Struggling for justice at San Francisco State University

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Students, staff, and faculty at San Francisco State University are under investigation by the university on trumped up charges of anti-Semitism brought forth by San Francisco Hillel. This is the latest in a long history of accusations made against Palestinians and Palestinian advocates at SFSU by the pro-Israel organization. Pro-Israel groups have time and again sought criminal and punitive charges for political and scholarly expressions critical of Israel on college campuses constituting assaults on civil liberties and anti-colonial struggles. One of the more famous cases includes the Irvine 11 in which the Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged students who protested a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on UC Irvine campus with two misdemeanors. And most recently, pro-Israel legal organizations have brought a civil rights based lawsuit alleging the institutionalization of anti-Semitism on SFSU campus and blaming a slew of defendants including top-level SFSU administrators, staff, and Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi the founding director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program and the longtime advisor to the General Union of Palestine Students on campus. The Lawfare Project and the law firm of Winston & Strawn who brought filed the lawsuit on behalf of three SF Hillel students is similar in nature to a 2011 lawsuit alleging an “anti-Semitic climate at UC Berkeley.” US District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the lawsuit as its accusations presented no coherent or plausible argument. Such episodes highlight the willingness and strategy of pro-Israel organizations to legally harass Palestinians advocacy on campuses and to attack knowledge production rooted in social justice and anti-colonial principles.  

The latest allegations of anti-Semitism by Hillel were made in reaction to the organization not receiving a table at a “Know Your Rights” (KYR) Fair held in February of 2017 at SFSU. The purpose of the Fair was consistent from its inception: to outreach to groups vulnerable in the new political climate, with a focus on Arab and Muslim, LGTBQ, and Undocumented communities. Participating at the fair included Palestine Legal, La Raza Centro Legal and ACLU, it featured one-on-one interface among Fair participants, self-defense training led by Girl Army, and legal advice panels to educate students on community efforts combatting Trump’s Executive Orders. Jewish Voice for Peace participated in the Fair, among the over 20 participating organizations, where they reached out to Jewish students (some of whom were members of Hillel) in the potential makings of a JVP chapter at SFSU. Despite this reality, Hillel continues to allege that Jews were excluded from the fair and that the Fair organizers not making room for Hillel at the already over-booked event was an act of religious discrimination. I, being one of the organizers of the Fair, have stated at every occasion that no such discrimination has taken place. There is no evidence to support such claims, and in fact, the evidence proves that such claims are false. Instead, Hillel has fabricated a storyline in which the Fair organizers changed the description of the Fair to the exclusion of pro-Israel and Zionist organizations. Anti-Zionism is not Anti-Semitism.  I reject Hillel’s or any other definition of anti-Semitism which equates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish hatred. The literature (and we’re at an academic institution where knowledge is paramount) is full of debates on what anti-Semitism constitutes and how it should not be used to stifle political criticism of Israel. If this is the definition of anti-Semitism which is being used to determine the merits of Hillel’s complaint, then the university is in violation of the First Amendment and ignoring volumes of scholarship.

Back cover of the KYR Fair Flier. More information can be found at the Know Your Rights Fair website announcement here.

Hillel not receiving a table at the event was a unanimous and consensus decision based on Hillel’s conduct and table capacity.  The discussion and decision took place over email and during two meetings. It was given ample time to raise points, concerns and to address those points or concerns. Our adherence to shared governance and accordance with horizontal leadership style was reaffirmed the day of the Fair when a paid staff member of Hillel attempted to “negotiate” his way into the Fair by cornering one of the Fair organizers and attempting to force them into making a unilateral decision displacing already booked organizations for the benefit of Hillel. This is the same Hillel staff member who made false claims that the organizers had invited Hillel on the basis that he received an email forwarded to them by an unaffiliated organization who was in fact invited. Attempting to hide their blunder, Hillel removed the sender’s address before submitting it as evidence, but us having the original email were quickly able to prove Hillel’s tampering of evidence. This is the same staff member of Hillel who told university investigators that he had no intention of discussing Israel at the Fair. This is not a credible statement given that his job title, as the SF Hillel website confirms, is “Israel Engagement Associate.” Lastly, this is the same individual who told one of the Fair organizers that even if Hillel had a table, Hillel would have a very limited/ no participation in the Fair because they were already otherwise committed to tabling on the University quad for Jewish Heritage Week. His misrepresentations and actions are only relevant to point out that his statements are dishonest; despite this, the university has based their investigation on the accusations brought forth by this Hillel staff member.

