Hillel rips SFSU report on protest of Israeli mayor’s visit

San Francisco Hillel says a report by San Francisco State University regarding the school’s handling of an anti-Israel protest in April did not go far enough, while a pro-Palestinian campus group says it feels vindicated by the investigation.

In the report issued Sept. 1, SFSU takes responsibility for its “inadequate response” to the April 6 standoff between students attending a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and pro-Palestinian protesters, and says it is creating a director of human relations position to help prevent future incidents.

Sponsored by San Francisco Hillel, the Israeli mayor’s talk was disrupted 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 he was “concerned for the state of civil discourse on our campus.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State on April 6 file photo

In an open letter accompanying the report last week, Wong wrote 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 plan to “promote civil discourse, foster intercultural learning and cross-cultural understanding within a social justice framework.”

The independent review 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.”

The review also found that the protesters posed “no credible threat to public safety” and that the GUPS-led group directed its actions toward Barkat and not audience members. The 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 said the report missed the point by failing to focus on the infringement of the Hillel students’ free speech rights. Such incidents, he said, could lead to “mob rule at S.F. State.”

In an opinion piece for J., Benn noted that the investigator quoted one protester saying about pro-Israel students, “I do not talk to them, I do not make eye contact,” and another who said incidents like this one were “pretty normal” at S.F. State.

“Letting one group repeatedly trample on another’s free speech rights without any real redress is the opposite of allowing a robust exchange of ideas,” Benn opined. “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.”

Ken Waltzer, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, said SFSU officials should have disciplined the GUPS protesters.

“Arrogating to itself the right to define what opinions can be spoken on campus, the GUPS should be issued a warning and, if similar behavior repeats, the organization should have its charter suspended,” he wrote in an opinion piece for J.

A Sept. 1 statement from GUPS said the group felt vindicated by the report and claimed 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.”

Luoluo Hong, SFSU vice president of student affairs, said the new director of human relations will create programs to help promote respectful dialogue among students.

“A position like this would help to reduce the likelihood of an incident similar to what happened during Mayor Barkat’s April 2016 visit by working with students proactively to address how to more effectively respond to speech that troubles or disturbs them,” Hong said in an email.

Rob Gloster

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