After more than a week of angry reaction by pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat abruptly canceled a scheduled April 6 appearance at San Francisco State University that was not publicly promoted.
Instead, Barkat plans to attend a private local event that same day sponsored by AIPAC.
In an April 5 statement about his decision, Barkat pointed to SFSU’s handling of his appearance, noting that the university had “offered a ticketed, limited event, and no legitimate effort was made on the part of the University to publicize the event.” The speaking engagement was intended to be open to the public, and not private or semi-private event.
He further charged that “by failing to provide the necessary public forum… the University has contributed to the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state.”
The uproar comes exactly one year after Barkat’s last appearance at SFSU, when anti-Israel students shut down his speech.
The new controversy erupted almost immediately after word got out on March 29 that SFSU President Les Wong had personally invited Barkat to speak without consulting or coordinating with faculty or interested campus groups, including Hillel, on how best to promote and handle the appearance.
Wong admitted he had little time to prepare. His director of news and news media, Mary Kenny, said it was Barkat who gave the April 6 date as the only one that would work for him. In a written statement on April 5, he said Barkat had canceled due to “lack of publicity and dissatisfaction with organization of the event.” Wong added: “Given the short notice of his visit, we quickly put together a plan that prioritized the safety of the Mayor and our community while facilitating respectful dialogue. Certainly, our plan was not perfect, but it was the best we could do given the time available to prepare.”
That wasn’t good enough for some students and pro-Palestinian activists, unhappy for different reasons.
An open letter to Wong, signed by 25 Jewish students, called the invitation to Barkat “a reckless political stunt.” The students criticized the administration’s failure to publicize the event (it was not advertised on any SFSU event calendars, web pages or social media) and for scheduling it during Islamic Awareness Week on campus.
Though the signers of the letter said they would normally welcome Barkat, they further chided Wong for actions that persist at “undermining Jewish student life, and enabling an environment causing actual discrimination against Jewish students.”
For their part, activists calling themselves Bay4Palestine released a statement titled “Get Ethnic Cleanser Nir Barkat Out of SFSU.” The statement blasted Wong for extending the invitation to “a person who symbolizes Zionist settler colonialism,” and demanded that the university president “revoke the call for invitation of Nir Barkat” and “end ties with fascists, racists and Zionists on SFSU campus.”
In April 2016, Barkat’s appearance at SFSU was disrupted by protesters organized by the General Union of Palestine Students, or GUPS, who chanted anti-Israel slogans and prevented Barkat from speaking.
Though Barkat managed to huddle in a corner to meet with students who wanted to hear him speak, the incident sparked a flurry of condemnations and an admission from the university that it had “failed our students.”
In promising to better manage free speech issues in the future, the university instituted a five-point plan, which included training SFSU staffers and campus police, as well as crafting protocols for dealing with protesters.
In addition, the university touted a newly created post of director of human relations that would “promote civil discourse, foster intercultural learning and cross-cultural understanding within a social justice framework,” according to a report SFSU released last September several months after the Birkat debacle.
To date, no one has been appointed to fill that position.
Barkat, clearly still stung by the treatment he received a year ago, ended his statement this week by saying, “The University has demonstrated that they will protect the rights of anti-Israel students to drown out diverse voices through violent incitement.”