Levine stands speaking before fellow legislators
Marc Levine, chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, addressing the State Assembly in 2016

Jewish lawmakers, CSU chancellor step in at SFSU

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Under prodding from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the California State University chancellor’s office says it will take a more active role in the often challenging plight of Jewish students at San Francisco State University.

The chancellor’s office has named a liaison to monitor the campus climate for Jewish students at SFSU, and CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White has committed to working with SFSU to create some sort of “statement of principles on intolerance,” state Assemblyman Marc Levine, chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, said on July 14.

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus, founded in 2014, includes members of the California Senate and Assembly; it now stands at 16 members, with eight from each legislative body. The group’s goal is to “be a Jewish voice for justice, equality and progress” and to “serve as a resource to, and advocate on behalf of, the professional, educational, social, political and cultural concerns of the Jewish community.”

Levine spoke with White by phone in May after a J. cover story about a long line of anti-Semitic and/or anti-Zionist incidents at San Francisco State, and one recent one: the prevention of Hillel from participating in a social action fair called “Know Your Rights” in February, an act allegedly perpetrated by fair organizers.

“I called Chancellor White to talk about the breakdown that had occurred on the SFSU campus, the breakdown in trust with the Jewish community and the Jewish students specifically,” Levine said. “We had a good conversation.”

The Jewish caucus “memorialized that conversation” by following up with a five-paragraph letter to White on May 31 that was written on Jewish caucus letterhead but undersigned by representatives from five other California ethnic or minority caucuses. The letter told the chancellor that “your immediate intervention is required,” adding that “SFSU must respond resolutely when administrators and students exclude, threaten or intimidate Jews because they are Jewish and/or Zionist.”

California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White (Photo/Courtesy CSU)
California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White (Photo/Courtesy CSU)

The letter also expressed appreciation for White being willing to take action — which he had expressed over the phone to Levine — namely, his “commitment to draft a statement of principles on intolerance, similar to the one [adopted] by UC Irvine [last year], and naming a liaison from your office to be responsible for monitoring campus climate for Jewish students at SFSU.”

That letter then led to a June 7 meeting at the Capitol in Sacramento involving White, SFSU President Leslie Wong and leaders of not only the Jewish caucus but five other California legislative caucuses representing the interests of Latinos, women, LGBT people, blacks, and Asians/Pacific islanders. That meeting was requested by White and Wong, Levine said.

At that meeting, White “committed to creating a summary of [CSU’s] position on inclusivity which will also reinforce our position against intolerance,” Michael Uhlenkamp, a public affairs director for the CSU chancellor’s office, said by email. “Additionally, SFSU has committed to instituting what they are referring to as a ‘principles of community’ statement for the campus.”

Uhlenkamp added that the chancellor also made a commitment to naming a liaison, but he could not confirm “who is specifically in this role.”

Levine, however, said the person chosen is Loren Blanchard, CSU’s executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. He formerly served as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Ollie Benn
S.F. Hillel director Ollie Benn

In addition, Ollie Benn, the executive director of San Francisco Hillel, will work as sort of a local liaison with boots on the ground in San Francisco, according to Levine. He will work locally with SFSU officials and be in regular communication with CSU officials in Long Beach, Levine added.

“We need to have people working on this that are immersed in the climate at SFSU on a daily basis,” Levine told J. “Jewish students need to be able to feel safe on campus, and it’s been anything but that. Anti-Semitic incidents and discriminations against Jews have made it very difficult.

“We wanted to make sure that the chancellor’s office was involved. They are the hierarchy of the Cal State University system, and [SFSU] president Wong is accountable to his bosses there, and at the board of trustees and in the chancellor’s office.

“It’s important that SFSU be held accountable and that they are actually seeing the problem. We all want this to work out, so we’re trying to set up a process to build trust and accountability, and the Jewish caucus will continue to monitor those who have made these commitments to make sure that occurs.”

Uhlenkamp noted that there have “been numerous follow-up conversations at the staff level” following the June 7 meeting. He wrote that discussion at the June 7 meeting “centered around the campus climate at SFSU, the commitment of both the [SFSU] campus and the [CSU] university to address concerns as well as potential resolutions to the issue.”

Levine said there was no timeline on forging a statement of principles on intolerance and SFSU’s adoption of such a document, though he didn’t necessarily agree with the suggestion that there’s no way SFSU could pull it off before classes begin on Aug. 23.

“Yes, that’s coming up fast, but we certainly want students to come to campus feeling welcome,” Levine said. “I don’t want to put a timeline on it; that’s something on Ollie’s end and for the university to figure out a way of doing that. But we will continue to monitor it. The president [Wong] has put out a statement already, and that’s a good sign.”

Wong smiling
S.F. State University President Les Wong

Indeed, on June 16, shortly after the June 7 meeting in Sacramento, Wong released a statement in which he wrote, “I condemn all forms of anti-Semitism.”

However, while he also wrote, “I urge you to join me in ensuring our Jewish students, faculty, staff and neighbors have the full support of our community, especially in these difficult times” and “I am committed to making SFSU a better, safer place for our Jewish community members,” his message failed to state that Zionists are welcome on campus.

He took a similar tack when interviewed for a May 5 article in J. Asked directly whether Zionists are welcome on his campus, Wong replied, “That’s one of those categorical statements I can’t get close to. 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.”

That story, which detailed recent and historical incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activity at SFSU, was part of the impetus for the S.F-based Jewish Community Relations Council, in coordination with several partners, for wanting the Jewish caucus to get involved and draft a letter, according to a JCRC spokesperson. JCRC worked in cooperation with San Francisco Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League and faculty from the SFSU Department of Jewish Studies, the spokesperson said.

In turn the Jewish caucus garnered support from other California legislative caucuses. The chairs of those five caucuses signed the letter, along with Jewish caucus chair Marc Levine, an Assembly member representing parts of Marin and Sonoma Counties, and vice chair Ben Allen, a state senator from Southern California.

Jessica Trubowitch, the JCRC staffer who was instrumental in organizing and encouraging the writing of the letter, said it was “extremely vital” to have the other caucuses undersign the letter.

“Having the other ethnic caucuses share in the response shows that this issue of anti-Semitism on campus is not just a Jewish issue,” said Trubowitch, the JCRC’s director of public policy and community building. “Discrimination affects all minority communities and we share in the responsibility to respond. The other ethnic caucuses are standing with our community in addressing anti-Semitism on campus just as we stand with their communities.”

SFSU has long been in the news for a variety of events and incidents on campus that have been deemed anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist or both. On June 19, a federal lawsuit was filed against SFSU president Wong, other school officials and the CSU board of trustees accusing the university of contributing to a campus climate that is hostile to Jewish students and those who express pro-Israel views.

Filed by the Lawfare Project on behalf of a group of current and former students and members of the local Jewish community, the lawsuit says that “SFSU and its administrators have knowingly fostered this discrimination and hostile environment, which has been marked by violent threats to the safety of Jewish students on campus.” It alleges that “Jewish students at SFSU have been so intimidated and ostracized that they are afraid to wear Stars of David or yarmulkes on campus.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.