Jews say inquiry at Foothill College is long overdue

Following an anti-Israel rant in last month’s Foothill College student newspaper, school administrators issued an apology and launched an investigation into how the article made it into print.

While gratified, a number of Jewish students and activists had a question to ask: What took you so long?

Or, as Arlene Miller, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, put it, “It’s about time.

“We are aware of several [instructors] using their classroom as a place to express political views at the expense of the ability to focus on studies and learn in a classroom,” she said.

And, despite a number of complaints from Jews about professors engaging in classroom demagoguery at the Los Altos Hills community college, the administration has “done very little,” she said.

“For the past two years, we’ve been trying to get the ear of the administration over these issues, and it’s been a challenge to make any changes. I think there definitely is an opportunity now to have the student voices heard.”

Among the complaints alleged by Miller and some Jewish Foothill students:

• Students who attended a 2002 campus speech by the stridently anti-Semitic Imam Abdul Malik-Ali were awarded extra credit. Students who attended the speech with pro-Israel signs and banners were not given extra credit.

• Students were required to attend strongly anti-Israel teach-ins prior to the Iraq war. Those attempting to leave the teach-in were told they would fail the class if they exited.

• A Jewish Foothill student claimed his ethics instructor overtly promoted Christian, pro-life views in class and created an atmosphere such that at least one guidance counselor allegedly advises Jews to avoid the course.

• A student’s report of an instructor’s classroom exclamation that Israelis are practicing ethnic cleansing — which, the instructor said, was probably learned from the Nazis — led Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, to request a meeting with school President Bernadine Fong in 2002. His request was denied.

School spokesman Kurt Hueg said all complaints made to the administration were confidential, and declined to discuss the matter.

The request for a meeting was taken up this time, as the ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council, Hillel and Jewish Foothill students are scheduled to meet with Fong at the end of the month.

Eitan Gershenson, the former president of Foothill’s Jewish student union, said Fong is keeping an eye on the bottom line.

“Always, they looked the other way. Only now after the article was written and Foothill is getting letters and e-mail from donors saying they’re going to pull out money, only now the president came to us and said this should not get out of hand,” he said.

When Fong attended the Jewish student union meeting, “she was just kind of like ‘I understand how you feel, but let’s not contact all the donors and ask them to rescind their donations or not tell people to vote for a new bond measure.’ Actually, she seemed more concerned about the financial aspect of it instead of the actual injustice that happened.”

(Fong was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.)

The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, meanwhile, is circulating an e-mail accusing the ADL and others of clamping down on the free-speech rights of Professor Leighton Armitage, the subject of the anti-Israel Q&A interview.

Within the interview Armitage accuses Israeli and Jewish organizations of “buying our elections,” and likens Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust.

“The accusation that we’re trying to silence anyone is untrue,” responded Rose Gabaeff, the ADL’s assistant regional director.

“We’re making an effort to sensitize the community down there to the situation Jewish students are facing in the classroom and make sure they can voice their opposition in a safe environment,” she said. “We believe differing points of view can be expressed in a classroom. But it should be an open dialogue.”

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.