Will President Wong do the Right Thing? Will SFSU reclaim its social justice mission on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Strike? Professor Abdulhadi responds to the departing SFSU President and explains what he should do and why?
San Francisco State University President Wong has just announced that he will step down on July 1, 2019. Though President Wong has consistently wronged me and refused to support me since 2013, I am neither gloating nor am I overjoyed by this news. In fact, I am quite saddened that the first person of color to occupy the seat of SFSU president in a long time will be leaving with no announced plans, suggesting his resignation was less than voluntary.
When President and Dr. Wong joined SFSU, we were ecstatic. Here was an Asian man adopted by a Latin couple with an Arab American partner who headed an academic institution in Michigan and as logic has it, would be expected to be more sensitized to and guard against the stereotypical and racist mainstream imaginary of Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians as well as all forms of racism and discrimination. President Wong said that he admired Edward Said. I supported him by attending every appearance he made from 2012 onward. In March 2013, we hosted him at the Arab Cultural and Community Center (ACCC) with 40 students, alumni, leaders, activists, advocates and professionals from the larger group that constitutes the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) community of justice.
At that meeting, an alum initiated the Edward Said Scholarship. President Wong pointed to me and asked, “Why couldn’t the professor take students to Palestine on a study trip?” I was pleasantly surprised. When I asked him about reinstating the two AMED faculty lines (that the former President had taken back to punish us for co-sponsoring the Palestinian mural event hosting the co-founder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti), President Wong asked me, “why just a program? How about an institute?” My response was an immediate yes. “Just give me the resources and I am your man,” I recall saying.
However shortly thereafter, and around a week after his investiture, President Wong was whisked away on an all-expense-paid trip to Israel. From then on, and typical of how the Israel lobby works, everything went downhill.
Nine months after President Wong’s Israel trip, I faced the first large scale Zionist attack since he became President. Despite being deprived of our two faculty lines, we were on the path to institutionalizing AMED Studies as a long lasting academic program when the AMCHA initiative began its campaign. Maligning the late professor Edward Said, they also falsely accused us of anti-Semitism and of “glorifying the murder of Jews.”
We immediately urged President Wong to wait before issuing a rushed statement so we could find out what had exactly transpired at the Mural event. However, instead of heeding our urgent advice, President Wong chose to follow the incendiary path of a knee-jerk condemnation of anti-Semitism, whether it had existed or not. The President of the university criticized the students’ right to speak up without knowing what actually happened.
The Israel lobby has erroneously and opportunistically deployed false charges of anti-Semitism to smear advocates for justice in/for Palestine and get President Wong’s help in silencing the students. As my colleagues, Vida Samiian and Lisa Rofel wrote in their recent article in the Abolitionist, anti-Semitism is being weaponized by Israel’s apologists to silence speech.
It has been five years since President Wong’s condemnation of anti-Semitism that falsely associated hate and racism with a Palestine-centered event. He has never since spoken up to defend me against false accusations of anti-Semitism, “Jew hatred”, “terrorism support”, or designs to “indoctrinate SFSU students in terrorism.” When it came to condemning Islamophobia and racist attacks targeting me and Arab and Muslim students, President Wong made those within the context of condemning anti-Semitism or kept up the same practice of generalized comments without specific references to Islamophobia or anti-Arab/anti-Palestinian racism, leaving the public to wonder what was going on.
Aside from three occasions on which SFSU reluctantly issued brief statements, neither President Wong nor any of his cabinet members have supported me and my students. When AMCHA relentlessly harassed me and made false accusations it took a massive pressure campaign by a large international coalition to persuade SFSU leadership to simply issue a much delayed and very tight-lipped -press statement clearing me of wrongdoing. Written on June 4, 2014, and only published on June 24, the statement confirmed that two extensive audits by the college and the university administration found there was no merit whatsoever in AMCHA’s attempt to impugn my integrity.
