. Days later Steckler received an email explaining that the event was full and Hillel couldn’t participate.

According to Dollinger, neither Wong nor the administration publicly addressed the incident, despite demands from students for a statement condemning it. “There’s been radio silence about it,” he said.

“In years past, you could argue that these issues were connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ollie Benn, executive director, SF Hillel. “But when a coalition of faculty, academic departments and students actively decides to exclude the Jewish student group from campus events, and when senior administration appears to favor some student groups over Jewish students, the analysis changes.»

Dollinger explained that when anti-Islamic posters were hung on campus last fall and spring, Wong spoke out against the incidences publicly. In contrast, in May an anti-Semitic group, the Traditionalist Worker Party, posted placards promoting their organization on campus, without a public response from the President. Instead SFSU Deputy Chief of Police sent an internal email to a Hillel member about safety precautions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Traditionalist Worker Party as, “A white nationalist group that advocates for racially pure nations and communities, and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems.” In response to the incident, The Anti-Defamation League advised SFSU students to stay away from anyone posting the placards and notify the police of the activity, as members of the group have been known to be dangerous.

In May, Wong issued an open letter condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the University, and stated that the “Know Your Rights” incident is under investigation by the Vice President.  The Office of the Vice President didn’t response to an inquiry by the View about the probe’s status.

Russell expressed concern about the lack of communication regarding the “Know Your Rights” investigation, stating that no updates have been issued to JCRC or its community partner organizations. “We’re eager to have some type of communication,” he said. “When the investigative report comes out we hope for a rapid statement by the President followed by action if it is found that the Jewish group was intentionally excluded. Action needs to be taken to prevent this from happening again in the future.”

Wong’s letter was issued in the wake of anti-Palestinian posters found on campus, as well as a recently published The Jewish News article, which criticized the Administration’s response to concerns raised by the campus Jewish community.

“The letter from the President misses the point,” Dollinger commented. “Islamophobia is a terrible, horrible thing, and the entire Jewish studies faculty and SF Hillel issued statements condemning the anti-Islamic posters that were put up around campus. However, by lumping anti-Semitism and Islamophobia into one letter he failed to take responsibility for his role in promoting institutionalized anti-Semitism on campus.”

An anonymous source confirmed that the atmosphere on campus has worsened under Wong due to his incompetence in handling politically charged issues and indifference towards concerns raised by Jewish students regarding anti-Semitism.

In April, five students from SF Hillel sent a letter to Wong stating, “Participation in Jewish life at SF State has become increasingly politicized. As you know, on the quad, and in classrooms, we have to decide every day whether we need to take a stand — again — against lies, intimidation, and one-sided stereotypes. We know that prospective Jewish students have decided not to come to SF State precisely because of the campus climate.”

The students want the President to publicly acknowledge anti-Semitism, promote the ADL’s anti-bias training for faculty and adopt the University of California Board of Regents Principle Against Intolerance.

“The fundamental question is, how do we engage differences on University campuses?” Dollinger posed. “Israel-Palestine is a hot political topic and it always will be. The question is, how will the Administration engage students around issues of differences. Universities are about political engagement across lines of difference, and we should get together, debate and discuss across these lines of difference. This kind of communication has broken down under President Wong. He needs to make a statement of his vision for the University, describe how students of difference will engage with one another and make an action plan to make it happen.”