Further, GUPS and other Arab groups noted that they would pull out of the Fair if Hillel was given a table. This guardedness is a defense tactic, one in which we avoid the same organization that harasses and seeks to criminalize us, one that does so with the complicity and involvement of the university. University administrators who were made aware of the potential pull-out noted their indifference if GUPS and other Arab groups did not attend the Fair. This is a racist reflection of the impression that Palestinian and Arab voices are disposable.  The absence of Palestinian and Arab organizations would have destroyed the very event that was intended to make them a focal point and it is alarming to learn that the administration would so easily dispose of them. University prejudice against Palestinians is also seen in that every single public General Union of Palestine Students event is monitored by university administrators in the Office of Student Services who have tightened the screws on GUPS activities. All of these administrators have a visibly and publicly friendly relationship with the Hillel director Ollie Ben.

SFSU Top-Level Administrators Interfering with the Investigation

From the beginning, the university has treated us with the utmost disrespect by violating our due process and through the consistent oddities in the manner the university has carried out the investigation. The allegations against the KYR committee were not made formally in writing, rather, members from SF Hillel’s paid-staff met with Vice President Luoluo Hong whom they have a very public friendly relationship with and who oversees a number of university departments including the Title IX Coordinator/ Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation Administrator. After one of their meetings, VP Hong issued formal allegations against the Fair organizers on March 10, 2017, two weeks after the Fair took place on February 28, 2017. For weeks the university made little to no progress on the investigation, that is until the Jewish Studies program at SFSU and SF Hillel made claims of institutional anti-Semitism at SFSU and cited the KYR Fair as a point of evidence. In response, SFSU President Leslie Wong issued a campus-wide statement shifting attention away from university administrators and onto Palestinians and the KYR Fair organizers promising a forceful investigation and affirming anti-Semitic activity on campus by Palestinian advocates. This new position from Wong is in stark contrast to multiple university investigations that proved those claims false. Within the week, the university added a second investigator onto the case in the middle of the investigation, another oddity itself. The co-investigator admitted as much when he noted that in his time at SFSU he held the role of co-investigator a ballpark of ten times and that those were usually for the purpose of training new investigators. As there was no training involved, the move was a clear attempt to politically side with pressure from pro-Israel communities. This display was repeated in an SF State News announcement dated June 20, 2017, responding to a lawsuit brought forth by The Lawfare Project on formal allegations of institutionalized anti-Semitism. When such displays are made by the University President, they are reminiscent of subtle discursive tactics prejudging the outcome and a “guilty verdict”. It is widely known that bosses and managers engage in such tactics, as former FBI Director James Comey made clear in the latest Congressional hearings concerning Russian interference.  

We were not made aware of the evidence and the specificities of the allegations against us until Monday, June 26, 2017. This is over four months after we received notice from VP Hong on March 10, 2017, to appear for interrogation. And, on March 1, a member of the university’s staff asked the Fair organizers for a comprehensive list of all emails sent from our private accounts about the planning of the Fair, 10 days before a formal investigation was authorized. Having not been presented with specificities of the allegations nor with their scope of evidence, we have been forced to respond solely based on speculation for the majority of the investigation. This is just days before the hard deadline of July 13, 2017, set by California State University Chancellor Executive Order for timely response to investigate and to present findings. The investigators set into place a scheduling system that has prohibited us from preparing the most basic defense and our access to the “evidence” brought against us until the latest opportunity. When we requested sufficient time to respond to the allegations, the university investigator did not accommodate the request and noted the quickly approaching deadline. While the deadline in the governing Executive Order was presented as neutral and immutable, I interpret the inflexible approach as an intimidation tactic, disparate treatment, and discrimination against Palestinians and advocacy for justice in Palestine. It is commonly known that the university violates its own deadlines routinely. For example, it has kept on the back burner and lacked follow up with Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi’s grievance filed against SFSU in February of 2017, in which she offers evidence to the systemic hostile and unsafe work and study environment for Palestinians and the physical threats and administrative retaliation against her. But in the KYR case, the deadlines are strict, in what is believed to be a response to public political pressure to punish the organizers of the Fair. And in doing so, the university is engaged in discriminatory application of the Executive Order.

