On her first day as president of San Francisco State University, Lynn Mahoney found herself in the middle of a simmering Israel controversy.
Mahoney took office the week of July 15, becoming the university’s first female president in a century. Just four days earlier, the Amcha Initiative, a pro-Israel advocacy group that tracks campus anti-Semitism, had sent a letter to CSU Chancellor Timothy White alerting him to anti-Israel posts on the Facebook page of SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program (AMED). The letter had 80 signatories, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to Christians United for Israel.
The letter referenced a new post from AMED shared on July 3 equating Zionism with racism and expressing support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Amcha also cited a post from February 2018 that the chancellor had deemed “unacceptable” but that had not been removed. The post included a statement by Rabab Abdulhadi, a pro-Palestinian activist and associate professor in the school’s ethnic studies and Arab and Muslim studies departments, who wrote that “welcoming Zionists to campus” was akin to a “declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of justice on and off campus.” The page displayed the university’s name with the AMED logo, but it was not sanctioned by SFSU.
It was a prickly welcome for Mahoney, a historian and most recently chief academic officer at Cal State Los Angeles. But it was hardly a surprising start at a university known for its anti-Israel activism and, in recent years, controversies involving Jewish and pro-Israel contingencies.
In 2016, pro-Palestinian protesters used a PA system to shout down then-mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat during an on-campus event sponsored by San Francisco Hillel. In 2017, a group of current and former Jewish students and community members filed lawsuits against the university alleging a “disturbing pattern of anti-Jewish animus” on campus dating back to the 1960s. One suit was dismissed by a federal judge, and the other was settled out of court earlier this year by way of non-monetary compensation and an official statement from the university acknowledging that “Zionism as an important part of Jewish identity.”
Mahoney was diplomatic, if a bit hands off, in her response to the July letter; she did not publicly condemn the AMED posts, frustrating the Amcha Initiative and its backers, and she stressed that the page in question is not under the university’s control.
It was a similar approach to one she took last month during an hourlong sit-down interview.
Speaking to J. from her corner office, laden with books and festooned with S.F. State Gators paraphernalia, she addressed topics ranging from ethnic and cultural diversity at the university, to challenges associated with fostering political diversity, to turning the page on recent disputes involving pro-Israel students.
In her response to those conflicts, Mahoney was consistent; she distanced the university from the views expressed by individual students or professors and trumpeted the Jewish studies program and its diversity. Ultimately, she came down on the side of defending free speech — barring danger to the health and safety of students — while remaining sympathetic to those who might be “wounded” by it.
“I’m a firm believer that you combat words with words,” Mahoney said. “As a historian, I have never seen, historically, the successful use of censorship.” She conceded that the Facebook posts were “inflammatory.” But “the good news is it has precipitated lots of conversations.”
Mahoney, 55, earned a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers and has focused much of her scholarship on the construction of gender, race and class in the United States. She studied the Jewish experience as a faculty member in the SUNY school system, where she created a course on race and ethnicity in the U.S. One of the texts she assigned was “Yekl,” by the Forward founder Abraham Cahan.
Among the nearly 30,000 students at S.F. State, figures from 2018 show 22 percent identifying as Mexican American, 19 percent as white, 17 percent as Asian American, 10 percent as “other Latino” and 5 percent as African American.
“San Francisco State is spectacular in its diversity,” Mahoney said. “If you have a chance to walk around campus — this is my third in the [CSU system] and my fifth total — none are as diverse as we are. Ethnically, socioeconomically, religiously and racially.”
“It’s easy to be diverse,” she said. “Now we’re working really hard at being inclusive.”
Mahoney hopes to shift the focus on recent disputes involving pro-Israel students that have dogged the university and, some say, bled into anti-Jewish bias. In 2017, members of the on-campus Hillel were blocked from a “Know Your Rights” fair for populations who were feeling targeted in the current political climate. The incident was included in the lawsuit against CSU claiming discrimination; it was settled in March.
As part of the settlement agreement, the school hired a coordinator of Jewish student life, Sasha Joseph, to work within the Office for Equity and Community Inclusion. Now the school is close to hiring coordinators for Muslim student life and LGBTQ students, hoping to facilitate the creation of safe spaces for their respective groups.
“We have that diversity. The focus is going to be on bringing folks together,” Mahoney said. “I look forward to when the Muslim student coordinator and the Jewish student coordinator host an event together.”
Still, on a campus long known for its culture of protest, she admitted that “there will be some who don’t like” dialogue between Jewish and Muslim leaders. Why? “I don’t want to speak for them,” she said. “All I’m saying is that anytime there is any event on campus, there is some group that doesn’t like it. It’s just who we are.”
Mahoney said she has already shared Shabbat dinner with members of Hillel, but may have a long way to go to repair the rift between the university’s administration and pro-Israel students. Her predecessor, Leslie Wong, drew their ire, particularly after a May 2017 interview with J. in which he equivocated on whether Zionists were welcome on campus.
“That’s one of those categorical statements I can’t get close to,” Wong said at the time. “Am I comfortable opening up the gates to everyone? Gosh, of course not. I’m not the kind of guy who gets into absolutes like that.” When Wong later walked back his statement, students protested by writing “Zionists not welcome” and “Zionism=Racism” in chalk in the campus quad.
Mahoney was asked to weigh in on Wong’s original statement. She thought for a moment.
“Well, first, all people are welcome on campus, regardless of their political or ideological orientation, or whatever the differences,” she said.
She went on to say that some have a “looser use of Zionism” than its dictionary definition. It can be used in “support of a Jewish state,” while others use it very broadly. “It has become conflated with… just anti-colonial. So I think we have a task in front of us to educate, including ourselves, the richer context for this conversation.”
Is writing “Zionism=Racism” on the sidewalk anti-Semitic? “That’s an interesting conversation, Mahoney said. “I can’t speak for the person who did it. What I understand is the pain that will cause to some folks. And that’s where hopefully having this unit of community inclusion [will help].”
In discussing S.F. State’s history of social protest — particularly as an epicenter of the anti-colonial New Left that surged during the civil rights era — Mahoney was asked why she believes there is so much passionate criticism focused on Israel, as opposed to other nations that could be considered colonial powers. She acknowledged her expertise is not in the field. “I’m a U.S. historian,” she said.
Still, “I think it depends on where you are,” she said. “If you go to another university in another part of this country,” it’s different.
“For example, this was not an issue at Cal State L.A. For them, the issue of U.S. relations with Mexico and Central America were much more palpable. There, the Trump administration was the lightning rod, in a way that for some people here, it’s Israel.”
Calling the incidents in question most likely “isolated acts,” she said that the “vast majority of students on this campus are welcoming and supportive of all types of people.”
Whether Mahoney will satisfy the pro-Israel students and interest groups remains an open question. Her handling of the Facebook posts did not — the Amcha Initiative sent two more letters, including one to the university’s general counsel, in an unsuccessful attempt to get the posts taken down.
Mahoney said the university has consulted with “free speech experts” on handling university-adjacent Facebook pages. “Social media is a new terrain,” she said. As a scholar of American history, she believes that issues surrounding free speech and hate speech will be “one of the defining issues of the 21st century.”
“Regardless of what someone posted on a Facebook page, inflammatory or not,” she continued, “we have to work hard on campus to make sure the students who are targeted by that have places on campus and people on campus that they know they can go to for support.
“We will never, in any of these areas, shut down the voices we don’t like,” she said. “But we can minimize the pain they’re causing other people.”