On Monday, April 3rd, 2017, a group of 25 diverse students from SF Hillel's community sent this letter to SF State's President Wong expressing their concerns over the president's invitation of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to campus and other recent events:
Dear President Wong:
We are writing as SF State Jewish and/or Hillel students with serious questions and concerns about your recent actions. Unilaterally inviting and bringing the Mayor of Jerusalem back to campus with one week’s notice, and without consulting a single student, appears to be a reckless political stunt. We do not see what it is designed to achieve. If you have a clear vision for creating a welcoming and inclusive climate for Jewish students on this campus, we want to understand what it is. Because, unfortunately, your actions are actively undermining Jewish student life, and enabling an environment causing actual discrimination against Jewish students.
We are diverse in our ethnicities, backgrounds, religions and viewpoints. Some of us are zionists while others are not. Some of us strongly support Israel’s government and others are strong critics. Whether we each agree with Mayor Barkat’s opinions or not, he is an important political figure with a specific viewpoint. We will welcome Mayor Barkat as we did left-wing Israeli journalist Ari Shavit and OneVoice Palestine’s Samer Makhlouf.
However, we do not understand your recent actions.
First, there are serious problems affecting Jewish students here. As you know, we were excluded from participating in the Know Your Rights fair on the basis of our Hillel affiliation. Also, last year you told us during your speech at our Passover seder that it was unacceptable that some Jewish students don’t feel comfortable wearing Jewish symbols on campus. But we have literally heard nothing from you since. More concerning, we recently learned you stated you do not even consider these issues to be a matter that the President should deal with. This was shocking to hear. You have done nothing to address a climate where other students feel free to yell “Get the F--- Off Our Campus” at Jewish students and physically confront them. The token act of bringing the Mayor of Jerusalem back, particularly when done is such a thoughtless way, shows no serious effort to confront the deep cultural problems at this university.
Second, your event registration page says you are bringing Mayor Barkat back to show “commitment to the principles of free speech and the open exchange of ideas.” If this is true, why is this event basically taking place in secret? We only learned about this event from Hillel. This isn’t publicized on any SF State websites or your twitter accounts. We never received an email from you or your staff about it. So this isn’t really a serious attempt for an “open” exchange of ideas. There is a real problem on campus, where unpopular views are shouted down, Jewish students are excluded from participating in campus events, students get in physical fights over hairstyles and, as Prof. Marc Dollinger has described, there is a “normalization of anti-normalization.” If you actually cared about the open exchange of ideas, should you not bring different perspectives, and create forums that encourage students to come together and share ideas? Having one government representative “talk at” an audience in a badly publicized event does nothing.
Third, if you’re serious about improving the campus climate, why would you not engage students about bringing Mayor Barkat back? Why bring the Mayor back with one week’s notice, when you’re not even going to be in town? We do not understand. Have you thought about the repercussions of your actions for Jewish students? Sure, you’ve announced this is “the President’s” event. But because Hillel invited Mayor Barkat last year, the campus community will create an association and assume our involvement. At a time of increased anti-semitism nationally, locally, and on this campus, we are trying even harder than usual to further our relationships and show solidarity with other campus groups. As an affected minority group in the new political climate, how indifferent could you be to our work on campus? If you had spoken to your own students before taking this action, we would have told you how much harder it will make our efforts.
Fourth, why would you announce this during Palestine Awareness Week and have the Mayor come during Islamic Awareness Week on campus? This is such an insult to Muslim and Palestinian students. We do not understand how you could be so insensitive.
Fifth, Hillel’s main speaker for the semester, Yavilah McCoy, has been scheduled, for months, to come on Wednesday April 5. Yavilah McCoy is a national expert on identity politics, intersectionality, and how people can hold multiple ethnic and cultural identities at the same time. Now you have unilaterally scheduled Nir Barkat for the next day. This overshadows and takes away from the attention for this event, which was designed to bring students together. And this is all based on a commitment to “the open exchange of ideas.”
Many of us plan to attend the Nir Barkat event, if we can get out of class and work, because we want to take a stand against the anti-normalization that is becoming the norm on campus. But we strongly oppose your reckless invitation, without any outreach to students, that will likely generate more anger and division - not less.
In terms of prioritization, we would suggest you devote more effort to filling the Director of Human Relations position, which still remains unfilled a year after the Mayor’s shout down. If someone was currently in that position, do you think that they would have supported this visit and its consequences for students?