Lawyer who says Palestinians don’t exist sues San Francisco university

A Palestinian man and his son stand on the rubble of their home in Silwan, after it was demolished by the Jerusalem municipality run by Israeli official Nir Barkat in February 2014. A protest against Barkat in April 2016 is at the center of an Israel lobby “anti-Semitism” lawsuit against San Francisco State Univeristy.

Saeed Qaq APA images

A lawyer who denies that Palestinians exist is suing San Francisco State University, alleging the administration there fosters a hostile environment for Jewish students.

But faculty and civil rights lawyers say the lawsuit, filed on behalf of six plaintiffs, is yet another attempt at censorship by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Northern California on 19 June, was prepared by The Lawfare Project, a group that describes itself as “the legal arm of the pro-Israel community.”

Last year, the group’s director, Brooke Goldstein, was filmed asking Israel lobby leaders in New York, “Why are we using the word Palestinian?”

“There’s no such thing as a Palestinian person,” Goldstein asserted:

In the same speech, Goldstein also revealed new strategies to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights, including preparing legal challenges against US institutions, among them specifically San Francisco State University.

“The goal is to make the enemy pay,” Goldstein explained.

The Lawfare Project says that the lawsuit was filed after the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced it would be “scaling back” investigations of alleged discrimination on campuses around the country.

Claiming that San Francisco State University is “among the worst of the worst” campuses for Jewish students, the plaintiffs, three students and three area residents, say administrators have “fostered, fomented and systematically instilled an anti-Jewish animus” on the campus.

Criminalizing criticism of Israel

The 73-page complaint lists about a dozen incidents, some dating back to the early 1990s – before many of the university’s current students would have been born – in an attempt to paint of picture of systematic discrimination.

Nearly all of those incidents involve disputes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities on campus, including the disruption of an event last year featuring the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat.

Israel’s municipality includes occupied East Jerusalem, which no country recognizes as part of Israel.

“The incidents they are complaining about involve activism for Palestinian rights, which is political speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

“The whole premise of their complaint relies on the conflation of anti-Jewish animus and criticism of Israeli policies,” Khalidi added. “That’s where the complaint is going to fail.”

“Unconstitutional and unwise”

The lawsuit invokes the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which describes much criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

The definition has no legal force, but Israel lobby groups have been been pressing institutions and governments around the world, including the US Congress, to formally adopt it.

But even Kenneth Stern, the former American Jewish Committee executive who authored the definition, has vigorously opposed its adoption into legislation, warning that it would be used by Israel advocacy groups to police speech.

Stern told US lawmakers in December that legislating the definition would be “unconstitutional and unwise” and would “actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy.”

Dead end

In recent years, Israel lobby groups have urged the Department of Education to investigate Palestine advocacy as a potential violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – landmark legislation that requires administrators to ensure campuses are free from a pervasive atmosphere of bias.

But in 2013, the strategy hit a dead end as the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights threw out a slew of Title VI complaints against the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine, where there had been active Palestine solidarity campaigns.

Khalidi says it is revealing that The Lawfare Project is now citing the State Department definition in its lawsuit.

“This is about an effort to categorize any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic and crush a growing movement that is looking critically at Israel,” she said.

Two incidents

While painting a lurid broad-brush picture of anti-Jewish hatred on campus, the lawsuit is centered on only two specific incidents: a protest of Israeli government official Nir Barkat’s visit in April 2016, and the exclusion of the campus chapter of the Jewish student organization Hillel from a “Know Your Rights” fair in February 2017.

Students disrupted the Barkat event with chants, forcing his audience to huddle around to hear his speech. Leslie Wong, SFSU’s president, immediately condemned the protest and announced an investigation.

That investigation upheld the students’ right to protest and found that campus police and administrators acted in accordance with how they had handled protests in the past.

The investigative report also affirms that “the protestors did not create a credible threat to public safety” and that they “did not engage in any threatening physical conduct or raise any direct threats that could be interpreted as incitement to imminent lawless action.”

Yet the lawsuit claims that by not intervening to stop the protest as it happened, the administration violated the audience members’ First Amendment right to hear Barkat.

This video, posted online by a pro-Israel group, shows Barkat speaking to students gathered around him, while chants of “Free, Free Palestine” can be heard from protesters in the back of the room:

In the second incident, plaintiffs claim Hillel was barred from a Know Your Rights fair on campus because of its Jewish identity. The university is still investigating the incident.

Responding to the lawsuit, San Francisco State University affirmed its dedication to free speech, diversity and inclusion.

But its statement repeats the allegation that the protest of Nir Barkat was anti-Semitic.

“The disruption of the event featuring Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in spring 2016 and bias incidents that were reported this year were ugly reminders that anti-Semitism, like all forms of discrimination, is real and our community has work to do.”

This new position contradicts the university’s own earlier investigation, which found that the protest targeted Barkat’s politics, not his Jewish identity.