SFSU leadership still went the extra mile to acquiesce to the AMCHA led Zionist campaign by conducting a third, and this time five-year, audit, of my international travel. Uncharacteristically of financial audits, the university auditors did not ask a single question regarding missing receipts or even a penny. The questions were politically motivated and confined to my collaboration with Palestinian universities.
There were two other occasions on which President Wong and his cabinet (as well as CSU) could have issued strong statements defending me, my students, and our right to work, study and live in an environment free of bullying, intimidation, character assassination and defamation. They chose not to. Instead, they issued what he and the administration would characterize as supportive statements but that I, my students and the community would describe as too little too late, and too general and ineffective, especially when combined with relentless institutional hostility to me, the AMED studies program, my students and anyone who engages in debates critical of Israel.
The first occasion, as with the 2014 press release against AMCHA’s smear campaign, was in regards to the collaborative agreement with An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. It was issued quite late and only after several academic groups and members of the AMED community emailed, called and appealed to the university to defend me and stand by its collaborative partner in Palestine. Issued in response to press inquiries, the statement simply stated that SFSU and CSU stood by their international collaborative agreements. Though no other agreement with any other international institution was targeted, SFSU and CSU statements included no mention of me or An-Najah National University even though the attack was (and continues to this very day to be) specific and aiming at getting me fired and undermining Palestinian education under occupation. Nonetheless, both SFSU and CSU refused to be more specific. The vagueness of the statement left readers, including those on SFSU campus, wondering what it was in reference to. I had immediately shared the 2016 nasty smear campaign orchestrated by Campus Watch/Middle East Forum of Daniel Pipes (named as a leading Islamophobes by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC). Promoted on twitter and accompanied by a change.org petition, it labeled me as anti-Semitic and a terrorist supporter and demanded that SFSU cancel its agreement with An-Najah. I had put together the proposal with the support of a graduate student and submitted it to the All University Committee on International Programs (AUCIP). In that I followed the instructions of President Wong and his staff. The AUCIP voted unanimously in favor of the proposal that then went up the chain of command until President Wong finally signed it in December 2014 and forwarded to CSU that ratified it. I should say that Campus Watch/ME Forum’s smear campaign continues to be active. Meanwhile SFSU and CSU have yet to issue a more specific statement or defend me.
The second statement was better than the first two. It was in response to the racist, defamatory and Islamophobic bullying posters by the shadowy Canary Mission and David Horowitz (also named as a top Islamophobe by SPLC) that appeared on campus on October 14, 2016. We warned that the posters are emboldening Zionists and encouraging them to invade our campuses in a deliberate new McCarthyist campaign to silence us, dismantle the AMED Studies academic program, and criminalize Palestinian scholarship, pedagogy and advocacy. The 26 posters, violating the old, as well as new, “Time, Place and Manner” policy, appeared all over campus, including on the entrance to the administration garage where all administrators park their cars. We have since learned that the posters were seen by administrators in the early morning hours but that they were not treated as a matter of urgency. Instead they were left to the late afternoon when the cabinet could get to them after other meetings took precedence. By that time, students from different student groups canvassed the campus and took the posters down. The university police continues to insist that they combed the campus on that Friday and found no more posters. We are aware though that a police report was filed on that Monday of at least two more posters.
At that time, President Wong promised swift action against the perpetrators. However, almost two years since October 14, 2016, no action, swift or otherwise has been taken on the part of the administration. As a matter of fact, the administration, particularly the Provost, the VP for Advancement and VP for Student Affairs (along with the Chief of UPD) have by now developed quite a party line that weaponizes free speech and justifies inaction on the pretext of protecting Horowitz’ and Canary Mission free speech. The University Police Department has even began to call the perpetrator, David Horowitz, and asking him to please give the campus “heads up” when he plans his next smear attack. It is not an accident then that we have since experienced three more poster campaigns by Horowitz who has outright taken responsibility for these bullying attacks. It is perhaps noteworthy to mention that VP for Student Affairs also went on an all-expense-paid trip to Israel on the Israeli lobby’s dime.
