a group of protesters shout and pump their fists in the air. there is a palestinian flag. some of them are wearing keffiyehs
Students protest a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University, April 6, 2016. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

SF State president fires back after Jerusalem mayor dust-up

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It has been a rough week for San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong.

He was scorched by criticism from Jewish students, Palestinian students and others for his role in the abruptly canceled campus appearance of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on April 6. Jewish students wrote an open letter to Wong, calling his invite to the mayor a “reckless political stunt,” while Palestinian students said it “reinforces the violences of ethnic cleansing that have been enacted upon Palestinians in which their mere existence has become a threat.”

les wong
Les Wong

Now, Wong is answering his critics and defending his actions. “I really did want him back,” Wong told J., referring to Barkat. “I think students deserve a right to hear him.”

Recounting the timeline, he said he invited first the mayor to return to campus a year ago, mere days after Barkat’s disastrous SFSU appearance on April 6, 2016, when angry anti-Israel protesters shouted him down as campus police looked on.

The incident roiled the campus and the local Jewish community. In the 12 months following, Wong commissioned an independent review of the incident, while SFSU instituted revised procedures for handling disruptions. A new campus police chief came aboard and staff underwent some retraining. Wong believed SFSU was ready for any potential disturbances.

About a month ago, Wong said, he heard Barkat would be coming to town again.  Even though the first finding of the independent review was that there had not been enough lead time to properly plan the April 2016 event, Wong took a chance.

“I wrote him a note saying I heard you might visit, and I’d like to talk to you about setting it up,” Wong recalled. “His chief of staff called and said he’s thinking about it; we’ll get back to you. On March 29, I sent an email to his chief of staff saying we’ve got to know.”

Wong said the mayor’s staff offered only one date for an SFSU speaking engagement: April 6, the anniversary of the last appearance. Wong, who knew he would be on the East Coast on that date, gave the mayor a green light, though he says he would have liked more time to prepare.

“I asked if we could have him on campus April 10,” Wong said. “I wanted to meet him. But he said no. We said we’re going to make this happen and we’re going to employ a lot of the things we learned.”

The shortened timeline loomed large. Wong’s critics have pointed to a lack of publicity as a chief planning failure.

“The president did not advertise [Barkat’s] talk,” said Marc Dollinger, a professor in SFSU’s Jewish Studies department. “Not on the website, not on the university’s Twitter or Facebook account. Invitations went out to an anonymous group. We don’t know who was invited.”

barkat speaks into a microphone
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat speaking at a private AIPAC event in San Francisco, April 6, 2017 (Photo/Aaron Parker)

Dollinger noted that the event required advance registration and a ticket, with only 100 openings available. “Everything about this siloed and compartmentalized it,” he said.

Wong countered that in the interests of security, University Police Chief Jason Wu recommended ticketing the event rather than simply opening the doors to all. He also said the tight timeframe impacted other security arrangements.

“We knew there would be protests,” Wong said. “That is the nature of events like this.”

Campus police did not have sufficient time to pull officers from other CSU campuses or to draw on the SFPD for added security, according to Wong, who said he was close to canceling the event himself.

Instead, it was Barkat who canceled the day before his scheduled appearance. He instead chose to attend a private April 6 AIPAC gathering, which drew 80 people, among them representatives from a host of local Jewish organizations.

Meanwhile, Barkat excoriated SFSU for not publicizing his lecture and for limiting the size of the audience.

“If I were a representative of any other country, no institution of higher learning would have allowed my speech to be drowned out by protesters inciting violence and then bring me back to campus in a limited, secluded way,” Barkat wrote in an April 5 statement.

Palestinian students criticized Wong in an open letter, claiming the SFSU administration exhibited a pattern of “perpetual undermining of the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian presence on campus and indifference, at best, regarding their safety.”

Rachael Cunningham, 20, an international relations major and Hillel intern, helped draft that open letter to Wong signed by 25 Jewish students. She, too, felt that the university erred by not publicizing the event or consulting ahead of time with concerned groups, such as Hillel or the General Union of Palestine Students. It was Hillel that sponsored Barkat’s visit a year ago.

“When [Wong] was talking about having the mayor return, Hillel should have been included,” she said. “He didn’t consult any students. We’re very upset with the way this was handled and we believe the two student organizations directly affected should have been brought in. It seems like a no-brainer.”

In their open letter, the Hillel students listed grievances going back months. Cunningham said Wong has been unresponsive to their concerns, even after he attended Hillel’s Passover seder last year and listened sympathetically to their stories about on-campus intimidation of Jewish students.

“So, yes, this was a breaking point,” Cunningham said of the week’s events. “Round two, not even a year out from the last major incident.”

For his part, Wong feels he and his staff did the best they could under the circumstances.

“I was so proud of the Dean of Students Office, the Vice President of Student Affairs and University Police, who in a very short time had put together a wonderful plan to ensure [Barkat] could speak to over 100 people and that other students were safe.”

Wong admitted he has been “getting it from all sides,” but added that his job is to help students “learn how to own their own mind. You can only do that by putting yourself near challenging stuff, and that’s what we try to do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.