San Francisco State University (SFSU) is at the heart of a multipronged legal effort by Israel advocacy organizations seeking to silence students and faculty who stand for Palestinian rights.
A lawsuit filed by the Lawfare Project against SFSU and Professor Rabab Abdulhadi in June 2017 is the latest episode in the years-long suppression campaign. The suit conflates criticism of Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights with anti-Jewish animus, and asserts that the university violated the rights of Jewish students by tolerating advocacy for Palestinian freedom.
SFSU is the site of historically groundbreaking social movements, including the 1968 student-led strike that established the first Ethnic Studies department in the U.S.. This legacy of activism includes a rich history of support for the rights of Palestinians, particularly by the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), a student group active at SFSU since 1980, and Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED), established by Dr. Abdulhadi in 2007.
Palestine advocacy at SFSU has for years drawn the ire of right-wing pro-Israel organizations, most recently the Lawfare Project and the AMCHA Initiative. The suppression has targeted not only Dr. Abdulhadi’s scholarship and GUPS activism, but also the ethnic studies department, and the cross-movement solidarities among students of color resisting settler-colonialism. Dr. Abdulhadi analyzes these attacks in her piece, “The spirit of ’68 lives on! Palestine advocacy and the indivisibility of justice.”
Palestine Legal has worked to defend against the misuse and abuse of the law in these organizations’ coordinated legal bullying campaigns.
Below is a summary of the recent chapters of suppression at SFSU.
Lawfare Suit Targets Professor Abdulhadi, Demands University Curtail Support for Palestine
In June 2017, the Lawfare Project filed a lawsuit against SFSU and Dr. Abdulhadi, alleging that advocacy and scholarship for Palestinian justice creates a climate of antisemitism that violates the rights of Jewish students. The Lawfare suit relies on the conflation of anti-Jewish animus with criticism of Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. The lawsuit revolves around two major campus events – the 2016 Nir Barkat protest, and the 2017 Know Your Rights Fair investigation – both described below.
The lawsuit personally targets Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, describing her academic research, her political activism, her past role as faculty advisor to GUPS, and her establishment of an exchange program with a Palestinian university. Despite at least 13 pages dedicated to inflammatory accusations against Dr. Abdulhadi, the lawsuit fails to make a single actionable claim against her, as her legal team explained in her motion to dismiss, filed in August 2017.
To support its claims against the university, the Lawfare complaint highlights as “fact” a controversial and debunked re-definition of antisemitism that classifies virtually all criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Dr. Abdulhadi moved to have this definition struck from the complaint because of the extent to which the Lawfare Project had distorted and mischaracterized it. SFSU moved to have the definition—and the rest of the complaint—struck entirely because of its confusing language, disorganized structure, and lengthy passages of scandalous and irrelevant allegations. SFSU also moved to dismiss the complaint because of its legal insufficiency.
As of October 2017, Dr. Abdulhadi and the university are awaiting a ruling on their motions to strike and dismiss the suit.
Letters of Support for Professor Rabab Abdulhadi
Middle East Studies Association Letter to SFSU President Wong, (June 29, 2017)
Petition of Scholars and Students to SFSU President Wong
Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish Caucus Statement in Support of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi Against Censorship Campaigns (August 23, 2017)
Feminist Statement in Support of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (August 2017)
Jewish Community Statement of Support for Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (July 14, 2017)
California Scholars for Academic Freedom Letter to President Wong (June 28, 2017)
Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine Letter to SFSU President Wong and CSU Board of Trustees (July 8, 2017)
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Statement in Support of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi
National Lawyers Guild International Committee Statement in Support of Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (August 15, 2017)
United Auto Workers Local 2865 Letter of Support for Professor Rabab Abdulhadi
More from Palestine Legal about the case:
Unfounded Charges of Antisemitism at SF State Protect No One, David Spero, SF Examiner, (October 19, 2017)
The spirit of ’68 lives on! Palestine advocacy and the indivisibility of justice, Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Mondoweiss, (July 14, 2017)
Struggling for justice at San Francisco State University, Saliem Shehadeh, Mondoweiss, (July 13, 2017)
No Sanctuary for Palestinian Scholarship, Diana Block, Counterpunch, (May 20, 2017)
Lawyer Who Says Palestinians Don’t Exist Sues San Francisco University, Charlotte Silver, Electronic Intifada, (June 23, 2017)
Free speech or hate speech? Campus debates over victimhood put universities in a bind, Washington Post, (October 20, 2017)
SF Hillel Charges “Religious Discrimination” Against Know Your Rights Fair Committee
Responding to heightened fears of government persecution with the 2016 presidential election, a committee of organizers from SFSU’s Latinx, Arab, and Muslim communities organized a Know Your Rights Fair in February 2017. The fair focused on the Arab, Muslim, LGBTQ, and undocumented communities, which were targeted by executive orders from the Trump administration.
