Lawsuit Against SFSU is Culmination of Years-Long Suppression Campaign Targeting Palestine Advocacy

SFSU. Photo: Wiki/Webbi1987

SFSU. Photo: Wiki/Webbi1987

A lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court by the right-wing Zionist organization, The Lawfare Project, against San Francisco State University (SFSU) relies on the complete conflation of anti-Jewish animus with criticism of Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights to assert that SFSU violated the constitutional and civil rights of Jewish students and community members. The true intent of the lawsuit is clear: to ensure that advocates for Palestinian rights are punished for standing up for human rights and justice for Palestinians, who have been dispossessed, occupied, and deprived of basic human rights for 70 years.

To support its claims, the The Lawfare Project’s complaint highlights as “fact” the controversial and debunked re-definition of antisemitism that classifies virtually all criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The lawsuit’s allegations are focused largely on complaints against advocacy for Palestinian rights on campus over the last few years, and include alleged incidents dating back decades. Many of the incidents included in the complaint about which Palestine Legal has factual knowledge have been the subject of lengthy investigations by SFSU in response to relentless campaigns by Israel advocacy groups and individuals who disagree with the viewpoints students were expressing.  

We expect the court will affirm that Palestine advocacy at SFSU is First Amendment protected political speech, not harassment aimed at a protected group, and that universities are intended to be places where rigorous debate and disagreement is encouraged, not punished.  This is the conclusion reached in a similar lawsuit against UC Berkeley. The Department of Education has also dismissed several similar civil rights complaints alleging that advocacy for Palestinian rights caused antisemitic environments.

Palestine Legal has defended students and professors against some of the allegations in the complaint over the last few years. In all of these incidents, a conflation of criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism were central to the allegations. For example:  

  • An investigation into the latest incident included in the complaint is currently ongoing. San Francisco (SF) Hillel made baseless religious discrimination accusations because it was not invited to participate in a Know Your Rights Fair that student groups representing Latino, Arab and Muslim communities organized in response to rising fears in the Trump era. SF Hillel was unable to register a table at the event because the Fair tables were already over-booked. In addition, organizers of the Fair were concerned about Hillel’s explicit policies and practices of exclusion of viewpoints critical of Israel, and its track record of making false accusations against and inviting law enforcement scrutiny on the same communities that were trying to protect themselves through the Fair. SF Hillel’s exclusion from the Fair had nothing to do with the group’s or the students’ religious affiliation.  

  • The protest in April 2016 by SFSU students of a SF Hillel-hosted event featuring Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat April 2016 was spurred by Barkat’s record of implementing 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 antisemitic and physically threatening towards Jewish students. The accusations resulted in widespread smearing and cyberbullying of SFSU student protesters, including death and rape threats. SFSU retained an impartial legal expert on discrimination who conducted a thorough factual investigation and determined that SF Hillel’s allegations were unfounded. The report found that while disruptive of the Mayor’s talk, the protest posed no safety risks and was focused on the mayor for the policies he promotes, not on individuals for their Jewish identity.  

  • Palestinian-American Professor Rabab Abdulhadi has been repeatedly targeted for her scholarship, research and advocacy on Palestine issues. As documented in our 2015 report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech, in response to complaints to SFSU from right-wing harassment group AMCHA Initiative, SFSU conducted a lengthy investigation into Prof. Abdulhadi’s scholarly travel and research. SFSU concluded that AMCHA’s allegations had “no merit.” President Wong issued a statement that “Professor Abdulhadi’s academic work in race and resistance studies requires examination of some of the world’s most challenging and controversial issues. [SFSU] will continue to respect academic freedom, and we will not censor our scholars nor condone censorship by others.” AMCHA’s complaints to the State’s Controller also did not result in any action against Prof. Abdulhadi.