'Anti-Semitic and Hostile': Why Jewish Students Are Suing San Francisco State University for Discrimination

Lawsuit brought by six current and former students alleges that SFSU has allowed anti-Israel students to threaten Jewish peers and stop pro-Israel speech on campus

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
Protesters disrupting the speech by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University, March 2016.
Protesters disrupting the speech by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University, March 2016.Credit: Masha Merkulova
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK – The atmosphere on campus at San Francisco State University is so hostile to Jewish students that they tuck Star of David necklaces inside their shirts, and some are afraid to go to the Hillel house for Shabbat dinner, alleges a recent graduate.

In his junior and senior years, Jacob Mandel, 22, served as student president of what had been “a very active and lively” Hillel chapter but has become far less so, allegedly since public attacks on Jewish and pro-Israel students went unpunished by university administrators.

Now Mandel, who graduated earlier this year, is one of six plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Monday, claiming that university administrators violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

The lawsuit against SFSU President Dr. Leslie E. Wong and senior administrators, and the California State University system board of trustees, says they have permitted anti-Israel students to threaten Jewish peers, interfere with their education and made it impossible for pro-Israel speakers to appear on campus.

Jacob Mandel, one of the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit against San Francisco State UniversityCredit: Courtesy Jacob Mandel

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According to the lawsuit, Wong and other top staffers have actively created a hostile environment for Jewish students – even at times expressing anti-Semitic views themselves.

“SFSU has fostered and sanctioned anti-Semitism from the highest levels and affirmed the actions of hostile, aggressive, and disruptive students to regularly violate the rights of Jewish students,” stated the lawsuit, filed June 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. “SFSU has repeatedly denied Plaintiffs’ student groups, including Hillel and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, equal access to campus events that welcome other non-Jewish student organizations at the University,” the complaint continued.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 of the university’s 29,000 students are Jewish, said Ollie Benn, San Francisco Hillel’s executive director. After directing reporters to email questions, he declined to directly answer any others.

The 76-page lawsuit details numerous incidents in which Jewish students were allegedly personally attacked, and their civil rights – and those of community members – abrogated.

A key incident took place in April 2016, when the university allowed a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to be drowned out by anti-Israel protesters yelling at students and Barkat, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Intifada, intifada!” and “Get the fuck off our campus.”

“It was intimidating,” recalled Masha Merkulova, 43, one of the plaintiffs. She runs a teen Zionist group in San Francisco and brought her 18-year-old son to hear Barkat speak.

Demonstrators “achieved their goal. Not just to stop a speaker, but to send a message to the Jews,” she told Haaretz this week. “You’re an adult person and it’s humiliating that some punks are stopping you from what you are doing through bullying.”

Initially allotted space in the student center, the Barkat event was shunted to a conference center on the far edge of campus. Though space outside its doors was designated a “free speech zone” for protesters, the 30 or so demonstrators were allowed inside the room, where they broke university policy and used an amplifier to drown out Barkat’s speech. The lawsuit alleged that “the police were being directed to ignore [university] protocol, which was to remove the protesters and move them to the designated protest area.”

“SFSU allows for mob rule at the expense of civil rights, where the loudest and most aggressive group rules the day,” the lawsuit claimed, adding: “The anti-Jewish animus pervading SFSU’s campus is as ubiquitous as it is hostile. Jews are at best ignored, but more often ostracized in every corner of the university community.”

Students and Hillel staff repeatedly asked university president Wong to address campus anti-Semitism, but they said he has not taken effective action, and has perpetuated anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and influence.

At a June 2016 meeting with students, professors and Jewish communal leaders to address the Barkat incident, when Jewish participants recommended changes to prevent a similar future incident, Wong “complained that Jewish student concerns took up a disproportionate amount of his time” and “expressed that Jewish students had too much access to the President of the University,” according to the lawsuit.

A university spokeswoman said Wong was not available for interview.

“It certainly feels like explicit anti-Semitism,” said Amanda Berman, legal director of The Lawfare Project, which organized the lawsuit and, along with lawyers from the San Francisco law firm Winston & Strawn, is representing the plaintiffs.

