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SFSU Must Act to Protect Jewish Students

SFSU cannot remain silent about a university-sponsored event elevating the message of someone who used planes as weapons to terrorize innocent people on commercial flights.
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September 9, 2020

Once again, an American university is enabling, tolerating and legitimizing overt anti-Semitism. What makes this even more painful is that the university, San Francisco State University (SFSU), has a long history of failing to protect Jewish students and recently recommitted itself to doing better.

I spent two years in litigation against the university. In 2018, SFSU, a member of the Cal State system and an agency of the state of California, entered into a universal settlement on two cases alleging rampant harassment, discrimination and free speech violations against Jewish and Israeli students and community members. Over the course of the litigation, the university’s then-president, Les Wong, resigned, and SFSU became a household name as the most recognizable example of anti-Semitism in academia.

A crucial part of the settlement agreement was SFSU’s adoption of a formal statement acknowledging that “for many Jews, Zionism is an important part of their identity.” Given that Zionism is the liberation and self-determination movement of the Jewish people, the world’s oldest and most consistently marginalized community, Zionism’s centrality in Jewish identity and continuity is an undeniable reality — one it was important SFSU adopt and understand.

By that definition, “anti-Zionism” is an attack on the very identity, the very being of at least “many” Jews — if not the majority of Jews —enrolled at SFSU, Cal State universities and around the world. Allowing anti-Zionist messages to proliferate unchecked on campus is express, state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

SFSU recently announced it would be welcoming Leila Khaled on Sept. 23 —  a member of the terrorist organization PFLP, to speak via Zoom to SFSU students. The presentation will be hosted by professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who declared Khaled to be a “revolutionary Palestinian militant and feminist icon.” Khaled was the first female airplane hijacker (1969 and ’70). Abdulhadi described her as an “inspiration.”

Imagine, for a moment, an SFSU professor hosting an anti-LGTBQ speaker who had been involved in violent actions to terrorize members of the LGBTQ community for the crime of fighting for their own liberation. Imagine an SFSU professor hosting a white supremacist who had acted on his racism to terrorize Black Americans, and remained wholeheartedly committed to those efforts in the future. Would there not be an uproar? Shouldn’t we expect one? At the very least, we would demand the university issue a public statement strongly condemning the speaker and his or her violent, unconscionable and intolerant views — even while reaffirming its mandates under the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

SFSU must declare its legally mandated commitment to protecting Jewish students, including their Zionism, and reject any suggestion that that commitment is at odds with its support for Palestinian liberation.

SFSU cannot remain silent about a university-sponsored event elevating the message of someone who used planes as weapons to terrorize innocent people. Surely there are other ways to promote the legitimate concerns of the Palestinian people than to honor those who have targeted civilians with violence, and whose advocacy seeks the destruction of the state of Israel, home to more than half of the world’s Jews.

SFSU must declare its legally mandated commitment to protecting Jewish students, including their Zionism, and reject any suggestion that that commitment is at odds with its support for Palestinian liberation. In fact, the diversity of SFSU’s campus and its storied history in the fight for justice gives it a unique opportunity to bring Jewish, Israeli, Arab, Muslim and Palestinian students together to serve as a microcosm of the larger world, and work to advance dialogue, coexistence and mutual understanding. Efforts to tear apart students, uplift one group at the expense of another, or target or demonize Jews are simply unacceptable, and the university must say so.

Abdulhadi’s relationship with Khaled played a role in the litigation, and previous attempts to bring Khaled, now 76, to speak at SFSU were denied by authorities who could not legally issue travel visas to designated terrorists. In a statement on Facebook, Abdulhadi — who has declared that the mere presence of Zionists (Jewish students) on SFSU’s campus is a “declaration of war” against Arab and Muslim students — used rabidly anti-Semitic tropes. She accused Jews of allying with white supremacists in an anticipatory attempt to undermine the reaction by Jewish groups to the announcement of this horrifying event.

As the founder and now-leader of Zioness, a national organization made up of committed progressive activists working to build strong and diverse coalitions for justice, I ask the university to reject Abdulhadi’s attempt to suggest that Jews, including Zionist Jews, work against marginalized communities, instead of as steadfast allies for and alongside them. Our history of allyship in the United States is imperfect but clear. Our community, in overwhelming numbers, uses its voice, its vote and its feet to support movements for justice in America.

Abdulhadi’s invocation of anti-Semitic tropes relating to Jewish power and self-interest are anathema to progressive values, and prove this event is intended to further exclude Jews from a campus with a history of social justice activism to which they always have been committed. Her elevation of violence over the hard work of mutual understanding and coexistence should be condemned, not validated or rewarded. We must not allow violence and dehumanization toward any group, let alone the world’s tiny Jewish population, to be perceived as normal and acceptable to any group — especially impressionable, passionate young students.

To our progressive allies, we must ask if you’re willing to accept the notion that our presence anywhere ­­— the very presence of American Jews, who overwhelmingly support Jewish self-determination in Israel — is a declaration of war against Arabs and Muslims? Is the dehumanization of the Jewish people and the demonization of Jewish collective liberation a viable framework within our movements?

We have never, and will never, demand you abandon the Palestinian people as the price of being in relationship with us. But it’s clear there are those who believe it’s acceptable to demand you abandon us to fight for Palestinian liberation. This binary is not only intolerable, it is dangerous. And if you exclude Jews who support our own liberation, then more than 90% of us would be kicked out of movements to protect and advance the marginalized among us. As we’ve said many times, the toleration of any bigotry inside of our movements will weaken and destroy them. In a moment where white supremacy and white nationalism are propelling and defending authoritarian impulses, we cannot allow this type of effort; we cannot allow any division, and must fight hard for unity and inclusion. We share a common threat and a common hope and a common goal.

Regardless of how one feels about the boundaries of freedom of expression, SFSU cannot sanction any call to violence against Jewish and/or Zionist students. Its leadership has an undeniable right and responsibility to condemn the anti-Semitic views and actions of Khaled and Abdulhadi; to guarantee safety to Jewish students today and in the future; to commit itself to continued implementation of the terms of its 2019 settlement agreement; and to create a safe, inclusive environment for all its diverse students.

SFSU has an opportunity to lead Cal State universities, California and American academia in a new direction in confronting and addressing anti-Semitism, and we urge its leadership not to abdicate its role.


Amanda Berman is the founder and executive director of Zioness.

Amanda Berman’s views are her own. She does not represent anyone in any current legal matter against SFSU.

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