a headshot image of wong is superimposed over an entrance to campus
San Francisco State University campus; S.F. State President Les Wong

S.F. State’s Jewish problem: faculty and local leaders decry worsening climate

San Francisco State University has had a problematic reputation for decades in certain Jewish circles. The campus has been considered unfriendly to Zionism, and — at times — to Jewish life in general.

Now, however, Jewish faculty and community leaders say the problem has grown worse. And they hold the university responsible, accusing the SFSU administration of unequal treatment, silence and delay in protecting the safety and free speech rights of Jewish students.

The critics also contend that anti-Zionist animus over the last year has at times crossed the line into anti-Jewish acts and expression, and that the administration has been tepid in response. In an April 12 email to SFSU President Leslie Wong, members of San Francisco Hillel went so far as to accuse the university of “institutional anti-Semitism.”

Wong smiling
S.F. State University President Leslie Wong

Some lay the blame directly at Wong’s feet. They say bias against and ostracizing of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus has intensified during Wong’s tenure, which began in 2012.

Wong and other SFSU officials deny those accusations, saying they take the community’s concerns seriously.

“I am concerned about our Jewish students,” Wong told J. in an interview in his office. “I do worry about anything that would convey any attempt to silence anyone. Not only is the campus tense in terms of anti-Semitism, it’s tense around a lot of ‘isms’ on campus. I wouldn’t pick anti-Semitism as saying it’s our only problem, but I think it is a significant issue we are trying to confront.”

The critics, however, insist that Wong has failed to provide leadership.

A watershed moment occurred on April 6, 2016, when anti-Israel protesters led by the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) shouted down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a Hillel-sponsored appearance, chanting through megaphones “Get the f— off our campus.” Police and administration officials on the scene issued verbal warnings to protesters, which were ignored; they did nothing else to intervene, allowing the disruption to continue unabated.

Barkat sits huddled in a circle speaking with other students
Protesters on the other side of the room are so loud that Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, speaking at San Francisco State University on April 6, 2016, is forced to huddle up with his audience so they can hear him. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Wong, 67, publicly decried the incident and ordered an independent investigation, whose findings were published last August. The report chided SFSU student affairs for not consulting with Hillel and others in advance, and for allowing similar disruptions in the past “without ramifications for the offenders.”

But no protester faced disciplinary action.

Jewish voices on campus and off — including this publication — spoke out against the administration’s perceived inaction. In an effort to repair the damage, Wong met a half-dozen times with prominent figures from SFSU’s Jewish studies department and the broader Jewish community.

J. has acquired dozens of documents dating from April 2016 to April 2017, including correspondence between Wong and Hillel students, memos, emails, agendas and unofficial minutes of meetings.

The documents suggest that Wong, though sympathetic to Jewish concerns, resented the amount of time they took up, even as Jewish leaders pressed him to take more decisive action in protecting Jewish students and to publicly denounce what they see as a de facto policy of anti-normalization of Zionism on campus — which, they say, prevents positive views of Israel or Zionism from being freely expressed.

S.F. State University Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger
S.F. State University Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger

“We have been trying to get the president of the university to take a clear and public stand that anti-normalization has no place on campus,” said SFSU Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger. “It’s in fact against the very mission of the university. If the approach is not to talk to someone with whom you have a political disagreement, then we’re not a university.”

Of anti-normalization, whose proponents refuse to acknowledge or “normalize” the State of Israel or Zionism, Wong said, “I am the first to say it is an issue,” adding, “I told [Dollinger] I need to read more about this anti-normalization so I can ask about the limits of this.”

Jewish concerns have been marginalized at S.F. State, critics charge. As an example, Dollinger and his colleagues point to a Feb. 28 information fair on human rights called “Know Your Rights.” They claim event organizers surreptitiously changed the registration cut-off date in order to exclude Hillel from participating. The matter is currently under investigation by the university.

Luoluo Hong
S.F. State University V.P. of Student Affairs Luoluo Hong

“Many of us feel a tremendous sense of urgency,” said Luoluo Hong, SFSU vice president of student affairs. “I feel personally responsible when we have students who express distress or concern about campus climate. There are definitely Jewish students who have expressed stress.”

Critics also slam the slow progress on procedural changes mandated after the 2016 shout-down of Barkat; they say it’s taking too long to implement those changes.

