Israel lobby lawsuit against San Francisco State University collapses

Professor Rabab Abdulhadi speaks to a reporter at a support rally in front of the US District Courthouse in San Francisco, 8 November. 

Sharif Zakout

A federal judge in San Francisco said on Wednesday that he will dismiss a frivolous lawsuit against professor Rabab Abdulhadi and her employer, San Francisco State University.

They were both accused of fostering a hostile environment for Jewish students based on Palestine advocacy and criticism of Israel’s policies.

This is a major victory for US academics and students who are facing a legal assault from pro-Israel groups to punish and censor advocacy for Palestinian rights.

The lawsuit, filed in June, was prepared by The Lawfare Project, a group that describes itself as “the legal arm of the pro-Israel community.”

“I am pleased that the judge saw through the bogus bunch of lies by The Lawfare Project,” Abdulhadi told The Electronic Intifada after the hearing.

Bound to fail

The decision to dismiss the suit proves that these types of legal attempts by Israel advocacy groups “will fail,” Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson said. “They have no merit because the facts they allege are untrue and the legal theory they’re based on is an abuse of civil rights law.”

Live tweeting from the courtroom during the hearing, Palestine Legal said that Judge Orrick began “by describing all the legal problems with the complaint.”

The judge admonished the plaintiffs for filing discrimination complaints about incidents that allegedly occurred between 1973 and 2009 that shed no light on the situation now. He then announced that he would “almost undoubtedly” dismiss the complaint.

But the judge also said he would allow the plaintiffs to amend and resubmit their case.

“We don’t mind that the plaintiffs have a chance to resubmit the complaint because they will have another chance to embarrass themselves,” said Behnam Gharagozli, an attorney for Abdulhadi.

Last year, The Lawfare Project’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.

Major law firm Winston & Strawn LLP filed the suit along with The Lawfare Project.

“Irrelevant allegations”

The 73-page complaint listed 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. The complaint invokes the US State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates criticism of Israel and its Zionist state ideology with anti-Semitism.

A principal incident in the complaint concerns a “Know your rights” fair in February of this year, organized by Muslim, Arab and Latino campus groups in response to US President Donald Trump’s slate of executive orders targeting immigrants, refugees and Muslims.

An on-campus Israel advocacy organization claimed Palestine solidarity groups discriminated against Jewish groups by not inviting them to participate. After a lengthy investigation, San Francisco State University cleared the fair’s organizers of religious discrimination, but found them responsible for retaliation and viewpoint discrimination.

In an August motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, the university called the Lawfare Project’s complaint an attempt “to compel SFSU to restrict the speech and assembly of its other students,” in violation of those students’ free speech rights, adding that the complaint was a “lengthy recitation of irrelevant allegations.”

In late October, six prominent Jewish Studies scholars prepared an amicus brief in defense of Abdulhadi and the university.

Conflation

Before the hearing, dozens of activists rallied outside the courthouse in support of those being targeted over their speech.

Students, faculty and civil rights lawyers have maintained that this complaint, and similar lawsuits by anti-Palestinian lawfare groups, are attempts to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

“This legal bullying attempts to pick up where other members of the pro-Israel network previously failed, namely to get rid of me and dismantle advocacy for justice in Palestine at SFSU,” Abdulhadi stated earlier this week.

Filing claims under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which obligates administrators to ensure that there is no discrimination based on race or national origin in institutions that receive federal funding, these lawfare groups have suffered rounding defeats when their claims have come up for adjudication. But they have been undeterred.

In 2010, the Obama administration expanded its interpretation of the law to include religion, opening the way for complaints alleging that Palestine advocacy harms Jewish students.

“A warning”

Last month, the Trump administration nominated Kenneth Marcus, the head of an Israel lobby group, as director of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

As head of the so-called Brandeis Center for Human Rights, Marcus filed a slew of Title VI complaints to that same office targeting Palestine solidarity activists on campuses across the country. Those complaints failed, but if confirmed, he will be in charge of investigating similar complaints in the future.

Though the lawsuit targeting Abdulhadi will be dismissed, Marcus’ appointment is “a warning,” said Palestine Legal’s Jackson.

“It means that advocates for free speech and academic freedom need to continue to be vigorous in their political and legal advocacy to defend free speech, defend academic freedom and to defend fundamental rights to advocate for justice in Palestine,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

Meanwhile, Abdulhadi said the dismissal of the lawsuit sends a strong message to those trying to silence students and faculty and praised activists and organizations that have fought back.

“For me personally, it renews my faith, my determination [to continue teaching],” Abdulhadi said. “These campaigns are designed to destroy careers. So this is a wake up call to the Zionists to say, you need to back off, and the people won’t allow you to do this.”

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Thanks for this report, and thanks are due also to Professor Abdulhadi, her supporters, and Palestine Legal for taking on and defeating this spurious lawsuit. The record is clear that Brooke Goldstein and the Lawfare Project have earned a reputation for bullying, abuse of the law, and leveling preposterous charges. Soon judges will refuse to entertain suits initiated by them. I suppose that's where Kenneth Marcus comes in. As a committed advocate for Zionism leading the civil rights division of the Department of Education, he is expected to institute a crackdown on the nation's campuses of behalf of Israel and other right wing plaintiffs. At which point the fight takes on a harsher tone.

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My congratulations for the courageous, and victorious, fight by Professor Abdulhadi and others to defend the right to free speech.
The oxygen of open debate and free speech will ultimately expose Zionism/Fascism for exactly what it is--a racist, fascist, white supremacist, imperialist, and genocidal ideology--and crush it along with its unrepentant and pathological supporters and hopefully expedite the demise of Israel (as described by IDF Major General Yair Golan as becoming like Nazi Germany) and return the land that rightfully belongs, and has always rightfully belonged, to the Palestinians.
Finally, Kenneth Marcus' appointment will make not one whit of a difference in stemming the tide against Zionism, Israel, and its supporters. The zeitgeist now favors the Palestinians, BDS, et al.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).