SFSU president keeping Jews safe with mural censure

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We have held our collective, communal breath waiting for signs of anti-Israel activity on local college campuses this fall. The Israel/Hezbollah war, and continued opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, augurs a potential return of heightened tensions and creation of an unwelcome, and possibly hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel students.

Fortunately, most local campuses thus far have been fairly quiet on Middle East issues. But that is not universally true.

First out of the box this school year was a proposed Palestinian mural at San Francisco State University. The student government approved the mural, subject to final approval by President Robert Corrigan before it became a permanent fixture on the exterior of the student union building. There it would have taken its place alongside other murals, including the Malcolm X mural that replaced a prior mural that Corrigan ordered sandblasted after the artist added anti-Semitic symbols at the last moment some 12 years ago.

The proposed Palestinian mural focused on the life of Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor, and incorporates numerous symbols of significance to Palestinians. Permanent murals at SFSU are expected to focus on the ethnic American experience and to express pride in one’s culture.

At first glance the mural appeared to be relatively benign. Upon closer examination, however, it was clear that symbols of political resistance and hostility to Israel had been included, with enormous potential to create a divisive atmosphere on campus. While there were several troubling symbols, two stood out as explicitly offensive — an image of a key with the Arabic term “return” representing the purported Palestinian “right of return” and the concomitant destruction of the state of Israel, and a cartoon-like character known as “Handala” holding a sword. Handala has been used by Palestinian artists to represent active and often violent resistance against Israel.

Yitzhak Santis, JCRC’s Middle East Affairs Director, did invaluable research on the significance of these two symbols and why they would, as permanent fixtures on the side of a public building, send a chilling message to Jewish students and all on campus who support Israel’s rights. In short, the Palestinian key is more than just a key, just as a conical hat on the top of a man dressed in white robes is more than just a hat.

President Corrigan and his administration have been accessible and responsive when Jewish students, Hillel and the broader Jewish community have raised concerns in the past about conditions for Jewish students on campus. He has demonstrated strong leadership and absolute determination to maintain an open and welcoming climate on campus for all. His decisive action on the Malcolm X mural, his support for establishing a strong program in Jewish studies and his response to hateful anti-Israel activity on campus have exemplified that leadership.

Now, once again, President Corrigan has been asked to take a stand on campus that will help foster a welcoming and safe environment for all students, including Jewish students and other supporters of Israel. Such a stand will no doubt prove unpopular with student government; the Associated Students have already approved a resolution in support of the proposed mural. Inevitably, the president will be criticized on campus for denying free speech, even though preventing construction of a hostile, permanent mural on the university campus does not contravene free speech rights.

We are pleased to report that Corrigan’s moral voice and leadership continue to be demonstrated on campus and the community. After he had already told student leadership that the mural in its present form was unacceptable, and that he would not approve it until the mural proponents demonstrated affirmatively how the mural fit into the overall goals of the university as an inclusive institution, he recently informed the Student Center Governing Board and the chair of the Arts Committee of that board that he had made a final decision not to approve the proposed Palestinian mural.

It is possible that the mural proponents will acknowledge Corrigan’s objections, and eliminate those symbols that have a threatening and divisive intent. It is also possible that they will manipulate the controversy and use the administration’s decision as a pretext to heat up the conditions on campus. In anticipation of the latter, we continue to work closely with Hillel to support its proactive, pro-Israel educational efforts at various Northern California universities.

At this time, one thing is clear: Corrigan has demonstrated yet again what true leadership and moral clarity mean. He has modeled for the campus community the lengths a university president sometimes must go to in order to ensure that every segment of the university community feels included and welcome.

Thank you, President Corrigan, and your administration, for standing tall once again.

Michael Futterman is the president of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).

Rabbi Douglas Kahn is the executive director of the JCRC.