(Article by Cinnamon Stillwell)
San Francisco State University has been in the spotlight lately, and the picture that has emerged is not a flattering one. Following last month's nationwide elections, members of the SFSU chapter of the College Republicans were confronted by an angry mob simply for setting up a table and handing out political literature. Members of the International Socialist Organization, the General Union of Palestinian Students and others surrounded the Republican students, shouting at them to "get out" of SFSU.
After trying to provoke the Republican students, four Middle Eastern women claimed that they had been the victims of racism and physical aggression. Although the exact details are still being disputed by the various parties, police reports and eyewitness accounts appear to back up the College Republicans. It seems that free political expression is no longer welcome at SFSU, at least not if one is espousing unpopular views.
A question arises: How did such a threatening environment become associated with a campus located in one of the most liberal and tolerant cities in the nation? The truth is that SFSU has a reputation for intolerance that goes back at least 10 years. In this case, Republican students, clearly a minority at SFSU, were the targets. But in the past, such animosity was directed mostly at Jewish students or those seen as supporting Israel. Jews at SFSU have been spat on, called names and physically attacked, as well as censured by the administration for defending themselves, even as their attackers went unpunished.
The case of Tatiana Menaker, a Russian Jewish emigré and former SFSU student, is an example of the latter indignity. After committing the "crime" of responding verbally to another student's anti-Semitic epithets during a 2002 rally, she found herself persecuted by the administration.
Pulled into a kangaroo court, threatened with expulsion and ordered by the university to perform 40 hours of community service (but specifically not for a Jewish organization), Menaker was later exonerated after seeking legal assistance from the Students for Academic Freedom and the local Jewish Community Relations Council. But the damage was done.
During my time as a student at SFSU (Class of 1996), I was given a preview of things to come. In 1994, the Student Union Governing Board commissioned a mural to honor the late Black Muslim revolutionary Malcolm X. Designed by members of the Pan Afrikan Student Union and painted by artist Senay Dennis (known also as Refa-1), the finished product was problematic, to say the least. Along with an image of Malcolm X, the not-so-subtle symbols of Stars of David juxtaposed with dollar signs, skulls and crossbones, and the words "African blood," had been painted. Despite the obvious allusion to anti-Semitic blood libels of old, Pan Afrikan Student Union members claimed the symbols represented Malcolm X's alleged opposition to Israel, not to Jews, as if that was some comfort.
Predictably, Jewish students were outraged, as were others truly interested in promoting tolerance on campus. African-American English Professor Lois Lyles made her opposition known by trying to paint "Stop Fascism" on the wall next to the mural. After attempting to paint over the mural on several occasions, only to find the cover-up paint removed by protesters, the administration was forced to take more permanent action. And, on May 26, 1994, under the guard of police in riot gear, the mural was sandblasted, only to be replaced with the kinder, gentler version seen on campus today.
Being Jewish, I was shaken by the incident, but, not yet well versed in the growing anti-Semitism in America's universities, I chalked it up to fringe politics and moved on. Little did I know that this was only the beginning of what would become a familiar scenario at SFSU and beyond. As the Anti-Defamation League puts it, "On campuses across the country, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to demonstrations and activism by pro-Palestinian groups fueled by hatred of Israel and Jews."
Of course, some will automatically object to the characterization of anti-Zionist or anti-Israel sentiment as anti-Semitism. This is a popular refrain among those who are the principal offenders these days. Indeed, sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between the sort of conspiracy-theory-driven rhetoric emanating from the Arab media and the language of many self-described "progressives" in the West. Both use terms such as apartheid, racism and, worst of all, Nazism to characterize Israel's policies toward Palestinians. Yet none of them accurately describe the tiny country that has been fighting for its existence since its inception, and to misuse such loaded terms devalues them of meaning.
But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that people who indulge in such hateful speech have legitimate criticisms of Zionism. At what point does political opposition to Zionism become an excuse for discrimination? According to the pro-Israel advocacy group Stand with Us, Jewish students at SFSU have been "denied positions in student government because they were 'Zionists,'" and "funding was denied to Hillel events because it was [a] 'Zionist' [group]." These injustices occurred in addition to charges of anti-Zionist sentiment on the part of some SFSU professors, despite the potential for intimidating Jewish students.
The flyers hung all over campus in April 2002 displaying a Palestinian baby on a soup-can label and the words "Palestinian Children Meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license" hardly constitute legitimate criticism. Then there was a "Peace in the Middle East" rally, organized by the SFSU Hillel chapter on May 7, 2002. This seemingly innocuous event was beset by pro-Palestinian protesters bellowing such enlightened statements as "Zionists off the campus now," "Go back to Germany, where they knew how to deal with you" and "Hitler should have finished the job." In fact, the counterprotesters became so frenzied that Jewish students had to be escorted off campus under guard by San Francisco Police Department personnel. Is such blatant bigotry considered acceptable behavior when its targets are the "dreaded" Zionists?
Even SFSU President Robert Corrigan seems unable to comprehend the true root of the problem. A statement by him about the issue, "It is not animus towards Jews, but there are strong anti-Zionist feelings on this campus," demonstrates a worrisome blind spot. And Sheldon Axler, dean of the SFSU College of Science, described slogans such as "Down with Zionism" and "Israel is a terrorist state" as "legitimate political expression." Anti-Zionism has indeed achieved a level of acceptance at SFSU and at universities throughout America and western Europe.
Never mind the fact that to be "anti-Zionist" is to oppose the existence of Israel. What else besides anti-Semitism explains the single-minded obsession with a country the size of New Jersey? Israel's alleged human rights offenses are given disproportionate attention, even as countless other nations commit crimes more heinous than anything seen in the Middle East's only democracy. Equality for women, gay rights, democratic institutions, tolerance of various religions and ethnicities are ignored in favor of the misguided view that Israel is the root of all evil in the world.
Increasingly, the myth that if the Middle East conflict were solved (i.e., if Israel were to cease to exist as a Jewish state), Islamic terrorism would come to a halt has made its way into many liberal and some conservative circles -- Pat Buchanan and other isolationists come to mind. But the fact is that Jews were hated before they had a state, and now they're hated for having a state. The very persecution that led Jews to flee Europe after World War II and help rebuild the nation of Israel is now directed at them for having survived the Holocaust. The insistence that Israel stop defending itself against Islamic terrorism also reeks of hypocrisy. Could it be that the very reason people despise Israel so much is because it's a Jewish state? No other explanation holds up under examination.
As for SFSU, it remains to be seen whether the administration will exorcise the cancer of extremism on campus or allow it to fester. While pontificating about "free speech," Corrigan and the SFSU administration continue to underestimate the growing radicalism in their own backyard. As a result, what began with attacks on Jewish students has now spread outward to any students who don't share the liberal politics of the majority.
As we have seen throughout history, Jews are the canary in the coal mine. Those who dismiss their persecution often become targets themselves down the line. Until this reality hits home, SFSU's legacy of intolerance is likely to continue.