Such disparate treatment of Palestinians by SFSU’s investigators is both well documented and patterned, all of which found that SF Hillel’s and other pro-Israel organizations accusations are baseless. In the spring of 2016, two members of the General Union of Palestine Students were formally investigated by SFSU’s Office of Student Conduct for their participation in the protest of Barkat. They were the only two students investigated of the over 20 protesting, on allegations which included threatening Jewish students. After having completed the in-house university investigation which held possible suspension or expulsion for the students, the university hired an independent law firm to conduct yet another investigation, this too holding possible punitive measures to the students’ academic standing. In 2014, the university investigated Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi’s financial records of five years of her international travel in three redundant investigations after pro-Israel groups led by The AMCHA Initiative accused her of misusing university funds to support anti-Semitism and terrorism. In 2013, the former GUPS president had his information released to investigations conducted by the FBI, the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the Israeli Consulate, the SFSU Police Department and the San Francisco Police Department after The AMCHA Initiative, SFSU Jewish Studies and SF Hillel accused the Palestinian student of threatening the lives of Jewish students. And in 2002, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office investigated two Palestinian students on request of SFSU after they were accused of anti-Semitism during a pro-Israel rally on campus put together by SF Hillel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Every single one of these investigations found no merit to the allegations of terrorism or anti-Semitism alleged by SF Hillel and cleared the names of the  Palestinians accused. Despite having their names cleared, the smear campaigns based on false allegations remain a stain on their character. Further, SFSU has been a willing participant and has enabled such harassment and bullying tactics to be practiced with impunity against Palestinians. This is a nation-wide trend as Palestinian faculty, students, and their allies across college campus have been targeted in a similar manner, many times by the same organizations.

Evidence of Hillel’s Conduct threatening students’ and faculty rights

SF Hillel was not issued a table at the Fair by the organizers after discussion of Hillel and its ill fit in the mission of the Fair. Our intent in organizing the KYR fair was to provide resources and information for vulnerable communities to protect themselves. Providing a table to Hillel, whose conduct has threatened the safety of campus Palestinians and other advocates for justice in Palestine, is akin to giving a table to ICE at a gathering of undocumented communities, or having the Ferguson Police Chief table at an event discussing police brutality against black teenagers. The committee acknowledged, by consensus, that there was no table for Hillel given the strain on capacity and the clear problems with Hillel’s presence at a table based on Hillel’s conduct.

The objections to Hillel were always, and are still, about the organization’s conduct threatening students’ rights. It was in no way an issue of religious discrimination nor retaliation. Hillel’s threatening conduct is most evident in the way that Hillel made false accusations against Palestinian students and our allies alleging that protesters threatened Jewish students during the 2016 protest of a campus visit by Nir Barkat, the mayor of occupied Jerusalem and an architect of apartheid, colonialism, and displacement in the city. Hillel broadcast false allegations that protesters were violent and anti-Semitic. Hillel’s accusations were not only factually incorrect, but they are allegations rooted in Islamophobic fear mongering and racist Orientalist tropes of Palestinians as savages. Hillel’s public allegations against the protesters were proven false by testimonies from the University Police Department, by an in-house university investigation, and by the external investigation of a law firm contracted by the university. And yet, the stain and trauma of these allegations continue to follow SFSU students in their academic and professional pursuits, threatening student’s rights to speak, to study, and to even organize for our own protection in this political climate. Indicative of this is the means in which these false claims were circulated by Islamophobic, racist and anti-Palestinian organizations including Canary Mission and David Horowitz who on October 14th and May 3rd plastered posters around campus that targeted Dr. Abdulhadi, GUPS, Palestinian student advocates, Muslim students, Palestinian community leaders, and the organizations Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.  

While Hillel expressed a condemnation of the David Horowitz posters, it never retracted its false accusations against students. As a result, students who were already scheduled to table at the KYR Fair, and many other students, were publicly smeared, cyber-bullied, harassed, threatened with violence and rape, and stalked on campus and off-campus. The university has refused to press charges or even to conduct an investigation into how and why these posters were allowed to be put up and stay up on our campus. The organizers of the Fair understood that many students, faculty members, and organizations have been victimized by Hillel’s lies. To force us to sit side-by-side to our oppressors cannot be done in clear consciousness, violates principles of restorative justice, and would vastly endanger students and faculty members.

