San Francisco State University

Jewish students at SFSU decry hostility

San Francisco State University (SFSU) has had a problematic reputation for decades in certain Jewish circles. The campus has been considered unfriendly to Zionism and, at times, to Jewish life in general.

Jewish faculty and community leaders now say the problem has grown worse. And they hold the university responsible, accusing the SFSU administration of unequal treatment, silence and delay in protecting the safety and free speech rights of Jewish students.

The critics also contend that anti-Zionist animus over the last year has at times crossed the line into anti-Jewish acts and expression, and that the administration has been tepid in response.

In an April 12 email to SFSU President Leslie Wong, members of San Francisco Hillel went so far as to accuse the university of “institutional anti-Semitism.” Some lay the blame directly at Wong’s feet. They say bias against and ostracizing of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus has intensified during Wong’s tenure, which began in 2012.

Wong and other SFSU officials deny those accusations, saying they take the community’s concerns seriously.

“I am concerned about our Jewish students,” Wong said. “I do worry about anything that would convey any attempt to silence anyone. Not only is the campus tense in terms of anti-Semitism, it’s tense around a lot of ‘isms’ on campus. I wouldn’t pick anti-Semitism as saying it’s our only problem, but I think it is a significant issue we are trying to confront.”

The critics, however, insist that Wong has failed to provide leadership.

A watershed moment occurred on April 6, 2016, when anti-Israel protesters led by the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) shouted down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a Hillel-sponsored appearance, chanting through megaphones, “Get the f— off our campus.”

Police and administration officials on the scene issued verbal warnings to protesters, which were ignored; they did nothing else to intervene, allowing the disruption to continue unabated.

Wong, 67, publicly decried the incident and ordered an independent investigation, whose findings were published last August. The report chided SFSU student affairs for not consulting with Hillel and others in advance, and for allowing similar disruptions in the past “without ramifications for the offenders.” But no protester faced disciplinary action.

Jewish voices on campus and off spoke out against the administration’s perceived inaction. In an effort to repair the damage, Wong met a half-dozen times with prominent figures from SFSU’s Jewish studies department and the broader Jewish community.

J.-The Jewish News of Northern California ( has acquired dozens of documents dating from April 2016 to April 2017, including correspondence between Wong and Hillel students, memos, emails, agendas and unofficial minutes of meetings. The documents suggest that Wong, though sympathetic to Jewish concerns, resented the amount of time they took up, even as Jewish leaders pressed him to take more decisive action in protecting Jewish students and to publicly denounce what they see as a de facto policy of anti-normalization of Zionism on campus — which, they say, prevents positive views of Israel or Zionism from being freely expressed.

“We have been trying to get the president of the university to take a clear and public stand that anti-normalization has no place on campus,” said SFSU Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger. “It’s, in fact, against the very mission of the university. If the approach is not to talk to someone with whom you have a political disagreement, then we’re not a university.”

Of anti-normalization, whose proponents refuse to acknowledge or “normalize” the State of Israel or Zionism, Wong said, “I am the first to say it is an issue,” adding, “I told [Dollinger] I need to read more about this anti-normalization so I can ask about the limits of this.”

Jewish concerns have been marginalized at the school, critics charge. As an example, Dollinger and his colleagues point to a Feb. 28 information fair on human rights called Know Your Rights. They claim event organizers surreptitiously changed the registration cutoff date in order to exclude Hillel from participating. The matter is under investigation by the university.

“Many of us feel a tremendous sense of urgency,” said Luoluo Hong, SFSU vice president of student affairs. “I feel personally responsible when we have students who express distress or concern about campus climate. There are definitely Jewish students who have expressed stress.”

Critics also slam the slow progress on procedural changes mandated after the 2016 shout-down of Barkat; they say it’s taking too long to implement those changes.

Wong disagrees. “I don’t know if it’s taking so long,” he said. “We’ve been pretty rigorous about looking at the policy and asking ourselves where did it come up short, where does it need to be updated and how does it comply with [California State University] system rules. We’ve initiated staff training, we have an emerging leaders program. We’re not done.”

Palestinian SFSU student no longer enrolled at school

[UPDATE #2: 4:00 pm on Fri., Feb. 21] According to Peter Lee, a spokesman in the FBI's San Francisco office, the FBI did at one point question Mohammad Hammad, but determined that he did not pose any criminal or national security threat.

[UPDATE: 4:10 pm on Thu., Feb. 20] According to Sgt. Peter Shields of the SFPD's hate crimes special investigations unit, The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force began investigating Mohammad Hammad last year, when his Tumblr postings first came to light. Shields was not able to confirm whether the investigation is ongoing. The FBI did not immediately return a request for comment.

[Feb. 19] Mohammad Hammad, a Palestinian student who recently raised concern after allegedly posting violent anti-Israel messages on the Internet, is no longer a student at San Francisco State University. The news was first reported in The Jewish Press  and was confirmed Wednesday afternoon by Ellen Griffin, SFSU’s associate vice president of communications, in an email to the Jewish Journal.  Griffin did not state whether Hammad left voluntarily or was expelled.