Wong disagrees. “I don’t know if it’s taking so long,” he said. “We’ve been pretty rigorous about looking at the policy and asking ourselves where did it come up short, where does it need to be updated and how does it comply with [California State University] system rules. We’ve initiated staff training, we have an emerging leaders program. We’re not done.”

Some training has indeed taken place for SFSU personnel and students in how to handle future protests, including webinars for police and administrative staff, and protest-response training for university police patrol teams.

However, as part of his response to the Barkat incident, Wong pledged last summer to create two new posts: a director of human relations and of equity programs. So far, neither position has been filled.

Dollinger said that his “heart sank” at a March 3 meeting for faculty and administrators to discuss progress in the year since the Barkat incident. As he later wrote to Hong, “Eleven months after the Mayor of Jerusalem’s shout down, the independent investigator’s scathing report and multiple appeals from concerned Jewish leadership, on campus and off, the administration had little new to report.”

Said longtime Jewish studies department chair Fred Astren, “What’s at stake here is the very character of this campus community. Is this a campus where we can identify differences and seek connection, or is this a campus where only difference matters?”

Pro-Israel and anti-Israel forces have been fighting it out in SFSU’s public spaces for decades.

In 2000, a pro-Israel student rally on Malcolm X Plaza was met by GUPS demonstrators chanting “Israel out of Palestine.” Some Jewish students were spat on.

In 2002, SFSU pulled pages from GUPS’ university-sanctioned website after several articles denying the Holocaust were posted. The same year, a solemn Yom HaShoah commemoration on campus was disrupted by scores of anti-Israel protesters, with one speaker decrying “Zionist power” and urging Palestinian suicide bombers to “Go, honey, go!”

GUPS did not respond to several email requests for an interview.

“S.F. State is a very active, vibrant campus in terms of the ideas being expressed,” said Seth Brysk, the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific region director. “In most instances the Jewish students and organizations on campus felt that as long as there was fair treatment, they would be happy to participate in that robust discussion of ideas, and that’s how universities should work.”

Previous administrations, like Wong’s, have struggled to balance free speech rights with student safety. Wong has reached out, traveling to Israel on a 2013 Jewish Community Relations Council fact-finding trip and attending a Passover seder hosted by Hillel. What’s different now, according to critics, is the administration’s tolerance of anti-normalization.

They cite the president’s October 2015 speech to SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas program (AMED), where Wong praised the student leadership of GUPS, which promotes anti-normalization, saying they “have been an inspiration for me” and that he has had to “tell other community groups to mind their own business… GUPS is the very purpose of this great university.”

This speech took place less than two years after GUPS’ then-president, Mohammad Hammad, posted a photo of himself brandishing a knife on social media, saying in the caption that he wanted to use it to stab Israeli soldiers. Hammad also targeted a female Israeli soldier on her Facebook page, commenting, “The only ‘peace’ I’m interested in is the head of this [expletive] scum on a plate, as well as the heads of all others like her, and all others who support the IDF,” according to an L.A. Jewish Journal report.

in the picture, he holds up a knife close to his face
Screenshot of Mohammad Hammad’s post on Tumblr threatening Israeli soldiers, which has since been deleted

Though Hammad was not enrolled at SFSU at the time the knife photo became widely seen, he was later readmitted to the university, graduating in 2016 with a degree in international relations.

Wong defended his AMED speech in the interview with J., saying of GUPS, “I have been very clear that when students take up an issue and work within the system and achieve goals, I have tremendous respect for them.” As for which “other community groups” he was referring to in the speech, he said he “can’t remember.”

As to how Hammad could have been readmitted despite having made such heinous threats, Wong said Hammad underwent a student disciplinary process after returning to campus.

Dollinger and Astren of the Jewish studies department say they were never notified about Hammad’s readmission and were appalled by the decision.

Dollinger surely would have spoken up, as he has done throughout his 15 years at the university whenever he perceived bias directed at Jewish students. In the aftermath of the 2016 Barkat incident, he wrote to Wong, “I believe I have a moral responsibility to call out everything I can possibly see.”

Since then, he has been increasingly critical of the university president.

