SFSU drops 5-year suspension for outspoken pro-Israel student activist

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Last week, Tatiana Menaker was facing a five-year suspension from San Francisco State University and preparing for a disciplinary hearing she figured she’d lose.

This week, her biggest concern is what brand of Crimean champagne she’s going to buy for her lawyer.

The outspoken pro-Israel activist promised her attorney a bottle of the bubbly after SFSU on Monday, March 22, dropped the proposed five-year suspension, reducing Menaker’s punishment for an alleged pattern of campus disruptions to a two-week suspension that she has already served.

“It does not do us much good if we rub their nose in it. Clearly this is a big victory for us. But it is also a victory for them, because they could have taken the hard stance. But the fact they didn’t shows they are capable of reconsidering, capable of doing the right thing,” said Ephraim Margolin, Menaker’s lawyer.

“This is good, because we will be dealing with them on other cases at other times, and we want to deal with them well.”

Just last week, Margolin told j. he had been unable to reach an acceptable settlement with the university, and proposed taking SFSU to court over its disciplinary hearing procedures, which he believes puts defendants in an unwinnable position.

“We are in this for the duration,” he promised. But the duration turned out to be rather brief.

Yet, on Monday, March 22, a handful of Jewish community leaders met with SFSU administrators, and, by Tuesday, March 23, Margolin and Menaker had accepted the reduced punishment of time served, with no admission of wrongdoing by the 55-year-old Russian emigre.

“To tell the truth, we didn’t have to push at all for this to happen. It just kind of came out of the process,” said Jonathan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the March 22 meeting.

Bernstein, along with Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council; San Francisco Hillel Director Seth Brysk; and SFSU Jewish studies Professor Marc Dollinger, met with school administrators, including Penny Saffold, the dean of students, and Don Scoble, chief of staff for SFSU President Richard Corrigan.

“I hope Tatiana will feel like the university is not infringing on her right to free speech or assembly in any way, but will use those rights responsibly from now on.”

Kahn added that the university’s case for a five-year suspension had “soft spots.”

Saffold did not return calls. SFSU spokeswoman Christina Holmes declined to “go into specifics,” stating only, “All I can tell you is we’re pleased the matter has been successfully resolved to the satisfaction of the university and Miss Menaker.”

Menaker was mandated to serve 40 hours of community service after shouting obscenities at pro-Palestinians during the May 7, 2002, SFSU quasi-riot. The university claims a series of disruptive incidents since then, highlighted by a November confrontation with lecturer Deborah Gerson of Jewish Voice for Peace.

The university claims Menaker shouted and threatened Gerson publicly. But Menaker said she did not raise her voice, and merely said, “If you believe when they start killing Jews, you will be spared, you will be killed two hours later.”

Stemming from that confrontation, Menaker was called into the office of student discipline officer Donna Cunningham for a Feb. 23 meeting. She was told that she would be suspended for five years, and asked to sign a document foregoing her right to appeal the suspension.

Holmes claims Menaker at this point flew into a rage and hurled objects around Cunningham’s office until police escorted her off campus.

Margolin counters that his client reacted no more severely than anyone else would after surprise notice of a five-year suspension. Menaker told j. she did not shout or throw objects in Cunningham’s office.

All along, Menaker claimed SFSU’s actions were ideologically motivated, and she expressed satisfaction with both the outcome and a cavalcade of supportive letters from the Jewish community and beyond.

“I’m not saying too much; I’m writing too much, that’s the problem,” said Menaker, who believes her articles for David Horowitz’s right-wing Front Page magazine portraying SFSU as a hotbed for communist sympathizers and anti-Semites has put the university in a bad position with its private donors.

“I don’t want to insult anyone, but they just wanted to get rid of me, it’s that simple.”

Margolin, however, said he was happy to put the matter in the past.

“They are not getting what they wanted. We re getting most of what we wanted. If you want to show someone they are overreacting, you don’t have to be brutal about it,” he said.

“The five-year thing, that was kind of out of left field. And sending that kind of message was not good for anybody. … Perhaps the [campus mood] of two years ago is behind us. Perhaps.”

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.