Barkat sits huddled in a circle speaking with other students
Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat speaking at San Francisco State University on April 6, 2016 (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

S.F. Hillel director: SFSU must reject intolerance against Jewish students

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At San Francisco State, we face two competing realities.

On the one hand, Jewish students, supported by San Francisco Hillel, create vibrant Jewish life on a daily basis. Hundreds of students enjoyed our recent Jewish Culture Week, where we recognized and celebrated the contributions of local Jews, LGBTQA Jews and Jews of color to the Jewish diaspora. Students recently completed a racial justice mission to Brooklyn over spring break, are performing service learning projects in San Francisco, and will shortly depart on Birthright Israel trips. As many as 90 students attend our regular Shabbats at Hillel. We have a wonderful, diverse community and have won national awards for our efforts.

But on the other hand, S.F. State keeps the organized Jewish campus community at arm’s-length, excludes our students from participating in campus events, allows speakers we invite to be shouted down and refuses to publicly stand against intolerance when it’s directed at the Jewish community.

This is a critical time for S.F. State. It is attempting to transition from a commuter campus to an increasingly residential, full-service university. Its campus master plan states that its first two core values are “Equity and Social Justice” and “Community Engagement.” Because we think the university is committed to those goals, we offer ways to ensure that Jewish students are part of that inclusive vision.

First, the university must acknowledge the problem. Large systems do not effectively change without their leadership using language giving recognition to wrongs.

In the 1990s, an S.F. State commission found that Jewish students had experienced “bigotry, stereotyping, intolerance and insensitivity” from institutions across campus and that anti-Israel activity had “repeatedly” crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, events of the past year follow that historic pattern. The university cannot change without first taking the healing step of recognizing that systemic problems have re-emerged.

Second, the university must make a strong statement rejecting systemic intolerance against Jews. The recent “Know Your Rights Fair” debacle should have played out quite differently. Students will always push the envelope, and sometimes make wrongful or even malicious decisions. But once the Palestinian student group decided to shut Hillel out of the event (which, ironically, was to discuss the marginalization of domestic minorities), the organizing committee, composed of sponsoring students, faculty and administration, should have stepped in and rejected this move.

As extensive reporting now makes clear, this is part of a troubling pattern at S.F. State. We are sure a university as committed to equality as S.F. State will no longer allow the abrogation of Jewish students’ rights to speak, listen and participate in campus life. A strong public statement rejecting systemic intolerance against Jews should not be difficult to adopt: In March 2016, the regents of the University of California unanimously passed a statement of Principles Against Intolerance; UC Irvine recently adapted and implemented those principles for its own campus; and CSU, Long Beach has committed to becoming a model of “Inclusive Excellence.”

S.F. State should follow suit. It must reject the festering culture of “anti-normalization,” instead affirming that the core values of a university include respectful debate and dialogue, and the ability to hear the opinions of others.

Third, S.F. State must better integrate Hillel into the fabric of university life. Across the country, Hillels have entered into partnerships with their universities on everything from career services to dialogue groups to housing issues to social justice causes to interfaith prayer to mental health training. At the University of San Francisco, our Hillel staff is fully integrated into campus life. We recently co-led with the university a mountain meditation retreat for 30 students. We are exploring with the admissions office how to better communicate to prospective students that USF (a Jesuit school) is a welcoming campus. At UC Hastings, we are even working with the school on collaborative fundraising opportunities.

To this point, S.F. State has excluded us even on commonsense issues of safety. Our repeated requests to add Hillel staff to the university’s emergency alert system for active shooters and similar threats have been denied because we are considered an “outside entity,” even though we regularly have 40 to 60 students in the Hillel house.

Most universities recognize and embrace the value that Hillel can add to their campus life. We are confident that S.F. State will not only do the right thing, by standing up to the voices that wrongly marginalize Jewish students on campus, but will invite Hillel to be part of the solution on campus.

Psychologically, physically and logistically integrating Hillel into campus life will send a powerful message of leadership that S.F. State truly intends to create an inclusive and strong community for every student.

Ollie Benn
Ollie Benn

Ollie Benn is executive director of San Francisco Hillel.