“In the end, the record demonstrates that the protest was directed towards the Mayor of Jerusalem based on his politics, and not towards any of the audience members,” the investigation concluded.

Equating Jews with Israel

Barkat oversees the ongoing forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

In 2016, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem, hit a new record.

Yet the lawsuit frames the protest against Barkat as an attack on Jewish students on campus, not as political speech against a foreign government’s objectionable behavior.

The complaint alleges for instance that protesters “had every intention of making the Jews in the room feel intimidated and that they reveled in threatening them.”

Such assertions manufacture the anti-Semitism the lawsuit claims to expose, by identifying all Jews with Israel and Israel with all Jews. This is absurd on its face, not least because Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and are opposed not only by Palestinians and dozens of governments but by also by many Jewish groups and activists, including Israelis.

The lawsuit also describes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights as “inherently anti-Semitic.” It attempts to link BDS activists to “terrorist” organizations.

It even claims that murdered Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali’s iconic character Handala – a child holding a key who represents Palestinian refugees’ desire to return home – is “an established anti-Semitic symbol.”

The image of a key is often used by Palestinians as a reminder of the houses they left behind in the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But to the plaintiffs, “the key represents the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”

The spirit of 1968

Another target of the lawsuit is San Francisco State University’s historic College of Ethnic Studies.

“Unfortunately, part of the legacy that evolved from [the College of Ethnic Studies] has been an extremely disturbing pattern of blatant anti-Jewish animus at SFSU,” the complaint claims.

The first of its kind, the College of Ethnic Studies was founded in 1969 after the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front waged the longest campus strike in US history, starting the year before.

It quickly became a model for Black and ethnic studies programs across the country.

In 2007, in the same spirit, San Francisco State University founded the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative. Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who teaches in the department, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies.

The university’s statement responding to the lawsuit does not mention or defend the college.

Abdulhadi has been the repeated target of Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian attacks by Israel advocates.

“These right-wing, pro-Israeli groups are well funded but tiny,” Abdulhadi told The Electronic Intifada. “They don’t represent a consensus of the Jewish community.”

“They are trying to stop the scholarship and activism on campus,” she added. “They are attacking the spirit of 1968.”

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Comments

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1. Palestine was a Nation State in accordance with the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine Article 7 (Palestinian Nationality Law was adopted 1925 per Article 7).

The Palestinian citizenship can be acquired since 1925. But nobody can become “Jewish” by acquiring a citizenship of any country.

2. If San Francisco State University is “among the worst of the worst” campuses for Jewish students, then why do Jewish students go there? Nobody is forcing them to, and they certainly would not enroll there if things were really that bad. So the conclusion must be that that statement is among the the worst of the worst exaggerations.

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Thank you for this informative comment. Despite being involved with Israel and Palestine for roughly 45 years and living there for 4, I had never been aware that there actually was such a thing as Palestinian citizenship beginning in 1925. I don't think knowledge of this is widespread. Any time someone uses the idiotic claim that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, I will ask if they know this piece of history, which I didn't know until just now.

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The fact that Ms. Goldstein, a member of the Lawfare Project and a shill for the, so-called, "pro-Israel community" has the audacity and, may I add, the monumental ignorance to pronounce that, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian person", is clearly another sign of the desperation that Israel, Zionists, and the Israel Lobby manifests in order to prop up, and defend, a racist, apartheid, white supremacist state, i.e. Israel.
But, what is most significant is that these feelings of desperation by supporters of Israel and Zionism are now being manifested in an open forum where they feel the need to state their case publicly since the nefarious actions by the Israel Lobby are weakening and no longer working.
In the past, the insidiousness of the Israel Lobby was predominately done through stealth and surreptitiousness to mask what they were actually promulgating but now, as the public are becoming more conscience of the duplicity of the Israel Lobby and are more aware of just what kind of Illegitimate state Israel is, individuals like Ms. Goldstein are making these ludicrous pronouncements publicly.
The fact that Ms. Goldstein claims that there is anti-Jewish hatred on campus fails, intentionally I believe, to take into account what Israel does, such as the promotion of mayhem and wars in the Middle East, the fomenting of hatred of Palestinians and Arabs, whatever their religion, and Zionist organizations, such as Campus Watch, who smear individual students who support the BDS Movement or criticize Israel. If there is any animus on campus toward Jewish as well as non-Jewish supporters of Israel and Zionism, as Shakespeare said: "The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves".
Finally, making these issues public will now give the American citizen an opportunity to clearly view just who and what Israel, Zionism, and the Israel Lobby represents.
Ms. Goldstein will only stimulate what is called psychological reactance with the public at-large.

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Ms. Silver not only turns aside from the exclusion of Hillel issue, she seems to prepare us for a possible finding of anti-Semitic bias by the SFSU administration.
Within the current political climate, I for one am not sanguine about 1st Amendment rights and if Hillel was excluded in violation of theirs, then a disservice, with repercussions destructive of all of our rights and particularly Palestinians here, has been done.
And chanting should be done out in the open if it prohibits discourse.

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Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.