At a March 2017 conference of the National Association of Ethnic Studies held at San Francisco State University (SFSU), President Leslie Wong boasted about the University’s role as a sanctuary campus. He referenced SFSU’s proud history of engaged social justice scholarship going back to the 1968 Third World strike by students which established the first Ethnic Studies College in the country.
To Terry Collins, an alumnus of SFSU who was a member of the Black Student Union that started the Third World strike, and is the current Board President of KPOO community radio, Wong’s words rang hollow. “We fought for a radical vision of what ethnic studies should mean,” Collins told me.
“Last spring students had to protest and even hunger strike just to keep Ethnic Studies alive after it was threatened with major cuts. They won a few crumbs but so much more is needed. And Palestinian faculty, students and programs have been under constant attack! Where’s the sanctuary for them at SF State?”
Collins, an adamant supporter of Palestine since the sixties, was referring to a series of incidents over the past year at SFSU that have targeted the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) ,Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, and the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) program which she founded. Most recently, racist, Islamophobic posters were plastered across campus on May 3rd and to date there has been no public denunciation of this hate speech by President Wong.
While such attacks are not unique to SFSU, they have been escalating at a campus which has been a battleground for social justice struggles of many types, including Palestine, over decades.
In April 2016, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, was invited to speak at SF State. A coalition of SFSU student groups, led by GUPS, protested against his talk citing Barkat’s extreme policies of expulsion and violence against Palestinian residents, including home demolitions, evictions, lock downs and collective punishment of entire neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The day after the peaceful protest, which succeeded in interrupting Barkat’s speech, President Wong ordered a full investigation of the protest, reportedly after a telephone conversation with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who urged this course of action. Hier referenced the successful prosecution of the Irvine 11, students who had interrupted the speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in 2010 and were convicted of conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting in 2011.
Over the course of the next five months, GUPS members and other students, primarily women, were not only subject to an intensive, disruptive official investigation but were also targeted by death and rape threats, and a vicious online campaign by Canary Mission seeking to derail their academic careers. The University investigation exonerated the students on most of the charges in September 2016, but the students’ lives had been turned upside down. None of the threats or harassment by pro-Zionist groups were ever addressed by the University. In their statement responding to the report, GUPs pointed out the degree to which their education, lives and safety had been compromised in the name of protecting pro-Israel free speech. “Not only were we subjected to this hate monger [Barkat], but we were investigated for months and publicly smeared as violent and anti-Semitic.”
Shortly after the report exonerating the students was released, another front of assault was opened against Palestinian scholarship at SFSU. An online petition was launched by the Middle East Forum (MEF), an Islamophobic, pro-Israel group led by Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz, calling on President Wong to terminate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU )with An-Najah University in Nablus in the Palestinian West Bank. The MOU was established in 2014, initiated by Dr. Abdulhadi ,with the stated purpose of encouraging exchange and partnership between the two universities and with the AMED Studies program. The petition accused An-Najah of “incitement to violence, anti-Semitism and the glorification of terrorism.” The vilification of An-Najah, which is consistently ranked as a leading academic institution in the Arab world, was accompanied by a specific attack on Dr. Abdulhadi who was condemned for initiating the MOU and for her “record as an anti-Israel activist.” Some of the examples given included her role as a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and her service as faculty advisor for GUPS.
The catalyst for this attack was a conference, Freedom Behind Bars, held at An-Najah in March 2016. This author attended the conference as part of the Prisoner, Labor and Academic Solidarity delegation to Palestine convened by Dr. Abulhadi. To the delegation, the conference was an exciting model of what international academic exchange between activist scholars should be. To the MEF authors of the anti-An-Najah petition, the conference was a threatening example of the powerful potential of unfiltered exposure to Palestinian scholarship taking place in occupied Palestine.
Our delegation immediately issued an open letter in response to the petition, calling on President Wong to uphold the importance and validity of the MOU with An-Najah, to reject the defamation of Dr. Abdulhadi and to expand institutional support for the AMED program. Wong’s office issued a lukewarm response, endorsing all of the University’s exchange programs without specifically upholding the one with An-Najah. As our open letter was rapidly gaining signatures by students and faculty at SFSU and around the country, an even more egregious act of hate speech occurred on the SFSU campus as well as at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
On the morning of October 14, 2016, students arrived at SFSU to find numerous posters with racist caricature portraits plastered all over campus, defaming Professor Abdulhadi and Palestinian student leaders by name and labeling them “Jew Haters” and “terrorists.” The posters were signed by the Horowitz Freedom Center, a virulently anti-left and Islamophobic organization. Students immediately went across campus tearing the posters down while University administration did nothing for hours. President Wong finally issued a statement calling the posters “bullying tactics” but did not even mention that the Horowitz Freedom Center was responsible for them or label them a hate crime.
In response to these posters, numerous articles, statements, and petitions were issued by a wide variety of media and organizations including Palestine Legal, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, UAW Local 2865, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jewish News and the Jewish Studies Department at SFSU. They called on Wong to pursue an investigation of the posters as a hate crime and to defend GUPS, AMED, Dr. Abdulhadi and the Arab and Muslim community at SFSU. To date none of this has happened.