Dr. Abdulhadi was also smeared by such lies due to her many campus roles including faculty adviser to GUPS and other student organizers on campus, and the director of the AMED program. AMED also tabled at the KYR Fair, sitting alongside GUPS and JVP, as AMED is the is the only academic program on SFSU campus whose mission is to combat Islamophobia and anti-Arab discrimination. Framing her scholarship and activism under the principles of an “indivisibility of justice” in all her classes, Dr. Abdulhadi teaches how to defy anti-Semitism. She presents diverse Jewish experiences that challenge the monolithic construction of Jews across time, place and contemporary times, and that differentiate between Judaism, Jewishness, Israel, and Zionism. At the AMED Studies table (which I staffed), I included a list of all the classes that AMED offers as well as T-shirts depicting the Palestinian Cultural Mural (also known as the Edward Said Mural) on SFSU campus, our pride and joy. I intentionally requested that JVP sit at the table between the General Union of Palestine Students and that of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies to both enjoy the presence of the community organization with whom we closely work, and to symbolically show Palestinian-Jewish solidarity.

Hillel’s accusations of anti-Semitism are the same ones used in the aforementioned lawsuit brought forth by The Lawfare Project. Adding insult to injury, Hillel students have actually added additional false accusations against those protesting Barkat. They now claim that GUPS students “adjust[ed] their head coverings in a threatening manner,” and that “one of them [protestors] would eventually try to use a weapon on those of us who attended the event to hear the [occupied] Jerusalem Mayor speak.” Such racist and Islamophobic perceptions of Arabs and Palestinians is not a new phenomenon by White-identifying groups, which Hillel’s predominately Ashkenazi Jewish demographic is. Such prejudices remind us of racist fear mongering of Black men wearing hoodies, articulated in the hunting down and murder of Trayvon Martin. Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia have resulted in the mass incarceration and deportation of, and, most recently, the third reiteration of a Travel Ban against Arabs and Muslims exacerbated by the fear mongering generated after the attacks on the East Coast on September 11, 2001, and Palestinian struggles for liberation during the Intifadas.

Hillel’s claims were and continue to be public fabrications, blatant lies that have led to death threats, threats of rape, and stalking against students and faculty. And here is where the university misinterprets genuine concern that any and all interactions with Hillel results in such smearing, a smearing that comes with consequences that threaten the safety of those targeted. Their racist impressions of Palestinians along with their deliberate conflation of anti-Zionism and critique of Israel with anti-Semitism has resulted in a calculated attack on civil liberties as its attempts to criminalize anti-Zionist political ideologies. In non-normalizing with Hillel, campus community organizers are protecting ourselves from an organization whose behavior seeks to target and eliminate those they are in political disagreement with.

The umbrella organization that SF Hillel is a chapter of, Hillel International, has a long record of targeting and discriminating against Palestinians and those who stand with them. The International Guidelines of Hillel, that all Hillel chapters including SF Hillel, must abide by, codifies their exclusionary and discriminatory policies. The Hillel Standards of Partnership state:

Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

  • Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;
  • Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel;
  • Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;
  • Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

These policies constitute built-in discrimination and their alignment with pro-Israel lobby organizations. Hillel International enforces this policy by threatening litigation and expulsion of chapters who do not strictly comply. This policy has led to students being excluded and kicked out of Hillel chapters. There are clear examples of Hillel excommunicating students and organizations that do not toe Hillel’s line on Israel, regardless of the issues or communities those organizations served. Hillel has expelled those who support Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel, protect justice for/in Palestine political expression or criticize Zionism as a settler-colonial project. Hillel’s activity centers on Zionist expressions of Judaism and has invested much political currency and funds into making such articulations mainstream and part and parcel of hegemonically imaged Jewish-American experiences. As such, Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network have been cast as fringe organizations and expelled by Hillel. Hillel is not the only Jewish organization in the Bay Area, on college campuses or in the world. And it must be remembered that there has never been a consensus among Jewish communities on Israel or on Zionism. Jewish communities are not a monolithic unit.

Yet Hillel continues to seek partnership with communities of color and LGBT organizations who are politically aligned with Israeli political supremacy. Such groups include the Hindu right, Christian Zionists, Greek (Sororities and Fraternities) student organizations and Queer organizations that partner with Israel and its “Pink Washing” propaganda. Despite this history, Hillel misrepresented itself as LGBTQ and as an immigrant rights organization when requesting to table at the Fair. As James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” Tabling space at the Fair was reserved for organizations whose intersectional social organizing aligned with its social-justice focus. The KYR Committee was clear in noting that Hillel’s conduct emboldens injustice and should not be given a platform in a Know Your Rights Fair for Arabs and Muslims, Latinx communities, undocumented peoples, and LGBTQ communities.