We could assume that this is equal opportunity neglect, except that SFSU and CSU administrations have contrasted the Islamophobic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian environment with statements that legitimized the false Zionist claim that Palestine-centered scholarship, pedagogy and advocacy produce anti-Semitism. I have stated on many occasions and I will restate here that we must confront real anti-Semitism. President Wong, SFSU and CSU administrations though have not addressed such a serious threat, nor educated about it as an academic institution ought to do. Rather, they have validated the dangerous Zionist idea that equates criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism. This automatically paints all critics of Israel with the broad brush of anti-Semitism, erases Jewish opposition to Zionism and reinforces the erroneous argument of a Jewish consensus around Zionism. Simultaneously it de-legitimizes and de-centers and often negates Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Still further, it distracts attention from real anti-Semitism, which Zionists, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, do not seem to have a problem with as long as they approve of Israel’s occupation.
For example, President Wong criticized as “uncivil” student protest of the campus appearance by the right-wing (and racist) mayor of occupied Jerusalem, Nir Barakat. The use of “civility” recalls and legitimizes colonialist discourses that label indigenous communities as barbaric and uncivil. Even after President Wong found out who Barakat was and the extent of his racist statements about Palestinians, his encouragement of settlers to become more armed and his policies as mayor to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem from its Palestinian indigenous residents, he re-invited Barakat to campus. This was another slap in the face not only to Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians but to anyone on campus who is committed to an indivisible sense of justice.
President Wong also contradicted the very report issued by the independent investigator he hired to look into the protest against Barakat. The investigator determined that while student protesters did drown Barakat’s speech, forcing him to sit in a corner to talk to his supporters, and that student use of the bullhorn was unauthorized and violated university policies (though the VP for Student Affairs admitted that this was the first time she had ever heard of anyone being written up for such an infraction) no violence was involved on the part of the protestors. The thorough independent report also found no evidence of anti-Semitism. But President Wong decided to contradict this report and opted to issue a statement in June 2017 that associated the Barakat protest with anti-Semitism. Thus, once again, SFSU and CSU were feeding into the Zionist false claims that dangerously associated Palestine-centered activism, scholarship and pedagogy with anti-Semitism. In effect SFSU and CSU were enabling a relentless Zionist agenda that seeks to silence any mention of justice in/for Palestine by dismissing it and labeling it anti-Semitic.
Contradicting the findings of the independent investigator President Wong has retained was quite troubling. It was especially so in view of the frivolous but dangerous lawsuit filed by the Lawfare project against me, along with CSU and SFSU administrators and staff. As Judge Orrick has stated when he dismissed the lawsuit last November and as we expect the decision to be in view of the latest retooled lawsuit, criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism does not constitute nor is it equal to anti-Semitism. So why would SFSU and CSU affirm such an allegation that undermines SFSU social justice mission in favor of a racist and Islamophobic agenda?
The final straw was in spring 2018. In February, President Wong issued a statement welcoming Zionists to campus. I felt quite offended by it. I immediately exercised my academic and First Amendment right and wrote a dear colleague letter which I shared on my FB page. I took issue with President Wong’s statement and saw it as an insult not only to Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians but also to our Jewish sisters and brothers who refuse to allow Israel’s colonialism, racism and apartheid to speak in their name. I saw the welcoming Zionists statement as an affront to our legacy at SFSU, especially as we mark 50 years of the longest student strike in the history of the U.S., a strike that was led by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front.
I was not the only one to speak up. Indeed, shortly after I wrote and shared my statement, GUPS issued a statement, and so did Black Student Union, Black residence hall, Black Business Association, and other student groups. The SF Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement and so did SFSU’s very own Women and Gender Studies Department. A new student group, Jews Against Zionism (JAZ) issued a statement that I shared on my FB page and AMED Studies volunteers shared on AMED unofficial Facebook page.