As Terry Collins points out, the incidents of the past year are just an intensification of long time problems facing the AMED program and the Palestinian and Arab communities at SF State. Dr. Abdulhadi was recruited to SFSU in 2007 from the University of Michigan, Dearborn. Her recruitment was part of the implementation of the recommendations of a campus/community Task Force that was formed at SFSU in order to address a backlash against Palestinian and Arab students in the post 9-11 era. According to Dr. Abdulhadi, she accepted the position at SFSU in order to create a program whose explicit purpose was the production of knowledge for social justice. Given the history of social justice engagement at SFSU, the large Arab and Palestinian population in the Bay Area, and the progressive political climate in the region, she believed that it would be an ideal place for her to develop this type of program. In her recruitment contract she was promised two additional faculty positions for the program as well as administrative support. However, none of these contractual obligations have ever been met.
A year after Dr. Abdulhadi was recruited in 2008, the Department of Jewish studies at SF State received a gift of $3.75 million from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to create an endowed chair in Israel studies, which SF State boasted put it “at the forefront of an emerging new academic field.” Since then Israel studies has continued to grow, while the AMED program has never expanded beyond Dr. Abdulhadi. Recently Dr. Abdulhadi was told by President Wong that due to budget constraints, the only way that the two promised faculty positions could be added would be if the program itself could bring in large gifts or grants.
The problems confronting the AMED program have developed in the context of nationwide attacks on Palestinian scholarship including employment termination, disciplinary actions, suspension of student groups and cancellation of course sections. As the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has gathered momentum on college campuses across the U.S., the Israeli government and its allies have prioritized the targeting of all scholarship and activity that includes an anti-Zionist, anti-colonial, pro-Palestinian perspective. Meanwhile, in the same period as online harassment and academic investigations were occurring at SFSU, students at An-Najah and other Palestinian universities have been subject to a mounting wave of raids and arrests. Since it is illegal for Palestinian students to organize protests on campuses, and campus political organizations are banned, there is a constant pretext for the Israeli military occupation to arrest students arbitrarily. The increasing criminalization of speech and activism about Palestine on U.S. campuses represents a move in the same direction.
Yet despite the election of Trump, the acceleration of openly Islamophobic policies, and the appointment of ultra-Zionist David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel , the colonial reality of Palestine is breaking through the American wall of denial in unprecedented ways. On April 16, 2017 the New York Times published a searing op-ed by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader and political prisoner, indicting the Israeli colonial prison system and announcing a hunger strike by over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners which has continued into May. A week later, Omar Barghouti, a co-founder and leader of the BDS movement, accepted the Gandhi Peace Award at Yale University after an international outcry pressured Israel to reverse a travel ban it had imposed on him. And on April 27th, the Washington Post published an interview with Palestinian parliamentarian and former political prisoner Khalida Jarrar in which she explains her support for the prisoner hunger strike and highlights the particularly cruel conditions to which Palestinian women prisoners are subjected.
Not surprisingly at the same time, the backlash has been escalating at San Francisco State. In the beginning of April, Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast representative of Campus Watch and a graduate of SF State, accelerated the call to revoke the MOU between An-Najah and SFSU by denouncing the inclusion of former prisoners in the U.S. delegation that participated in the An-Najah conference. And Nir Barkat, intensified the pressure on President Wong when he canceled a speaking engagement at SFSU claiming that SFSU hadn’t sufficiently publicized the event and therefore was continuing its “marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state. “
On May 3, students once again found dozens of anti-Palestinian posters plastered around campus, vilifying Palestinian feminist leader Rasmea Odeh, Students for Justice in Palestine and a Jewish Voice for Peace. In an urgent message to Wong, GUPS responded clearly, ““Once again SFSU administration has failed to protect us and provide a safe work and study environment for students, faculty and staff. Claims of being a sanctuary campus must be evidenced in deeds not in words. This applies equally to Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians as it applies to everybody else.” Their email included numerous pictures of the racist posters before they were taken down. In a Kafkaesque response, Wong responded the next day with an email claiming that he couldn’t do anything because the campus police “were unable to find any of the posters.” He encouraged students to call the police and campus counseling if they felt unsafe.
2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the Edward Said mural which was created at SF State in a collaborative effort between students, artists and community members to honor this preeminent Palestinian scholar. Like everything related to Palestine at SFSU, the mural has been the subject of ongoing bitter controversy, fanned by outside Zionist organizations. The SFSU administration cites the mural as a symbol of its commitment to “healthy debate,” and “respectful solutions.” To Terry Collins, the battle at SF State has never been about healthy debate or free speech. “They’re trying to make an example of the students, GUPS, the AMED program because they’re standing up for Palestine’s freedom, just like the BSU stood up for Black freedom back in 1968,” Terry stresses. “It’s up to those of us in the community to have their backs!”