signs says the name of the university with students passing by
San Francisco State University (Photo/file)

Investigation: SF Hillel ‘improperly excluded’ from student fair

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Updated 10 a.m. August 8 to include comments from SF Hillel director Ollie Benn

After five months of investigation, San Francisco State University officials have concluded that SF Hillel “was improperly excluded” from a campus civil rights information fair early this year.

An SFSU communications officer said in an Aug. 4 email to J. that the investigation found “San Francisco Hillel was improperly excluded from the “Know Your Rights” fair by the self-organized and self-appointed planning committee … The unfortunate decision by this group to exclude Hillel from the Fair represents an unacceptable breach of the University’s values, policies, and standards for inclusion and respect expected of all members of our University community.”

In an Aug. 7 email to J., S.F. Hillel executive director Ollie Benn said of the report, “The university found discrimination and retaliation against Hillel. Given this finding, the unanswered question is what the university will do to address what [SFSU President Les] Wong has himself described as ‘institutionalized anti-Semitism,’ rather than just the ‘campus climate’ generally.”

Concerned parties, including Hillel, were privately informed of the decision on July 21.

As detailed in a J. cover story on May 3, the dispute arose after Hillel was dropped from participating in “Know Your Rights,” an information fair held in February that was geared toward “vulnerable populations who may be feeling targeted in the new political climate,” according to the event web page, and which presented workshops on legal resources and immigrant rights, and tabling opportunities for student organizations.

Hillel had initially been invited to take part in the event, and staffers gladly accepted. Several days later, Hillel staffer Jason Steckler received an email: “Dear community organizer, thank you for your interest. We are at capacity.”

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

It came out much later that S.F. Hillel was deliberately barred because of “its demonstrated record of suppression of student rights, including advocacy for justice in Palestine,” according to fair organizer Saliem Shehadeh, as quoted in a blog at Palestine Legal. “In S.F. and across the country, Hillel International has attacked students and professors with unfounded accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism, and called for law enforcement to scrutinize our political speech.”

Palestine Legal is, according to its website, an independent legal organization “dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian Freedom.”

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

Speaking to J. in April, Benn said about the fair, “This was supposed to be a discussion of marginalized groups. So to be excluded as a marginalized group is doubly ironic.”

Hillel complained to the university administration, and an investigation was launched. The probe wrapped up last month, though its findings were not made public.

In its email to J., SFSU said that both complainants and respondents had 10 days to state their intention to appeal the findings, but that after that, the university would “determine all appropriate corrective actions.”

Though SFSU also declined to go into further detail, an anonymous blogger at Palestine Legal leaked details of the report, noting that SFSU found “no religious discrimination, [but] SFSU did find organizers of the Fair responsible for ‘retaliation’ and viewpoint discrimination.”

Palestine Legal attorney Liz Jackson, who represented the student organizers of the Know Your Rights Fair, said, “This is a politically motivated decision to punish and silence people who stand up for Palestinian rights… we will appeal this piece as far as we need to go.”

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.