SFSU president promises full investigation after protesters disrupt Jerusalem mayor’s talk

Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat speaking at SFSU on April 6

It was a familiar script: A pro-Israel speaker is invited to a college campus, the talk begins, and anti-Israel protesters disrupt the event. Calls to allow the speech to continue go unheeded, and university administrators wait anxiously in the back of the room until things settle down.

It happens time and time again, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s April 6 talk at San Francisco State University was no exception. The disruption has led to a university investigation of the incident, as well as a promise to improve planning “to better ensure that student events of this nature can occur unimpeded in the future.”

A crowd of about 80, almost half of them protesters, gathered for Barkat’s talk, sponsored by San Francisco Hillel. The protesters — some wearing kaffiyehs, a national symbol of the Palestinian people, and carrying two Palestinian flags — took seats in the back.

Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem since 2008, began his talk with a discussion of Jerusalem’s character as “a place for all peoples” since ancient times. “In Jerusalem, all were treated equally,” he said. That acceptance is in the “specific DNA of the city,” he said, adding that San Francisco and Jerusalem have similar populations of about 800,000.

Barkat began to speak about his partnership with companies and individuals in the tech sector, using data to enhance what he called “clustering” of culture and tourism to make Jerusalem a desirable destination. “Marketing Jerusalem is easy,” he said. “It has a 3,000-year-old brand.”

About 10 minutes into his speech, the protesters got up, stood together in a back corner of the room, waved their flags and began chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Hey Netanyahu, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” “Israel is a racist state” and more.

The event came to a standstill for a time, as Barkat conferred with Hillel staff and three campus security officers arrived. Calls from Hillel assistant director Rachel Nilson for protesters to take their seats went unheeded.

When protesters chanted, “You’re not welcome on this campus, we don’t want you on our campus,” Nilson, speaking into a microphone, replied, “We’re part of this campus.”

After about 20 minutes, Barkat gathered the students who came to listen closely around him in the corner of the room opposite the protesters. Sitting with them, he continued his talk, speaking into a microphone.

But the protesters came prepared with a portable sound system of their own. Barkat was almost inaudible, so students leaned in close to hear him.

Undeterred, Barkat engaged in a dialogue with the students. “Anyone who thinks that calls to violence and wild incitement will succeed in silencing us or deflecting us from our positions is seriously mistaken,” he said.

Later in the day, he tweeted: “We will not allow voices of hate to silence us. Will continue to build and develop #Jerusalem for all! Today @SFHillel”

Barkat left, as scheduled, at 3 p.m. as the protest leader proclaimed, “We kicked Nir Barkat off our campus.”

In a written statement to J., the university said the protesters “acted outside the bounds of respectful dialogue and in conflict with” multiple university regulations.

“I am concerned for the state of civil discourse on our campus,” university president Les Wong said in an April 7 letter to the SFSU community.

“The dean of students and university police will perform a full investigation of this incident to determine if any violations of campus policy occurred,” Wong wrote. “In addition, I am committed to examining the university’s planning and response mechanisms to better ensure that student events of this nature can occur unimpeded in the future.”

Wong’s letter came following a telephone conversation between Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and Garrett Ashley, vice chancellor of the California State University system. According to a statement from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Hier urged an investigation of the incident and reminded the vice chancellor “that 10 pro-Palestinian students in 2011 were convicted in the infamous ‘Irvine 11’ case.” The Irvine 11 refers to a group of student protesters, 10 of whom were sentenced to three years’ probation for disrupting a speech by Israel’s then-ambassador Michael Oren at U.C. Irvine.

An April 7 letter to Wong from S.F. Hillel executive director Ollie Benn, Hillel International CEO and president Eric Fingerhut and S.F. Hillel faculty adviser Marc Dollinger expressed disappointment with “the way in which SFSU failed to provide Mayor Nir Barkat, and more critically, the SFSU students, a safe forum that would uphold the rights and standards of free speech, academic freedom and academic responsibility on campus.”

A joint April 8 statement from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay said they “strongly condemn efforts by anti-Israel activists to censor the speech of others.” They praised Wong’s “clear statement of support for an environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas” and his promise of an investigation.

In a statement from the Anti-Defamation League, Central Pacific regional director Seth Brysk also hailed Wong “for standing up for the principles of free speech and the importance of an unfettered exchange of ideas.”

The General Union of Palestine Students at SFSU didn’t respond to emails seeking comment on Wong’s letter.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.