“Dr. Wong needs to articulate the clear vision of the role of the university,” Dollinger said. “We are a politicized campus generally. We are historically conflicted on Israel and Palestine. So how do Zionists and anti-Zionists interact at San Francisco State? How does that fit into the university’s mission? The president gets the bully pulpit.”

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

After the Barkat protest, Wong wrote in a letter addressed to the S.F. State community, “While there is a right to dissent, we must also uphold the right to speak and to learn.” Dollinger claims that letter was sent to a limited audience of mostly Jewish community members, and said it was buried on Wong’s website. Elizabeth Smith, SFSU’s associate vice president for marketing and strategic communications, denies this, saying the letter was emailed to the entire 30,000-member campus community.

In a May 2016 op-ed in J., written a month after the incident, Wong declared that, “the idea of silencing and preventing the marketplace of ideas is sad and disturbing.”

In the months after, he went on to meet several times with Jewish leaders, including Dollinger, Astren, Brysk, former JCRC executive director Rabbi Doug Kahn and his successor, Abby Porth, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation CEO Danny Grossman, San Francisco Hillel executive director Ollie Benn, and Tracy Turoff, vice president of Hillel International.

According to Dollinger’s minutes from a meeting on June 3, 2016, Wong said Hillel and Jewish groups had received more of his time than any other group, creating a perception that he favored Jewish students. According to the minutes, Wong said he would “not play favorites” and blamed Hillel in part for the Barkat incident, “claiming somehow,” Dollinger commented in the minutes, “that the university’s decision to proceed under short notice rested on Hillel’s shoulders.” Hillel did sponsor the 2016 Barkat appearance

Ollie Benn
S.F. Hillel director Ollie Benn

Benn responded, according to the minutes, saying he was not aware of any other student group that has faced the same potentially systemic instances of harassment and discrimination.

Dollinger later told J., “No one has ever asked for Jewish students to be treated differently, only for the safety and protection all students have.”

Wong told J. this week that he recalled the conversation, saying he “probably screwed that up.” He said he meant something very different. “I was hoping to convey that, if it was true I didn’t care, then why am I spending so much time on [this issue]?”

After the release of the independent report last August, Wong touted a five-point, incremental protocol for engaging with unruly protesters, one that starts with verbal warnings and ends with possible arrest. Luoluo Hong said the protocol is not new, and that it had been tested already this year and proven effective. It has not yet been tested, however, in a confrontation between pro-Israel and anti-Israel factions on campus.

Critics of the president claim he maintains a double standard when it comes to making public statements.

On Oct. 17, 2016, posters branding SFSU associate professor of ethnic studies and GUPS faculty adviser Rabab Abdulhadi as a collaborator with terrorists were plastered throughout the campus. Placed by the anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center, the posters drew immediate condemnation from all quarters, including from the Jewish studies department and Hillel.

Wong issued a statement that same day, calling the posters “an attack on our whole campus community” and saying, “a line has been crossed.”

No one questioned the propriety of Wong’s swift response. But when Hillel reportedly was excluded from the human rights fair four months later, the SFSU administration issued an internal alert about the incident to academic department chairs but made no public statements.

In late January, S.F. Hillel Israel engagement associate Jason Steckler received an unexpected email.

It was an invitation from the campus organizers of “Know Your Rights,” an information fair geared toward “vulnerable populations who may be feeling targeted in the new political climate,” according to the event web page.

The fair would feature a speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union, workshops on legal resources and immigrant rights, and tabling opportunities for student organizations. Steckler was pleased Hillel had been invited, given that GUPS was one of the organizers.

He wrote back, saying Hillel wanted in.

“It sounded like we were good to go,” Steckler recalled. “They were excited to have us, and wanted a more formal email confirmation.”

In a subsequent phone call with an organizer, Steckler was asked about Hillel’s position on the offensive anti-Muslim posters that had been put up in the fall. Responding that Hillel had condemned the posters, Steckler assumed he had passed the litmus test. “We’d love to have you participate,” Steckler remembers the organizer saying.

But six days later, he received an email: “Dear community organizer, thank you for your interest. We are at capacity.”

Apparently, Hillel had signed up too late to be included in the fair. Or so Steckler thought.

On the day of the event, groups such as GUPS and Jewish Voice for Peace had tables set up, topped with anti-Zionist literature. Steckler said an employee of an institute within the College of Ethnic Studies, which co-sponsored the event, approached him and asked whether Hillel wanted a table; there was plenty of room, the employee said.