The organizing committee, made up of students, faculty and staff, invited a number of student and non-profit groups that they believed would contribute to the mission of the fair to table at the event. Because organizers did not invite Hillel to table at the fair, and denied Hillel’s subsequent request to table, San Francisco Hillel made a baseless allegation that they had been excluded from the fair based on religious discrimination. Palestine Legal represented student members of the organizing committee throughout a five-month factual investigation, during which students explained to investigators that their decision not to extend Hillel an offer to table was based on Hillel’s record of discrimination against, exclusion of, and attacks on students advocating for Palestinian rights.
In July 2017, SFSU determined the allegation of religious discrimination to be unfounded. SFSU did find organizers of the fair responsible for “retaliation”—a charge added only days before the decision was issued—and viewpoint discrimination—a charge the organizers learned about after the decision had been made. Committee members have appealed the decision.
The now-debunked claims of religious discrimination at the fair are one of the central themes in the Lawfare lawsuit against SFSU described above.
More from Palestine Legal about the case:
Defamatory Horowitz Posters Target SFSU Students and Faculty
In a series of inflammatory poster attacks, the David Horowitz Freedom Center put up posters around the SFSU campus smearing members of the SFSU community who support Palestinian rights as terrorist supporters.
The posters have appeared in October 2016, May 2017 and September 2017. They included one with names of SFSU students, and one with a caricature of Palestinian professors Dr. Abdulhadi and Dr. Jess Ghannam. The posters featured false allegations of “Terrorist Supporters” and the caption “#JEWHATRED.” Versions of the posters have been repeatedly plastered on other campuses around the country. The David Horowitz Freedom Center is designated as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2016, Palestine Legal joined American Muslims for Palestine, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and local chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Jewish Voice for Peace to demand that SFSU protect campus members targeted by the hateful posters.
But the administration was widely criticized for failing to provide institutional support to the Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim community. In September, 2017, The Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) organized with GUPS and Black Student Union (BSU) urging the administration “to comply with the demands from GUPS, Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) and members of the Palestinian community.”
Associated Students (Student Government) Letter in Solidarity to SFSUs Palestinian Community
More from Palestine Legal about the posters:
Islamophobia at Home at San Francisco State University, Huffington Post (September 24, 2017).
Hate Speech Posters Cover SF State, Again, Golden Gate Express, (September 28, 2017).
SFSU Students Investigated for Protest of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
In April 2016, San Francisco Hillel sponsored a visit from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to SFSU. A diverse group of 20 student protesters stood on the sidelines inside the venue and chanted in protest of the mayor’s controversial policies towards Palestinians. As the students explained, they felt a “responsibility as student leaders for equality to act ethically and stand up against oppression wherever it may occur, including in Palestine.”
In the weeks following the protest, Israel advocacy organizations smeared students who participated in the protest as violent and antisemitic. As a result, they were targeted with death threats, rape threats, online profiling and in-person harassment.
After the protest, SFSU launched an investigation into whether there were violations of campus policy. SFSU hired an independent investigator, who interviewed 20 witnesses and reviewed extensive documentation. The investigator’s report, released in September 2016, concluded that the protest was disruptive, but that it posed no safety risks and focused on the mayor for the policies he promotes, not on the Jewish identity of some event attendees. Palestine Legal represented students throughout the investigation.
Even though the independent investigation rejected allegations of antisemitism as unfounded, the protest now forms a major theme in a lawsuit filed against SFSU in June 2017, described above.
