S.F. State acknowledges inadequate response to protest against Jerusalem mayor

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at SFSU on April 6

San Francisco State University took responsibility for its “inadequate response” to an April campus standoff between students attending a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and pro-Palestinian protesters, and said it was creating a director of human relations position to help prevent future incidents.

Barkat’s April 6 talk at SFSU, sponsored by San Francisco Hillel, was disrupted and eventually shut down by protesters from the campus chapter of the General Union of Palestine Students, or GUPS, who shouted anti-Israel slogans through a portable sound system.

Hillel and Bay Area Jewish groups condemned the incident, and in an April 7 open letter, SFSU President Les Wong pledged a “full investigation” and said that he was “concerned for the state of civil discourse on our campus.”

On Sept. 1, in another open letter, Wong reported that the school had completed its investigation — including an independent review by the Sacramento-based firm of Van Dermyden Maddux Law — and found “we have significant work to do to improve the campus climate for all of our students.”

“On April 6, we failed our students — both the event attendees and the protesters — through multiple inactions,” Wong wrote. “We will continue to monitor the campus climate, and we will make every effort to respond to student concerns in a timely fashion.”

Wong said SFSU staff members and police officers have undergone additional training and implemented a five-point protocol for engaging with protesters. The school’s dean of students has created a First Amendment resource card to be distributed at future campus protests, Wong’s letter said, and the new director of human relations will develop a campus plan to “promote civil discourse, foster intercultural learning and cross-cultural understanding within a social justice framework.”

The independent review by Deborah Maddux faulted SFSU for poor pre-event planning and not following clear processes after the event, and said inaction by school officials during the standoff “led the protesters to believe that their conduct was sanctioned.”

Maddux’s review also found “there was no credible threat to public safety” by the protesters, and that the GUPS-led group directed its actions toward Barkat and not audience members. Her report noted that both Hillel students and GUPS students felt uneasy, even unsafe on campus after the April incident.

San Francisco Hillel director Ollie Benn slammed the report in a written statement, noting that the investigator “quoted, without any criticism or comment, a protester’s absurd approach to students with different political views,” adding “No matter the subject, you do not get to shout down and eliminate the free speech rights of others because you dislike them or disagree with their viewpoints.”

“If this is the type of civil discourse a university wishes to endorse, there is little hope for its academic mission,” Benn concluded.

In a Sept. 1 statement, GUPS said the group felt vindicated by the report, and claimed that the real disruption was caused by Barkat coming to campus.

“Not only were we subjected to this hate monger, but we were investigated for months and publicly smeared as violent and anti-Semitic,” the GUPS statement said, adding that the report “proves that these allegations are false.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.