Later, according to Steckler, another SFSU employee with inside knowledge informed Hillel that days earlier, the event’s organizing committee, with S.F. State personnel looking on, had quietly moved the goal posts, arbitrarily cutting off registration for the express purpose of excluding Hillel.

What’s at stake here is the very character of this campus community.

The fair’s web page listed the event’s other co-sponsors, among them official university entities such as the S.F. State California Faculty Association and the Dream Resource Center.

“Around that table were not only students but members of faculty, and an administrator,” said Dollinger, who also serves as Hillel’s faculty adviser. “What happened there was not about Jews or Hillel but the very purpose of this university.”

After receiving a letter of complaint from Hillel the day after the fair, Hong launched an investigation, which could take up to 90 days to complete. Now underway, the investigation may last into summer.

Hong would not comment on specifics, but did tell J., “If we are to learn affirmatively that an incident occurred in which people were excluded from participating fully in activities of the university because of their identity, that would be extremely concerning, and would be dealt with seriously.”

In a March 7 letter to Hong, Dollinger wrote, “Until such time as this administration makes a clear and public statement denouncing this [Know Your Rights] action, it remains, in my estimation, officially sanctioned by the University.”

Whatever the results of the investigation, Benn and students affiliated with Hillel consider the incident not an outlier but the logical endpoint of a poisonous campus atmosphere. “This was supposed to be a discussion of marginalized groups,” Benn said about the fair. “So to be excluded as a marginalized group is doubly ironic.”

Then, at the end of March, the Jewish community learned at the 11th hour that Mayor Barkat had accepted an invitation — extended by Wong nearly a year before — to return to the campus. With a short window to make arrangements Wong asked Barkat if he could come on a later date, but was told no. Word went out about the mayor’s visit just days before it was scheduled; emails flew and hurried phone calls were made, as Jewish students and community leaders tried to get ahead of what they feared could be another debacle.

On April 5, the day before his scheduled appearance, Barkat pulled out, citing lack of publicity and preparation by the university.

In an open letter, Barkat wrote that the university “did not offer the lecture that would provide the kind of healing needed after the assault on free speech last year. By failing to provide the necessary public forum and properly publicize my lecture, the University has contributed to the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state.”

Wong sees his invite of Barkat as an example of his willingness to bring controversial speakers and ideas to S.F. State. In his April 7, 2016, letter to the S.F. State community, he declared his campus “a welcoming environment for all.”

However, when asked directly this week whether Zionists are welcome on his campus, he hedged.

“That’s one of those categorical statements I can’t get close to,” he told J. “I take each on their own merits. Am I comfortable opening up the gates to everyone? Gosh, of course not. I’m not the kind of guy who gets into absolutes like that.”

As long as Wong fails to take a forceful stand condemning anti-normalization, critics say, the campus climate will continue to deteriorate.

Hillel director Benn said Jewish students are “excluded from campus events that have nothing to do with Israel, purely on the basis that they associate with Hillel, [creating] an atmosphere in which Jewish students are getting marginalized from full participation in campus life.”

Hillel students, he said, have “given up trying to arrange coexistence or dialogue events because many cultural and ethnic student groups refuse to speak to them.”

she's holding a sign that says "what does peace and coexistence mean to you?"
S.F. Hillel student president Sasha Presley

Sasha Presley, 20, is a dance major at SFSU and S.F. Hillel’s student president. Though she considers her school a place that “challenges you and empowers you,” she co-signed an April 12 letter to Wong declaring her university suffers from “institutional anti-Semitism.”

“Students have felt unsafe,” Presley told J., “and the administration has done nothing to counter this. We had one statement from President Wong supporting us, and since then he has claimed none of these things are presidential issues.”

The Hillel letter, which was part of a back-and-forth with Wong, also pointed out that the invitation to Barkat, which was to have taken place during Palestinian Awareness Week, hurt Hillel students’ relationship with their Muslim peers. “Because of the way you recklessly handled this event, Palestinian groups were angered,” the Hillel students wrote, “ and made very troubling statements, including a call to ‘End ties with fascists, racists and Zionists on SFSU campus.’”