Pro-Israel Campus Groups’ Smear Tactics

Working closely with on-campus Hillels nationwide is The David Project. It serves to train pro-Israel students on college campuses as instigators and has engaged in numerous aggressive campaigns to suppress dissent on Israel from US campuses, by focusing on smear tactics. The Hillel staff member who brought the false allegations forward and attempted to strong-arm his way onto the Fair underwent extensive training from the David Project while working with them for over a year. Shedding light on these smear tactics is a report by The David Project’s executive director, David Bernstein, titled “How to ‘name-and-shame’ without looking like a jerk.” In addition, as quoted from their white paper on “Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” the David Project promotes targeting Palestinian advocates on campus: “Accusing faculty members who propagandize against Israel of ‘academic malpractice’ is likely to be a much more effective strategy than challenging specific allegations of invoking anti-Jewish bigotry.”

This indicates their willingness to use anti-Israel and anti-Semitism accusations interchangeably, in a deliberate and false conflation of the two. This distinction is important because anti-Zionism and anti-Israel politics are legitimate anti-colonial positions and protected civil liberties while anti-Semitism is hate and oppression. And, the David Project, in clear terms, reveals that the tactics they use for smearing are neither anti-Semitic nor an infringement of rights despite their accusations to the contrary:

Pro-Israel organizations have often cast the challenge on campus as an assault on Jewish students rather than as a spreading pervasive negativity toward Israel. Casting the issue in these terms does not jive with the lived experiences of many Jewish students, who know they can identify as Jews and largely not suffer repercussions (emphasis theirs).

And it’s attached footnote in the handbook.

This was a recurring theme in much of the research we undertook for this report. There are also numerous public instances of pro-Israel Jewish students, even at schools with a harsh anti-Israel climate, arguing that while anti-Jewish outbursts occur and should be taken seriously, they don’t significantly erode their freedom, even to advocate on behalf of Israel.

All the while the David Project has named San Francisco State University one of its priority schools of target in the USA; it is yet another indicator of the targeted harassment we face today.  This harassment largely stems from both public smearing and legal bullying as the two build off one another but are based on lies and misrepresentations. Those propagating this harassment are part of a concerted national effort.

Conclusion

The evidence points to the conclusion that Hillel’s baseless complaint, in this case, is intended to wash out the grievances that the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian community have made to SFSU. And the university’s misconduct of this investigation affirms that the university is not able to make an objective decision based on the facts. The last university official who conducted an investigation against Palestinian students, Mr. Osvaldo Del Valle, was promptly “let go” after his investigation cleared members of the General Union of Palestine Students of charges of anti-Semitism and other trumped up charges after they protested a visit by the mayor of occupied Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. This experience casts doubt on the ability of any employee at SFSU whose career and employment at SFSU is on the line to fairly investigate grievances or charges against or by Palestinians. Already, the university appears to be investigating allegations of which we have not been notified until the last week of the four-month long investigation. Apparently, because there is no evidence of anti-Semitism on the part of the Fair organizing committee in words or deeds, the university has expanded the scope of the investigation to include additional allegations of retaliation. All of this underscores our experience of a systemic and consistent disparate treatment. Instead of protecting Palestinians on campus, SFSU seeks to penalize us on trumped up and false charges, this cannot be allowed to continue.

About Saliem Shehadeh

Saliem Shehadeh has a MA in Anthropology from San Francisco State University and Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and is a Diasporas Studies Graduate Student Assistant.

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2 Responses

  1. JosephA
    July 13, 2017, 5:59 pm

    Even though defending a lawsuit is an expensive and time-consuming process, I can think of no better place for this type of discussion than to take place than in a courtroom, for several reasons:

    The proceedings would be open to the public;
    The facts and evidence would be presented;
    Finally, and most importantly, the silly claims would be dismissed, and (in an ideal world) the accusers would be forced to pay legal fees and damages due to the frivolous suit.

    We shall see what transpires.

  2. freespeechlover
    July 16, 2017, 2:17 pm

    Have you considering suing SF State on Title VI grounds? It seems like all Palestinian student activism is always on the defensive in these kind of legal charges, yet time and again, what we see is that it is Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students who are being discriminated against. Where is Palestine Legal? I appreciate their work immensely, but at this point, students and their staff need to think about the possibility of greater pushback rather than simply “defending” students against false charges.

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