Vicious antisemitic attacks against Jewish students on campus are certainly nothing new, but one particular incident led to a potential tool that could both help protect Jewish students and offer acknowledgment of their Zionist identity.
Let's take a look back.
In 2016, San Francisco State University was rated 10th on The Algemeiner's List of the US and Canada’s Worst Campuses for Jewish Students, based on the ongoing disruption of activities and deliberate intimidation of the students. One of the incidents that earned SFSU their inclusion on The Algemeiner's list was their response to an appearance by the then-Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat when he came to speak. Anti-Israel students disrupted the speech.
But it was more than just a disruption.
And it resulted not only being included on a list -- it led to a lawsuit.
According to a Lawfare Project press release, the disruption in 2016 demonstrated that the administration of San Francisco State University itself was part of the problem:
The lawsuit was triggered following the alleged complicity of senior university administrators and police officers in the disruption of an April, 2016, speech by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. At that event organized by SF Hillel, Jewish students and audience members were subjected to genocidal and offensive chants and expletives by a raging mob that used bullhorns to intimidate and drown out the Mayor’s speech and physically threaten and intimidate members of the mostly-Jewish audience. At the same time, campus police – including the chief – stood by, on order from senior university administrators who instructed the police to “stand down” despite direct and implicit threats and violations of university codes governing campus conduct.
The civil rights lawsuit was brought by The Lawfare Project the following year against then-president Leslie Wong along with several other university officials. The lawsuit alleged that the situation had deteriorated to the point that “Jews are often afraid to wear Stars of David or yarmulkes on campus, and regularly text their friends to describe potential safety issues and suggest alternate, often circuitous, routes to campus destinations.”
As part of the settlement, SFSU agreed to the following:
- Public statement: Issue a statement affirming that "it understands that, for many Jews, Zionism is an important part of their identity";
- Coordinator of Jewish Student Life: "Hire a Coordinator of Jewish Student Life within the Division of Equity & Community Inclusion" and dedicate suitable office space for this position;
- External review of policies: "Retain an independent, external consultant to assess SFSU’s procedures for enforcement of applicable CSU system-wide anti-discrimination policies and student code of conduct";
- Independent investigation of additional complaints: "SFSU will, for a period of 24 months, assign all complaints of religious discrimination under either E.O. 1096 or E.O. 1097 to an independent, outside investigator for investigation";
- Funding viewpoint diversity: "SFSU will allocate an additional $200,000 to support educational outreach efforts to promote viewpoint diversity (including but not limited to pro-Israel or Zionist viewpoints) and inclusion and equity on the basis of religious identity (including but not limited to Jewish religious identity)"; and
- Campus mural: Engage in the SFSU process to allocate "space on the SFSU campus for a mural to be installed under the oversight of the Division of Equity & Community Inclusion, paid for by the University, that will be designed by student groups of differing viewpoints on the issues that are the subject of this litigation to be agreed by the parties (including but not limited to Jewish, pro-Israel, and/or Zionist student groups, should such student groups elect to participate in the process)."
That first condition -- San Francisco State University publicly acknowledging that "for many Jews, Zionism is an important part of their identity" -- was an unprecedented recognition of the importance of Zionism to Jewish identity.
Just imagine if universities across the country followed this example in recognition of Zionism. It could be the academic equivalent of the legislative campaign to have the boycott of Israel made illegal in all 50 states.
When I asked The Lawfare Project about the potential to establish these guarantees at other universities around the country, they responded that
we think Jewish students will recognize the need to fight for the same guarantees we’ve received in our settlement agreement with SFSU. We also believe that our success will serve as fertile ground upon which Jewish students can begin their journey to fight for their rights on campus.
BDS unfairly singles out one country in the world for sanction when there are many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial. Moreover, it places all of the responsibility for an extraordinarily complex geopolitical situation on just one country and frequently conflates the policies of the Israeli government with the very right of Israel to exist as a nation, which I find particularly troublesome. [emphasis added]
Pollak not only took a stand against BDS. She publicly stated her personal rejection of BDS and went beyond vague appeals to diversity and respect for ideas on campus.
But how many university presidents have been willing to deal head-on with
the problem of Zionophobia on campus?
What are the chances of other universities adopting the measures in the settlement?
For that matter, has San Francisco State University really learned its lesson?