Presley and other Hillel members also wrote, “Participation in Jewish life at S.F. State has now become increasingly politicized,” adding that because of the hostile climate “we are forced to pick sides and hide who we are.”

The ADL’s Brysk understands why Presley and her colleagues used such provocative language in describing their grievances.

“There are ways in which Jewish students do not feel they have equal access to resources and opportunities, or the ability to express themselves on the campus. It finds expression in subtle, nuanced ways,” he said.

“We’re not talking about anti-Semitism in the sense of decades gone by, where there is a quota of Jewish student admitted. But if you talk about space on campus, use of university resources, responsiveness to community concerns, there certainly seems to be a number of episodes where Jewish students are not receiving the same kind of treatment, their concerns not addressed in as timely a manner as others.”

No one has ever asked for Jewish students to be treated differently, only for the safety and protection all students have.

Presley told J. that, for her, the clearest indicator of institutional anti-Semitism is “lack of response to our group specifically. Every time, we have to beg [Wong] to acknowledge that something happened to Hillel students.”

She does feel a measure of understanding for GUPS students, who “have every right to feel mad. They feel we support their oppressors by calling ourselves Zionists,” she said. Empathy works two ways, however, she pointed out. “GUPS’ path is called anti-normalization. If there is something they don’t like, they refuse to acknowledge it exists. They won’t interact with us. We want dialogue, and that can’t happen if people challenge our existence.”

Wong said he has had some “tough conversations” with GUPS students. He also thinks all students need to “get tougher.”

“Where’s the resilience?” he asked rhetorically. “I think part of education is preparing your brain, so you own it yourself. To be able to stand up with that voice to power, to be able to say ‘I understand what you’re saying but I think you’re flat-out wrong,’ it makes for a better person.”

At SFSU, robust free speech is a hallmark, protest is sacred and social justice matters deeply. Even hate speech is protected speech under the Constitution. So the conundrum for university officials remains: Where do the First Amendment rights of one group end, and another’s begin?

“Issues of campus climate are of concern,” Hong said. “My entire team, along with the president’s cabinet, talk about this often. It’s a major reason why we are advancing aggressively to engaging more purposeful efforts to address campus climate.”

Hong pushes back against criticism that the administration has moved too slowly to make changes in the wake of the first Barkat incident. She said it takes time to do it right.

“We don’t want to rush,” she said of finding a director of human relations. “We’re going to search until we find the right person.”

She also stressed the importance of listening to students, whoever they are. “Our students are important sources of information for us,” Hong added. “If they don’t feel safe, it is incumbent upon us to hear them.”

When Jewish students and guests are intimidated and Hillel is discriminated against, this administration fails to speak out.

As president, Wong expects to draw criticism. He commends the Hillel students for trying “not only to keep me honest, but they’ve been incredibly supportive. I’m starting to understand better the deep connection to [Israel] as well as anti-Semitism throughout the United States and our campus. But I hope they understand that I’m really trying to set the occasion for students to learn more and be effective thinkers.”

Despite unhappiness with Wong’s leadership, Presley is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“If he is ready and willing to hear us out in a more personal forum and makes good on his promise to work with us, I think that will be a step up,” she said. “I think it’s possible, because he’s not a bad guy.”

Meanwhile, key Jewish community organizations are keeping S.F. State on their radar.

The ADL has written to the CSU chancellor, asking him to look into a pattern of issues of concern to Jewish students at S.F. State.

Federation CEO Grossman, who took part in one of the group meetings, acknowledges longstanding issues with SFSU, saying he is “greatly concerned by what we see as a pattern of marginalization of Jewish students who are Zionists, and we have been working with the administration.”

Abby Porth smiling
San Francisco JCRC executive director Abby Porth

Said JCRC executive director Porth, who has worked with Wong behind the scenes for years, “Campuses across the nation experience uncivil discourse and anti-Semitism. But what sets S.F. State apart is its administration’s unwillingness to state for its entire campus community that it will not tolerate these acts.

“When Jewish students and guests are intimidated and Hillel is discriminated against, this administration fails to speak out. More than that, it has celebrated the perpetrators while privately assuring our Jewish community that it will look into these incidents,” she said.

“In so doing, this administration is, at best, complicit in the marginalization of Jewish students, and, at worst, responsible for it.”

Staff writer Max A. Cherney contributed to this report.

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.