More from Palestine Legal about the investigation:
Attacks on Professor Abdulhadi’s Palestine Research
After returning from a research trip to Palestine and Jordan, Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi organized a campus event in March 2014 to discuss her trip, her research, and the firsthand experiences of Palestinians living under occupation. In response, the AMCHA Initiative launched a campaign demanding SFSU investigate Dr. Abdulhadi. AMCHA argued that Dr. Abdulhadi’s event threatened the safety of Jewish students and contributed to a “hostile environment.”
In May 2014, AMCHA accused Dr. Abdulhadi of misrepresenting the nature and purpose of her trip and abusing taxpayer funds to meet with “known terrorists.” SFSU reviewed the facts and concluded that AMCHA’s allegations had “no merit.” The record (including documents AMCHA cited) demonstrated transparency and accuracy in Dr. Abdulhadi’s application for travel authorization. As SFSU confirmed, Dr. Abdulhadi correctly reported the purpose of her trip: to attend an international conference, to meet with diverse figures in Palestinian society as part of her scholarly research, and to collaborate with potential university partners toward a possible memorandum of understanding between SFSU and Palestinian universities. She carried out these activities as planned, though university-imposed delays in approving travel to “high-risk” countries prevented her from attending the conference. Palestine Legal represented Dr. Abdulhadi throughout the university’s investigation of these allegation.
After SFSU rejected AMCHA’s allegations and affirmed its commitment to Dr. Abdulhadi’s academic freedom, AMCHA continued its campaign, repeating its accusations in a June 2014 complaint to the California State Controller’s office. Palestine Legal, CCR, and other groups wrote the controller, emphasizing the baselessness of the allegations and providing context about AMCHA’s ongoing efforts to intimidate and silence those with whom it disagrees politically. The controller’s office took no action on the complaint.
In August 2014, SFSU audited Dr. Abdulhadi’s international travel for the previous five years, despite having already found AMCHA’s charges baseless. SFSU notified her that they had expanded the review in order to “show the university’s due diligence.” The audit found no wrong-doing. Dr. Abdulhadi reported the toll this unprecedented action took on her in a May 2015 letter to the SFSU Academic Senate:
Because the university administration sat on its hands for seven months while AMCHA continued to publicize its false accusations, I spent my 2014 sabbatical responding to those attacks and providing support and reassurance to my students whose learning environment was severely disrupted by the intensity and malevolence of AMCHA’s attempt to destroy our program [AMED] and implicitly brand them, by association with me, as potential “terrorists.” As a result I was unable to work on the book I had planned to write during my sabbatical and am now behind schedule in completing the research and publications necessary to advance to a full professorship.
The same unfounded allegations that AMCHA made against Dr. Abdulhadi are now featured in a lawsuit against SFSU, described below. SFSU has asked the court strike out references to these allegations in the lawsuit, writing:
Because they are not relevant to any cause of action, the allegations regarding Professor Abdulhadi’s “meeting with terrorists” should also be stricken as scandalous. …The inflammatory term “terrorist” is routinely applied in a highly political and racially charged manner to demonize brown, black, and Muslim people. The attempt to associate Professor Abdulhadi with violence by alleging that she met with Leila Khaled is analogous to scurrilous attempts to paint Barack Obama as “pallin’ around with terrorists” because of his association with 1960s radical William Ayers.
Statement from Dean of SFSU College of Ethnic Studies
Palestine Legal’s Letter to the State Controller
More from Palestine Legal about the case:
AMCHA Smear Campaign Against GUPS
The AMCHA Initiative accused GUPS of supporting the murder of Jews after a November 2013 event celebrating the sixth anniversary of a community mural honoring the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. At the event, students from GUPS and an indigenous rights student group set up a table for passersby to make signs with stencils. One of the stencils read, “My heroes have always killed colonizers,” a phrase which students adopted from community events featuring stories of global Indigenous resistance to colonization, in particular the genocide of Native Americans by European colonizers.
Calling the stencil a threat to Jewish students on campus, the AMCHA Initiative accused the event’s student organizers of “glorifying the murdering of Jews” and launched a media campaign demanding that the university investigate and punish the students. The university initially issued a statement condemning the students’ speech and implicitly supporting AMCHA’s charges. After a community outcry, the university issued a second statement emphasizing that “social justice is a strategic priority and our commitment to free speech runs deep.”