SFSU Concludes Protest Targeted Israeli Policies, Not Jewish Students

An independent investigation finds widely publicized allegations against Palestinian student group to be unfounded

Students gather at SFSU. Credit:  GUPS Facebook

Students gather at SFSU. Credit: GUPS Facebook

On September 1, San Francisco State University (SFSU) released a report examining a protest of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who visited the campus in April. After interviewing 20 witnesses and reviewing extensive documentation, the impartial investigator concluded that the protest was disruptive, but that it posed no safety risks and focused on the mayor for the policies he promotes. 

When San Francisco Hillel sponsored the mayor on a visit to SFSU on April 6, 2016, a group of 20 student protesters stood on the sidelines inside the venue and chanted in protest of the mayor’s controversial policies towards Palestinians. Following the action, student protestors were accused of threatening Jewish students with violent and anti-Semitic messages. SFSU singled out the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) for discipline despite the participation of many students from diverse groups.

GUPS members were also targeted with death threats, rape threats, online profiling and in-person harassment following the protest. 

The impartial investigator reviewed the facts in-depth and spoke to a diverse set of witnesses from both sides, including Palestinian and Jewish participants in the protest. The report concluded:  

  • The protest targeted the mayor for his policy positions; the protest did not target fellow students, and did not target individuals for their Jewish identity.   

  • The protest posed no safety threats.  

  • While the protesters caused a disruption, the university had permitted similarly disruptive protests without consequence in the past, and university administrators did not intervene to warn students during this protest.  

The General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) said in a statement

“[F]or students of conscience, the real disruption was the mayor of occupied Jerusalem coming to campus. His explicit agenda is to remove Palestinians from the city and he was given a platform to whitewash and propagate his policies. Not only were we subjected to this hate monger, but we were investigated for months and publicly smeared as violent and anti-Semitic. The report proves that these allegations are false.” 

President Leslie Wong indicated that SFSU is re-examining speech policies and planning to ensure full implementation for future campus protests. Palestine Legal will continue to monitor how speech policies are applied at SFSU.  

Palestine Legal Staff Attorney Liz Jackson cautioned, “The investigator’s report noted that restrictions on student protest are not always applied evenly at SFSU. This confirms our experience of a widespread ‘Palestine exception’ to free speech, as Israel advocates pressure universities to suppress speech favoring Palestinian rights. Such pressure easily results in discriminatory and overly restrictive application of speech policies against those who express a particular viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment.”

This case repeats an all too familiar pattern: Israel advocacy organizations broadcast allegations that student protests for Palestinian rights are threatening and anti-Semitic; in response, lengthy university investigations consistently find such charges to be unsubstantiated.  

Just last week UC Irvine dismissed similar allegations against protesters from Students for Justice in Palestine after a thorough investigation could not substantiate them. In May 2016, Brooklyn College dismissed charges of anti-Semitism bought against student activists, finding them “not culpable,” but only after a lengthy hearing process. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education dismissed similar allegations at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Irvine. 

See SFSU’s Report here.

The director of The Lawfare Project, Brooke Goldstein, recently indicated plans to file additional legal challenges alleging antisemitism, and she identified UC Irvine and SFSU as likely targets. The Lawfare Project uses law to suppress advocacy for Palestinian rights. 

"The goal is to make the enemy pay," Goldstein said at a conference on strategies to combat BDS, "and to send a message, a deterrent message, that similar actions such as those that they engage in will result in massive punishments."