“I don’t know the president personally. But I cannot imagine saying some of the things he has said in any context,” Berman told Haaretz. “What matters is that Jewish students and community members are being treated differently, which leads to an environment which is pervasively hostile to them, when they should be treated the same as any other student or community member.”

Three days before the lawsuit was filed, Wong issued a strong statement condemning recent anti-Semitic activity at SFSU. “I am committed to making San Francisco State a better, safer place for our Jewish community members,” he wrote.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the university acknowledged that disruption at the Barkat event and subsequent incidents “were ugly reminders that anti-Semitism, like all forms of discrimination, is real and our community has work to do.”

But Tuesday’s statement went on to dispute the allegations. “The University strongly disagrees with the allegations in the complaint. Lawsuits seeking to force SF State to both protect free speech and assure diversity and inclusion are unnecessary and redundant.”

The statement listed changes the university is making to address bias of all sorts, and invites “specifically our Jewish students and community to join us in these substantive and proactive measures. We will pursue these actions regardless of any legal challenge or distraction.”

If successful, the lawsuit would be the first to win on the basis of bias against Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by any federally funded program, Berman said.

Title VI doesn’t bar religious discrimination, but in 2006 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined that anti-Semitic campus incidents may constitute a hostile environment and violate the statute.

Discrimination against other groups combining ethnic and religious characteristics, like Muslims and Sikhs, is also protected by the regulation.

The lawsuit seeks punitive and compensatory damages. When asked how much they hope to win, Berman said the amount isn’t important. “Any amount will serve a deterrent effect. Universities shouldn’t be spending their money on litigation costs or settlements or legal judgments,” she said. “Money is supposed to go to students and education. Instead, this university will have to spend it on a serious discrimination problem. Universities have to be a little more careful about how they treat their students.”

Merkulova, who came from Belarus to the United States in 1992, said that having grown up in a totalitarian regime, she appreciates the rights that all SFSU students should have.

She said that when she in Belarus, “We could say anything, but we would whisper in a kitchen with running water” so as not to be overheard. “Americans need to appreciate the right to free speech and assembly. In Belarus, to this day people don’t have the right to assemble. We should all be championing these rights and privileges. This is not about standing up for Israel. This is about standing up for ourselves.”

This year, Wong extended an invitation to Barkat to return and speak on campus. But he did not consult Hillel, which invited the Jerusalem mayor a year earlier, or other Jewish student or community groups. Barkat initially agreed to come as he was in the area anyway, but canceled the campus visit after learning it had not been publicized.

Mandel told Haaretz he no longer believes the university president is acting out of ignorance. “For a long time, we took the diplomatic route. When I would experience anti-Semitism on campus, and it seemed the university was allowing it to happen, I chalked it up to ignorance or incompetence,” he said. But “after the Barkat event, I realized the university was not going to do anything for Jewish students. That’s when I realized the diplomatic route was no longer the way to go.

“It is an anti-Semitic campus and a university administration that treats Jews as second-class students,” he charged. “It is intentional and conscious.”

The Barkat incident had a long-lasting effect on Jewish students at SFSU. “The number of Jewish students on campus overall began dropping,” Mandel claimed.

As many as 75 students used to attend weekly Shabbat dinners, but participation dropped by more than half, Mandel said. At the last dinner of the school year – historically, the Hillel chapter’s largest – 130 students attended (it took place before the Barkat incident). Most recently, just 30 students showed up. “I remember when our Hillel house was full on Shabbat. Post the Barkat event we’d have 20, 30, 40 [empty] chairs. Where did the Jewish students go? A lot of them were afraid to be associated with something Jewish on campus,” he said.

Mandel filed two formal complaints with the state university system shortly after the Barkat event: one was about how it was handled; and the other was about being physically threatened by a member of the General Union of Palestine Students on campus. Neither was investigated, he said.

When he saw the dean of students and asked if the behavior of anti-Israel students was being investigated, Mandel that she said, “Oh we’re handling it, don’t worry about it.”

“Every response I received was dismissive,” Mandel said. “It made me feel that I didn’t matter, and that Jewish students didn’t matter to the university. I definitely felt at times that the university wished we weren’t even there.”

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