Chalk writing at San Francisco State University, Feb. 23, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)
Chalk writing at San Francisco State University, Feb. 23, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)

Hillel students not impressed with SFSU president’s latest apology

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San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong this morning apologized to Jewish students and faculty in a campus-wide email that Hillel students say doesn’t go far enough to address their concerns about what they consider a hostile campus climate.

Calling his email “a public apology,” Wong wrote that he met yesterday afternoon with a group of Hillel students and, among other steps, agreed to issue a public apology.

Referring specifically to his interview last year with J. news editor Dan Pine, he wrote, “My comments about Zionists and whether or not they are welcomed at San Francisco State University caused a lot of anguish and deeply hurt feelings. I am responsible for those words and, after study and reflection, I have come to understand how flawed my comments were.

Wong smiling
S.F. State University President Les Wong

“Thus, I want to sincerely apologize for the hurt feelings and anguish my words have caused.  Let me be clear: Zionists are welcome on our campus.”

Not good enough, said the Hillel students in an email released late last night and signed by 13 of the 15 students present at the meeting.

Acknowledging that it took “humility” on behalf of the president to offer his apology, the students wrote that they “left the meeting disappointed and frustrated about the lack of concrete action steps” taken so far by the administration, as well as outlined during the meeting.

Concerned that it took Wong so long to ask for this meeting, the students charge that he nevertheless arrived “unprepared” and looked to them, “the victims of discrimination, for next steps, rather than providing tangible, concrete answers about what the administration would do to improve the conditions for the Jewish campus community.”

Some of the students were present at a similar meeting with Wong two years ago. At that time, “they listened to you express similar upset about students’ fears of publicly identifying as Jewish on campus,” the letter stated. “They listened to you then promise action. Some are now close to graduation and are dismayed that things are worse, not better.”

Tensions have been simmering between the SFSU administration and Jewish campus activists for years, as Jewish students and faculty charge that Wong has done little to address serious issues of discrimination and personal safety. The current crisis has been going on for about two years. From a shout-down of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on campus in April 2016 to the exclusion of a Hillel table from the student-run Know Your Rights Fair in February 2017 to what they describe as half-hearted steps by the administration to ameliorate the situation — including the creation and quick abandonment of two bodies meant to address anti-Semitism on campus — Hillel students and their faculty and community allies charge the SFSU administration, specifically Wong, with inaction and a blatant disregard of their concerns.

“For almost two years now, we have reached out, repeatedly, in efforts to partner with the administration in advance of what we perceive to be our common goal: a university that values and welcomes each and every one of its community members equally,” SFSU Jewish studies professors Marc Dollinger and Fred Astren wrote in a Feb. 6 open letter to UC Chancellor Timothy White published in J.

Noting that Wong “still refuses to meet us face-to-face,” the professors pleaded with White to intervene: “We turn now to you, Chancellor White. Step in. Let’s work together.”

In their statement yesterday, the Hillel students said they were concerned that Wong’s public apology was released without the appropriate context of the history of the past two years and would lead to “possibly significant backlash” against Jewish students “[a]t a time where we seek to build understanding with our campus peers.”

Indeed, Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, an associate professor in ethnic studies at SFSU, quickly posted on Facebook, referring to Wong’s “racist, Islamophobic and colonialist statement” and charging that it shows the administration is catering to “donor pressures and the Israeli lobby.”

The same day a letter from SFSU President Les Wong assuring students that Zionists are welcome on campus, chalk writing appeared around campus saying, "Zionists not welcome." (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)
Chalk writing appeared around SFSU Feb. 23 with the message “Zionists not welcome,” the same day that a letter from SFSU President Les Wong assured students that Zionists are welcome on campus.
(Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)

And on Friday afternoon, according to SF Hillel Director Ollie Benn, “Zionists not welcome” and other similar slogans “just appeared on SF State’s campus in the main quad this afternoon, apparently in reaction to Pres. Wong’s campus-wide email.”

A number of actions have taken place since J.’s cover story in May 2017.

A federal lawsuit was filed last June against 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. That lawsuit is still pending, and a second, similar lawsuit was filed earlier this month in California state court.

Also in June 2017, following prodding from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, Wong met in Sacramento with White, Jewish lawmakers from the caucus and representatives from five other ethnic caucuses. Following that meeting, the UC chancellor agreed to take a more active role at SFSU, including naming a liaison to monitor the campus climate for Jewish students and working with the university to create a statement of principles on intolerance.

The liaison attended two meetings of the Task Force on Campus Climate, which disbanded after several months. Chancellor White’s office issued the CSU Commitment to Inclusive Excellence in a memorandum sent to CSU presidents, provosts, vice presidents for student affairs and vice chancellors on Jan. 29.

This article was updated to reflect new information at 3:16 p.m. Feb. 23.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].