“It is accurate that Mohammad Hammad is not enrolled at SF State for spring semester 2014.  I cannot share the reason,” Griffin wrote.

Hammad’s departure comes amidst pressure from Jewish and pro-Israel groups concerned that the 22-year-old [For photos of Mohammad Hammad's
alleged Tumblr postings,

Palestinian SFSU student’s photo condemned as ‘potential threat’

[UPDATE, DEC. 13] On December 11, AMCHA sent another email saying that it uncovered additional posts by GUPS president and SFSU student Mohammad Hammad. The Jewish Journal confirmed that on October 31, the Tumblr account “Red Philistine” posted a message from Hammad's Tumblr account “palestinianliberator” that targeted a specific female Israeli soldier and linked to her Facebook page.

The message read in part, “Anyone who thinks there can be peace with animals like this is absolutely delusional, and the only 'peace' I'm interested in is the head of this [expletive] scum on a plate, as well as the heads of all others like her, and all others who support the IDF.

When contacted on December 12, a member of GUPS who declined to give his name said, “The only controversy is the smear campaign against the organization.” He would not comment further. No comment was immediately available from the office of SFSU president Leslie Wong.

[DEC. 3] After discovering a potentially threatening photo on the social media Web site Tumblr posted by the president of a Palestinian student group at San Francisco State University (SFSU), the Simon Wiesenthal Center warned the university on Dec. 2 about “a potential threat to its Jewish students.”

The picture posted on Aug. 10 by Mohammad Hammad, is a self-portrait of Hammad holding a knife. A caption reads, “I seriously can not get over how much I love this blade. It is the sharpest thing I own and cuts through everything like butter and just holding it makes me want to stab an Israeli soldier.” The photo has since been removed from the Web site.

Hammad is president of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) at SFSU, a group that “increases awareness of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and justice,” according to its “>Facebook page , the 21-year-old was born in Ramallah in the West Bank and is studying international relations at SFSU. The Journal was not able to reach him for comment.

On Dec. 3, Ellen Griffin, SFSU’s associate vice president of communications, wrote in an email to the Journal that the university had investigated the incident and confirmed that Hammad was the person in the photograph.

According to a statement by Lee Wong, president of SFSU, the university’s police “conducted a threat assessment” and determined that SFSU’s students are safe.

“We will continue to explore all aspects of the incident and take additional actions that may be warranted,” Wong’s statement read.

This is the second controversy involving GUPS and AMCHA in recent weeks. On Nov. 7, during a campus event honoring the sixth anniversary of the installation of a mural of Edward Said—a Palestinian-American scholar — GUPS set up a table in Malcolm X Plaza that displayed two inflammatory stencils.

One of the stencils read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COLONIZERS.” The other showed an outline of Leila Khaled, a Palestinian woman who helped hijack a 1969 commercial flight from Rome to Athens. She was later released as part of a prisoner exchange and is still a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

“>wrote a letter to Wong expressing concern about the two stencils. The same day, Hammad posted a note on its Facebook page calling on Wong “to condemn this smear campaign, uphold our academic freedom as a core value of SFSU, and to ensure our safety and the safety of all.”

“We are horrified by the baseless attack and allegations of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against GUPS,” Hammad wrote.

On Nov. 19, “>releasing a statement on the university’s Web site saying he was “dismayed by the glorification of violence that this message conveys.”

“There is no place at SF State for celebrating violence or promoting intolerance, bigotry, anti-Semitism or any other form of hate-mongering,” Wong wrote.

Rabab Ibraham Abdulhadi, a SFSU professor and a senior scholar at the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED)—which co-sponsored the Nov. 7 event with GUPS—disagreed with Wong’s condemnation of the stencil and said he believes such messages qualify as protected free speech, not hate speech.

“It is not directed against Jewish people and thus does not qualify as anti-Semitism, a form of hate speech,” Abdulhadi wrote in an email to the Journal. “Criticizing Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian lands and denial of Palestinian rights is legitimate and should be defended as part of free speech.”

Since Wong’s statement, AMCHA has called on AMED and SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies to condemn students and faculty “who use the name and resources of the University to defend, justify, and glorify murder and those who commit it.”

Rabbi Ari Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s director of campus outreach, praised Wong for condemning the violent message on the stencil at the Nov. 7 event, but said he wants the university to go further.

“Why is the leader of a university-funded group continuing to do this or allowed to stay in that position?” Hier said.

Hier, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, wondered what this might mean for IDF veterans. “The next time I visit San Francisco State, do I have to be worried? Does he want to put the knife in me?”

Bay City Hate

Call it the e-mail read around the world.

Laurie Zoloth wrote the e-mail May 9, in the wake of a pro-Israel rally that turned ugly, but the Jewish studies chair at San Francisco State University (SFSU) sent it only to friends and some colleagues.

