entrance to a large modern building
Cesar Chavez Student Center at San Francsico State University (Photo/Wikimedia-Briantrejo CC BY-SA 3.0)

S.F. State ‘excommunicates’ Jewish students and pro-Israel speakers

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Last April at San Francisco State University, anti-Israel protesters connected with the General Union of Palestine Students to disrupt a public lecture on campus by Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, preventing him from speaking. Protesters yelled at the Jewish students that they should “get the f— off our campus.”

An administrator at the 2016 event permitted the disruption to continue. Campus security stood by, unclear on their responsibilities. Subsequently, after months of soul-searching and an officially sponsored critical outside investigation, President Leslie Wong publicly took responsibility for what happened, though there is no evidence that any protester was disciplined. He promised to oversee reforms. He also wrote a public letter describing the event as a teachable moment. He promised that he would make all students feel welcome and supported.

A year later, President Wong was supposed to host Mayor Barkat at San Francisco State for a do-over, but the plan and arrangements for the April 6 event were so pitifully poor that Barkat announced a day before that he would not appear and spoke instead in downtown San Francisco. The university had failed to provide the necessary public forum or publicity for the lecture, scheduling it on campus in a limiting way. Doing this, in Barkat’s opinion, had “contributed to the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state” on campus.

“The university has demonstrated it will protect the rights of anti-Israel students to drown out diverse voices through violent incitement,” said Barkat, “while they will not protect the rights of the students to engage in open, robust dialogue.”

It is time to blow the whistle on S.F. State. Despite the rhetorical patina of reform, the administration — by acts of omission and commission — has fostered an environment where a student group, with its anti-normalization stance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its refusal to permit open dialogue, determines what is to be heard or not on campus.

Universities are supposed to be open environments for free inquiry and robust debate. But not San Francisco State, an academic island of ideological conformity, overseen by a timid administration.

But there is more. The university has effectively excommunicated Jewish students from the campus community. They are treated as outsiders to be excluded and shunned. In February, San Francisco Hillel was disinvited from a campus event called “Know Your Rights Fair,” aimed to help students prepare for issues arising in the current national political climate — a blatant act of marginalization and exclusion. And how are these concerns addressed? They are not.

A letter of concern from Jewish and Hillel students on April 3, after the exclusion from the fair, apprised President Wong that “there are serious problems affecting Jewish students here.” The students asked why he hadn’t spoken out about the climate and said they did not understand why the Barkat event would be arranged to “basically take place in secret,” without being publicized on S.F. State websites or by emails.

“There is a real problem on campus, where unpopular views are shouted down. Jewish students are excluded from participating in campus events …. [and] there is a normalization of anti-normalization,” the students wrote. They wanted to know why there was not more directed presidential intervention to affect the climate.

At meetings with concerned faculty to discuss the situation, the president refused to acknowledge the problem, to speak out openly about the still-in-progress campus rules, or to embrace the responsibility to see to it that the university is indeed a place where students and invited guests of divergent views and backgrounds can speak and be heard. The president has even opined that these are political issues and that they are taking too much of his time.

The quality of Jewish life on the campus of S.F. State is being radically degraded. The campus is bereft of moral leadership. Action, not platitudes, is needed.

Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

Kenneth Waltzer is the former executive director of the Academic Engagement Network.

Mark Yudof
Mark G. Yudof

Mark G. Yudof is the chair of the national advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network. He was president of the University of California from 2008 to 2013.