San Francisco Hillel filed a baseless complaint against a committee of organizers from the Latinx, Arab, and Muslim communities at San Francisco State University (SFSU) after the organizers did not invite Hillel to have a table at a Know Your Rights (KYR) fair in February 2017. Hillel alleged that it was excluded based on religious discrimination. After a 5-month factual investigation, SFSU determined the allegations of religious discrimination to be unfounded.
While finding no religious discrimination, SFSU did find organizers of the Fair responsible for “retaliation” and viewpoint discrimination. “There are no facts that support the conclusion that retaliation against Hillel occurred. This is a politically motivated decision to punish and silence people who stand up for Palestinian rights and dare to protect themselves in a climate of repression. We will appeal this piece as far as we need to go,” commented Liz Jackson, attorney with Palestine Legal who represents the student organizers of the Fair.
The Know Your Right Fair was designed to support students facing intensified government persecution. Organizers were concerned with Trump’s executive orders targeting Arab, Muslim, LGBTQ, and undocumented communities.
Event organizers contacted community partners engaged in supporting students from the targeted communities. Groups such as the ACLU, immigrant rights, and trans rights organizations signed up to speak on panels and table. Hillel, which was not on the initial invitation list, contacted the organizing committee and requested to 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.
“SF 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. In SF 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. They do this repeatedly, with university complicity,” explained student organizer Saliem Shehadeh.
“The mission of the event was to bolster protections for students facing government repression. Hillel collaborates with law enforcement targeting anti-colonial political organizing and black and brown bodies. This directly undermines the mission of the Fair,” continued Shehadeh.
“This baseless complaint clearly reinforces why Hillel was not invited to table in the first place,” explained Liz Jackson, staff attorney from Palestine Legal. “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. 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.”
This case follows many others in Hillel’s long record of legal bullying to punish political dissent. For example, in April 2016, SF Hillel hosted a speaking event with the Mayor of Jerusalem, a city under Israeli occupation. Mayor Barkat implements policies of home demolitions, de jure discrimination, and racial quotas against Palestinians. When students protested the talk, SF Hillel broadcast false allegations that protesters were anti-Semitic and physically threatening towards Jewish students. The accusations resulted in widespread smearing and cyber bullying of SFSU student protesters, including death and rape threats. SFSU retained a legal expert on discrimination who conducted a factual investigation and determined that SF Hillel’s allegations against student protesters were unfounded. The protest focused on the mayor, for his policies, not Jewish students.
Hillel International has an institutional policy of viewpoint discrimination called the “Hillel Israel Guidelines” which prohibit campus Hillel affiliates, including SF Hillel, from hosting speakers who support boycotting Israel. Hillel enforces its Israel Guidelines through expulsion and the threat of legal action against students who dissent.
The allegation against the organizers of the Fair is one of the major allegations in the lawsuit brought by the rightwing “Lawfare Project” against SFSU administrators, staff, and the Arab Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) studies founding director Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi. The Lawfare Project is explicit in its aims: “The goal is to make the enemy pay … and to send a message, a deterrent message, that similar actions such as those that they engage in will result in massive punishments,” explained Lawfare Project Director Brooke Goldstein, who filed the suit against SFSU.
This lawsuit culminates a long history of attacks by a network of anti-Palestinian organizations targeting the General Union of Palestine Students, Palestinian scholar Dr. Abdulhadi at SFSU, and the AMED studies program.