Palestine solidarity and other campus activists had been accused of religious discrimination for not giving San Francisco Hillel, a Jewish campus group that promotes Israel, a table at the event.
However, the investigation found that organizers of the February 2017 fair were responsible for “viewpoint discrimination” and “retaliation.”
Students were not told of the “retaliation” charge until just four days before the investigation’s decision was due. They were never informed that they were being investigated for “viewpoint discrimination.”
She said that the result was likely meant to appease pro-Israel groups that are behind a lawsuit against the university, accusing it of discrimination against Jews because of the activities of Palestine solidarity activists on campus.
According to Jackson, the accused students were never given any clear explanation of what “retaliation” meant and thus were unable to properly defend themselves against the charge.
The findings were announced in a letter to involved parties over the weekend. The full report has yet to be released.
Hillel’s exclusion from the Know Your Rights fair is a principal claim in the recent lawsuit against San Francisco State University (SFSU), filed by The Lawfare Project, an Israel lobby group whose director asserts that there is no such thing as a Palestinian.
The lawsuit accuses the university of fostering a hostile environment for Jewish students.
Palestine Legal’s Jackson believes the findings of the investigation were an attempt to mollify such groups in the wake of the lawsuit.
Hillel made a “false accusation of anti-Semitism,” Jackson told The Electronic Intifada, reiterating that the university cleared organizers of religious discrimination.
“But there is a heavy pressure campaign in the courts and in the media demanding that SFSU punish the organizers,” Jackson added. “So it’s pretty clear that SFSU went searching for a reason.”
Jackson says that the conclusion that the organizers of the fair had “retaliated” against Hillel was a “creative but erroneous allegation.”
Defending vulnerable groups
The Know Your Rights fair had been organized by Muslim, Arab and Latino community groups on the campus in response to US President Donald Trump’s slate of executive orders targeting immigrants, refugees and Muslims.
According to Palestine Legal, the organizers reached out to groups that were supporting the targeted communities.
They invited the American Civil Liberties Union, a national organization that spearheaded litigation against Trump’s executive order that froze refugee arrivals and barred entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
They did not invite Hillel, but Hillel applied for a table.
“The committee considered Hillel’s record of conduct threatening students, and the fact that there were already 25 organizations signed up for 22 tables, and decided to decline Hillel’s request,” Palestine Legal stated in a press release.
The university found that Hillel was denied a table when there was still room available, according to the letter announcing the investigation’s findings. The evidence the university used is not disclosed in the letter.
Jackson contests this finding. She told The Electronic Intifada that tables were not assigned on a first-come, first-served basis: “The organizers were trying to reserve space for organizations most aligned with the mission of the event, they were still trying to bring groups that work with transgender people and undocumented immigrants.”
“There are no facts that support the conclusion that retaliation against Hillel occurred,” Jackson said.
“Hillel was not invited to table at the event because of its demonstrated record of suppression of student rights, including advocacy for justice in Palestine,” Saliem Shehadeh, a student organizer who represented SFSU’s General Union of Palestine Students on the fair’s planning committee, said.
“In [San Francisco] and across the country, Hillel International has attacked students and professors with unfounded accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism, and called for law enforcement to scrutinize our political speech,” Shehadeh added. “They do this repeatedly, with university complicity.”
Hillel’s history of repressing political speech
In the fall of 2016, Hillel International, the group’s national umbrella, helped pressure the University of California, Berkeley to cancel a student-led course on Palestine, which was only reinstated after a huge public outcry.
In May 2016, the Orange County Hillel chapter falsely accused student protesters at the University of California, Irvine of physically threatening Jewish students on campus – claims that were used in an attempt to pressure the Orange County district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the students.
No criminal investigation was opened, and a school investigation cleared the students of Hillel’s claims.
Shehadeh says that Hillel’s collaboration with law enforcement “directly undermines the mission of the fair.”
Hillel breaking its own rules?
It is also unclear why San Francisco Hillel wanted to participate in an event with groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
Hillel International expressly prohibits cooperation with individuals or groups who advocate for Palestinian rights using BDS.
Hillel chapters have strictly enforced these guidelines. In March, Hillel at Ohio State University expelled a Jewish LGBTQ student group because it co-sponsored a fundraiser for refugees with Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS.
The General Union of Palestinian Students at San Francisco State University actively advocates for BDS and was a principal organizer of the Know Your Rights fair.
San Francisco Hillel did not respond to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.
“The irony is painful. Students of color organized a Know Your Rights fair because they are trying to protect themselves from being maligned and criminalized,” Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson said. “Hillel then wielded false accusations and a legal complaint against the event organizers using the same repression tactics that the organizers were trying to protect themselves from in the first place.”
Palestine Legal intends to appeal the findings.