In September 2020, the terrorist Leila Khaled was invited to speak at SFSU. Khaled participated in the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Tel Aviv in August 1969. The following year she took part in the hijacking of an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York City.
Let me be clear: I condemn the glorification of terrorism and use of violence against unarmed civilians. I strongly condemn antisemitism and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people based on their identities, origins or beliefs.
At the same time, I represent a public university, which is committed to academic freedom and the ability of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship without censorship.
Mahoney went on to pay lip service to the now-required recognition of the Zionist identity of the university's students:
My conversations with SF Hillel and Jewish student leaders have enhanced my appreciation for the deeply painful impact of this upcoming presenter, as well as past campus experiences. I understand that Zionism is an important part of the identity of many of our Jewish students. The university welcomes Jewish faculty and students expressing their beliefs and worldviews in the classroom and on the quad, through formal and informal programming. [emphasis added]
Prof. Judea Pearl, professor of computer science and statistics at UCLA and president of The Daniel Pearl Foundation, was unimpressed by Mahoney's attempt to reconcile welcoming a terrorist who targets Jews on the one hand with declaring support for the Jewish Zionist identity on the other. He points out:
it is a logical contradiction from the scientific perspective and a breach of contract from the legal perspective...and I’m known to be expert on the logical perspective.
For their part, The Lawfare Project, which spearheaded the drive to keep Khaled's proposed appearance at SFSU off of Zoom, agrees with Prof. Pearl from the legal perspective. They told me in no uncertain terms:
Should Khaled ever speak on campus, not only would that be a breach of the settlement agreement, but also a gross violation of the university’s fundamental responsibility to protect its Jewish students. [emphasis added]
But what is happening is more than just a continuation of antisemitic hatred on college campuses with the typical weak response by the university administration. We are all familiar with groups that claim to affiliate with the Jewish community while rejecting Israel and a Zionist identity.
What is being overlooked is that there is a pro-Zionist voice at the beginning stages of asserting itself, and the public statement required by the lawsuit settlement is part of that -- even if imperfectly implemented by the university.
I predict American Jewry will soon undergo a profound, painful and irreparable split. I cannot think of another period in Jewish history where the schism was so deep, and growing deeper so rapidly. I see the split in every aspect of life and on many levels...On the surface, most of our faculty and students are still sitting on the fence, true, but the polarization is growing; the Zionist group is becoming more assertive and is closing ranks rapidly, while the Zionophobic group is becoming louder, more organized and more aggressive. [emphasis added]
That pro-Zionist voice showed itself in response to a student at USC, Yasmeen Mashayech, who attacked Jews with tweets such as:
- "I want to kill every motherf**cking Zionist"
- "Death to Israel and its b**tch the U.S."
- "Israel has no history just a criminal record"
- "yel3an el yahood [curse the Jews]."
But even more important than those tweets and the criticism of the university's weak response is the reaction from Jewish leaders -- something that has been ignored by the media.In An Open Letter to the Leadership of USC, more than 65 faculty members at USC took a stand:
We, the undersigned faculty, wish to register our dismay about ongoing open expressions of anti-Semitism and Zionophobia on our campus that go unrebuked. The silence of our leadership on this matter is alienating, hurtful, and depressing. It amounts to tacit acceptance of a toxic atmosphere of hatred and hostility.
The letter went beyond just condemnation of antisemitism and rejecting the university claim that because of legal considerations, USC "cannot discuss university processes or actions with respect to a specific student, much less denounce them publicly." The faculty said it was time for the university to publicly welcome Zionists on campus:
Most importantly, Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli students, as well as those who support the right of the State of Israel to exist need to hear from our leaders that they are welcome on our campus. Such a statement would not infringe on free speech or take sides in political dispute. It is a call for character and dignity. It is overdue. [emphasis added]
This would parallel the SFSU's settlement agreement recognizing the Zionist identity of its students -- and not because Zionists need to be protected as victims. More than that.
Again, Prof. Pearl:
We want the university to say there is something noble about Zionism. Zionists are welcome here not because everybody needs to be protected, but because they can contribute here.
This is what has been missing till now from the hand wringing of universities, with their vague promises to their Jewish students that they will deal with antisemitism on campus.
This is what has to change.
And the SFSU lawsuit and the USC faculty letter show that there are those willing to start to demand it.