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.
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.”
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.
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.”