Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (center) demonstrate against a Lawfare Project lawsuit against SFSU in November 2017. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (center, wearing dark glasses) demonstrates against a lawsuit against SFSU in November 2017. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Lawsuit renews allegations of systematic anti-Semitism at S.F. State

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Attorneys representing two Jewish students at San Francisco State University last week filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging it discriminates against Jewish students in violation of their civil rights.

The complaint was filed Feb. 1 in Superior Court of California for the County of San Francisco. Based on California law, it brings a civil rights claim against SFSU and the board of trustees of California State University. The two plaintiffs are Charles Volk and Liam Kern, both current S.F. State students.

This state complaint follows a June 2017 lawsuit, filed in federal court against 13 of the university’s professors and administrators, as well as the university itself and the board of trustees. The federal suit is still moving forward, according to lawyers for the Lawfare Project, which serves as co-counsel to the plaintiffs in both suits.

Explaining why this second suit was brought, and in state rather than federal court, attorney Seth Weisburst of Winston & Strawn said by email, “The Board of Trustees of California State University and San Francisco State University are immune from constitutional lawsuits in Federal court, but not in State court. This is why we brought an additional lawsuit in State Court, which is designed to hold the University directly accountable for the systematic violations of the plaintiffs’ civil rights. We will continue to pursue the state and federal lawsuits in parallel to advance justice for our clients.” The parties “are awaiting the Court’s order” regarding the initial lawsuit, and if that complaint is dismissed, Weisburst added, “the Court has indicated that Plaintiffs will be granted the opportunity to amend the complaint, which plaintiffs will do expeditiously so that the federal case may proceed.”

Winston and Strawn is also co-counsel to the plaintiffs.

The state suit focuses on events surrounding the Know Your Rights fair, held on campus a year ago. S.F. Hillel was blocked from participating in the event after initially being invited to participate. The lawsuit claims this was an act of discrimination, and that the “decision to exclude Hillel from the event was made, and then sanctioned by high-ranking university officials.”

Professor Rahab Abdulhadi, who serves as faculty adviser to the General Union of Palestine Students (co-organizer of the Know Your Fights fair) is quoted in the suit as having later told the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, “The organizers [of the fair] refused to allow a member of a privileged white group [Hillel] whose members feel entitled to be represented everywhere and anywhere they deem the event to be of interest irrespective of the event’s goals.”

A university investigation later found that Hillel had indeed been discriminated against, but no punitive action has been taken. The suit cites “total lack of follow up from [SFSU President Les Wong] or other university officials,” as evidence of systematic discrimination. It also accuses the California State University system and Chancellor Timothy White of inaction “while the campus climate for Jews in fact deteriorated.”

Invoking California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which forbids denial of full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services from public institutions such as state universities, the Feb. 1 suit demands compensatory damages from the defendants and the granting of temporary and permanent injunctions against the defendants to ensure “Plaintiff’s rights.”

“We will hold the university accountable to the full extent of federal and state law,” said Amanda Berman, director of legal affairs at the Lawfare Project. “It is time for profound institutional change. Since the administration and the CSU Board of Trustees have been entirely unwilling to pursue such a goal, Jewish victims of SFSU’s discriminatory conduct have been left with no choice but to ask the court to compel it.”

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.