Instead of supporting my right to speak and taking advantage of this open window of opportunity to engage in serious debate and discussion about Palestine, Israel, Zionism and racism, to validate the historical legacy of our campus, SFSU Administration, as well as CSU selected to threaten me and sought to discipline me. Here again our institutional leadership was responding to pressures by Zionist groups that are known for their trademark defamation instead of standing by their faculty and students.
Both President Wong and Chancellor White denounced me. My dean asked me to take down the AMED unofficial Facebook page and cited some irrelevant policy. The Provost then took it upon herself to threatened me with disciplinary measures, sending me an intimidating email, copied to CSU Counsel, during my research trip to Palestine. The trip was, after several seemingly bureaucratic obstacles, authorized and approved by the Dean, the Provost herself, the President and CSU Chancellor’s office. The Provost issued her threatening email on Friday, March 23, at 6p.m., and gave me a deadline of Monday, March 26, at noon to respond. I saw (and continue to see) this email as evidence of bullying and intimidation and a classical McCarthyist style maneuver to muzzle me and threaten my livelihood. Thus and for the same reasons that I could not afford then to ignore such unconstitutional demands and defend myself and my job (nor could I afford now to ignore microaggressions and bureaucratic retaliation but to defend my livelihood and our program), I have to continue to speak up. It was ironic though to experience such a hostility to Palestine from the leadership of my social-justice campus while we were traveling from one site to another in Palestine and witnessing Israeli colonialism, racism and apartheid on the ground. The Israeli government and its lobby in the U.S. were seeking to cover up such violations of Palestinian rights and SFSU campus was seeking to silence my criticism of the very policies we saw in action.
The Provost’s threats were not isolated and nor were SFSU President’s and CSU Chancellor’s denunciations. They were responding to another nasty Zionist campaign led by AMCHA, StandWithUs, Christians United for Israel, Students Supporting Israel, CAMERA, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Center, Middle East Forum, Zionist Organization of America, to name a few. As a result, I became once again the target of hate, racist and misogynist bullying and threatening emails and messages.
In conclusion, President Wong announced that he will stay on for one more year. He mentioned change several times in his video message. I agree that we need change. The question is in what direction? Will it be toward social justice or toward more silencing, bullying and weaponizing free speech in favor of a Zionist and racist agenda?
I believe that there is a real opportunity for President Wong and for SFSU and CSU to stand up for public education, to be accountable to the public, to reject and end complicity with right-wing pressures and donors.
On this occasion and at the risk of being once again labeled by President Wong as “too demanding”–a charge usually directed at women who refuse to stay in their place, I am asking President Wong to do the right thing:
- Publicly issue that overdue apology that he has owed me since 2013 to stop further damage to my reputation and my career.
- Categorically and unambiguously defend me against false charges of anti-Semitism by making it clear that anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel’s colonialism, racism and apartheid is not equated with anti-Semitism. Judge Orrick’s November 8th judgement might be instructive here.
- Initiate and oversee a transparent and open investigation of the rise in Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism and hostility to Palestine that has escalated on his administration’s watch
- Hold accountable those responsible for promoting and emboldening such a hostile Islamophobic, racist and anti-Palestinian environment
- Institute immediate structural changes to end the vulnerability and instability of the AMED Studies program by (a) reinstating the AMED faculty lines to honor my contract and the University’s commitment to me and the community; (b) remove all bureaucratic, vindictive, bullying, disrespectful and institutional obstacles that undermine my ability to do my job and AMED Studies from becoming the University department that I was brought to build; (c) provide AMED Studies with the staff and operating budget that we need to survive; and (d) stop treating me, my students, my program and my communities as “foreigners” and a threat to the university.
It is my sincere hope that President Wong will take this opportunity to restore the optimism, respect and appreciation for intellectual curiosity, cutting edge research, excellence in teaching and accountability to our communities which he signaled when he started at SFSU.
It is never too late to change course.
It is never too late to claim justice.
It is never too late to do the right thing.
Bold Thinking is a practice not a slogan.
The time is Now!