Pro-Israeli group gives Jewish students voice at SFSU

Throughout the early- to mid-1990s, a rash of hateful outbursts at San Francisco State University gave it the reputation as "the most anti-Semitic campus in the country," according to Professor Laurie Zoloth, chair of SFSU's Jewish studies department.

Yet that was then — and this is now.

In recent years, major steps were implemented and the campus' attitude had mellowed, say those in Jewish organizations. But the rekindling of the intifada — and the accompanying glut of pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations — once again rendered SFSU a less-than-comfortable place for openly Jewish students.

In the face of nationwide anti-Zionist campus demonstrations, area Jewish student leaders met at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco to discuss how they could address such issues locally. Four students from SFSU and the University of San Francisco got to talking and hit upon a solution — form an intercampus pro-Israeli group.

The four seniors, Naomi Ben-Or and Adam Sall of SFSU and Ryan Eyges and Jacqui Zadik of USF, created the Israel Coalition in the fall.

"Before the Israel Coalition there was a mild Jewish activism on [the SFSU] campus," said Sall, a psychology major and the coalition's executive director. "Now we see just the opposite."

Working hand-in-hand with San Francisco Hillel and SFSU's Jewish studies faculty, the coalition boasts roughly 125 members on the campuses of USF, SFSU, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. Yet the group clearly faced its most challenging task at San Francisco State, where several protests had blurred the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

"When we put up our sukkah, it became the focus of a political demonstration. A sukkah is not about a political position on Israel; it's about a religious, cultural celebration," Zoloth recalled. "We were careful not to make Israel the focus of the decoration or celebrations in any way. But protesters marched around, and expressed their anger against Jews and Israel."

Zoloth thought the demonstration moved into dangerous ground.

"When the attacks target the Jewish religion, and are toward Jews and not toward Israel or the situation in the Mideast," Zoloth said, "we always draw the line there."

The coalition's first order of business was to let the SFSU student community know that it is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace. Its representatives often join Hillel members in setting up tables, as well as disseminating information throughout the campus and community. The coalition's most noticeable effort was showering the campus with blue-and-white "Israel for Peace" signs, listing nearly 30 different steps the Israeli government has made in pursuit of peace.

The group's weekly meetings are held at San Francisco Hillel — a stone's throw from campus — and usually draw 35 or more students. Meetings often feature a guest educator, who will speak on Israeli affairs or methods of activism.

"From the very beginning, they took a proactive stance," Seth Brysk, San Francisco Hillel's executive director, said of the coaltion. "Their meetings focus on trying to educate themselves and the need to learn more about Israel, not the need to respond to other things that are going on. That's very impressive, particularly because one of the impetuses to start the group was, in fact, the renewed protests about the violence in Israel."

While creating a presence with fellow students, the Israel Coalition has also maintained a close relationship with the Jewish studies department.

"We had two wonderful faculty meetings," said Zoloth. "We were really excited to see a new group of students who are new to this campus and willing to move ahead. We on the faculty often feel, 'Oh, we have a longtime history here,' and that discourages progress, dialogue or discussion of a number of things.

"But here are a group of students who say they don't care about prior history; they're willing to try one more time and they're willing to make a new organization on campus," Zoloth added. "That enthusiasm, that sense of commitment, it's extraordinary."

The Israel Coalition has also sponsored several campus demonstrations.

"We've had rallies on the S.F. State campus, which have been in promotion of education and peace, [bringing] many students together," said Zadik, who handles the group's finances. "We've passed out fliers and sung songs of peace to show people that's what we're about. We're not about inflammatory propaganda, as other groups might have been doing. We want to educate people in a peaceful way."

In addition to receiving funding and housing from San Francisco Hillel, the Israel Coalition has accepted both financial support and guidance from the Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Israel Center, the Jewish Community Federation, and AIPAC: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The group plans to keep up its activities on local campuses next semester, and will also send representatives to Washington, D.C., for the Spitzer Forum on public policy and the annual AIPAC policy conference.

With all four of its leaders nearing the end of their undergraduate careers, grooming a new class of officers is a top priority.

"When Jacqui and I and the rest of the Israel Coalition board members graduate, there'll be an entirely new group of kids leading the coalition," said Sall. "We've been successful reaching out to other communities. People on campus walk up to me — people I've never seen before and I know aren't Jewish — and say, 'Shalom.' They congratulate us on what we've done on this campus."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.