a big glass building with students walking through a lawn in front
J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University. (Photo/Wikimedia-Webbi1987)

Jewish leaders react to settlement of lawsuit alleging anti-Semitism at S.F. State

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

Local Jewish leaders connected to San Francisco State University are applauding the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit filed by two Jewish students against the university and the California State University board of trustees.

The settlement was announced on March 20 shortly before the case was set to go to trial.

According to a press release from the Lawfare Project, which served as co-counsel to the plaintiffs, S.F. State agreed to several ameliorative steps as part of the settlement, including issuing a public statement that the university understands that “for many Jews, Zionism is an important part of their identity.”

In addition, S.F. State will create a new position, coordinator of Jewish student life, as part of its Division of Equity & Community Inclusion, and allocate $200,000 to support “educational efforts to promote viewpoint diversity (including but not limited to pro-Israel and Zionist viewpoints).”

Moreover, the school will order independent investigations of all religious discrimination complaints, as well as conduct an external review of campus procedures related to enforcement of anti-discrimination policies and student code of conduct.

“I was very pleased with the settlement,” said SFSU Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger. “We must engage difference. We need students who, let’s say, come from a Jewish background and have not been educated or exposed to Palestinian perspectives to be able to learn and grow. We need students from Palestinian and all other backgrounds who have not been exposed to Jews and Zionism to have an opportunity to learn and grow from that. The job of the university is to bring those different groups together. I take the settlement as a step forward.”

Ollie Benn, executive director of S.F. Hillel, called the settlement “a positive reflection on the efforts of many organizations that used different and complementary strategies to bring needed change for Jewish students at S.F. State. This absolutely includes the lawsuit by two brave students with the Lawfare Project.”

Benn also credited behind-the-scenes work by the Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish studies professors at the university and his own Hillel as helping to lay the groundwork for the settlement.

The settlement follows several years of litigation. The most recent suit, filed in California Superior Court in February 2018, focused on events surrounding the “Know Your Rights” fair, held on campus in 2017. San Francisco Hillel was blocked from participating in the event after initially being invited to participate. The lawsuit claimed discrimination and said the “decision to exclude Hillel from the event was made, and then sanctioned, by high-ranking university officials.”

A university investigation later concurred that Hillel had been discriminated against. The suit cited “total lack of follow-up from [SFSU President Les Wong] or other university officials” as evidence of systematic discrimination. The lawsuit also accused the CSU system and Chancellor Timothy White of inaction “while the campus climate for Jews in fact deteriorated.”

A separate but similar suit filed in U.S. District Court was formally dismissed in November 2018. Judge William Orrick said at a hearing last summer that the suit failed to show “deliberate indifference” on the part of SFSU or significant injury to the students.

For its part, the university issued a statement on March 20 that read: “Today’s settlement… brings an end to what has been a very emotional and challenging issue for all parties involved… [It] allows SF State to reiterate its commitment to equity and inclusion for all — including those who are Jewish — and reaffirms the values of free expression and diversity of viewpoints that are so critical on a university campus.”

Not everyone was pleased about the news. The day after the settlement was announced, a group of student protesters gathered outside the university at the corner of 19th and Holloway avenues. According to the student newspaper Golden Gate Express, some protesters chanted “From Palestine to Mexico, these border walls have got to go.” After an hour, police dispersed the crowd.

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.