Within a few days, however, it had been circulated to thousands of e-mail addresses across the nation and in Israel, finding its way onto Jewish Web sites and worldwide media venues.

One local Jewish community leader, who asked not to be identified, said he was being flooded with calls wondering if there had been a pogrom at SFSU.

And Paul Cohen, International Hillel’s senior consultant for campus strategic services, said "the issue has gotten way out of proportion."

In the e-mail, Zoloth described the aftermath of the May 7 rally, when "an angry crowd of Palestinians and their supporters" surrounded the pro-Israel supporters screaming, "Get out or we will kill you" and "Hitler did not finish the job."

She wrote that the pro-Palestinians were "an angry, out-of-control mob, literally chanting for our deaths" and yet "the police could do nothing more than surround the Jewish students and community members who were now trapped in the corner of a plaza, grouped under the flags of Israel."

What’s more, she wrote in the e-mail, "Not one administrator came to stand with us." A police contingent, however, escorted the Jewish students to safety.

SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan was among the recipients of Zoloth’s e-mail. While not entirely pleased with the notoriety it has brought to the campus, Corrigan responded Monday with a strongly worded letter, which he said has since been circulated to more than 30,000 people, condemning the turn of events at the rally.

He also met Monday with Jewish community leaders and Jewish SFSU students and their parents, listening to several suggestions for addressing the pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian tensions on campus on a long-term basis. According to Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, suggestions included:


• A follow-up meeting in the next few weeks, to ensure the Jewish community’s concerns don’t go by the wayside when the semester ends.


• Making sure the standards for rallies apply across the board.


• Finding a better way to address "civil discourse" on the campus.

Corrigan said that he and other SFSU administrators have taken several definitive steps to address the Jewish community’s concerns.

For instance, he is currently in the process of forming a task force, made up of university and community representatives, to study the tensions on campus throughout the summer.

Also, since the rally, the university has filed charges with the campus judicial affairs office against at least one pro-Palestinian demonstrator. That individual, whose name has not been released, seized and stamped on an Israeli flag.

In addition, the department of public safety is currently reviewing video tapes and personal accounts of the incident to decide whether disciplinary and/or criminal action against organizations and individuals are warranted, according to Ligeia Polidora, SFSU public relations director. San Francisco’s district attorney has been asked to assist.

"Not only are Jewish issues going to be addressed, but we will redouble our efforts with regard to the conflicts on this campus that resulted from the situation that is concerning so many of us," said Corrigan, referring to the rally.

"There has been a lack of understanding of cultures and a prejudice being brought to campus," he added, noting that he is "most disturbed" that, in some cases, people on both sides of the issue have reacted with "emotion and anger" rather than "reason and rationality."

Sophomore Dikla Tuchman, an organizer of the pro-Israel rally, said she and others in her group were cleaning up and saying their goodbyes when the event was "sabotaged" by pro-Palestinians, armed with whistles and bullhorns. Although the rally had ended at 1:30 p.m., Hillel had reserved the campus space until 2 p.m., so "it was still our time" when the pro-Palestinians demanded that the Jewish students clear out, she said.

She added that the campus public safety officers told her, "There is nothing we can do here," when asked why the pro-Palestinians were allowed to intrude.

"All of a sudden the entire counterprotest was surrounding us and screaming and yelling as we were trying to go about our business," said Tuchman, 20.

Zoloth said she had heard reports from students who were spit upon and who felt both physically and emotionally threatened.

"Something has gone morally awry at this university," she said, adding that an anti-Semitic climate has permeated the entire campus.

"It’s difficult to be in an atmosphere where we are constantly defending ourselves against blood libel, where Jews are compared to Nazis."

While Tuchman admitted that there "may have been a few" belligerent people "on our side, their entire crowd was like that."

Representatives from the General Union of Palestinian Students could not be reached for comment.

The pro-Israel contingent was eventually escorted off the campus by a group of both San Francisco and campus police. Officers from the San Francisco Police Department were called in as reinforcement after the rally.

"The conversation was getting heated on both sides," Polidora explained. "Our goal was to keep everybody safe."

Cohen said he was disappointed that the controversy undermines the fact that throughout 90 percent of the day, "this was the most successful rally for peace in Israel at SFSU for years."

While he admitted the university administration made "some errors" in its handling of the event, he said, "I do believe they were trying to act in good faith."

The SFSU Academic Senate passed a resolution Tuesday, endorsing Corrigan’s letter responding to the event, calling upon the campus community to "promote a hate-free environment."

In his letter — posted on the SFSU Web site — Corrigan wrote that a "terribly destructive" group of pro-Palestinians "abandoned themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat" at the rally last week.

He wrote that the pro-Palestinians "completely violated the values" of the university, adding that their "hateful speech and threatening behavior is not passing unchallenged. We will take steps to ensure encounters like those" will not occur again.

Zoloth called Corrigan’s letter the "right response" to the growing anti-Jewish sentiment plaguing the institution. She said she hopes his words "mark the beginning of potential change" for Jewish students and staff.