On Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, 5 students from SF Hillel replied to President Wong's response to their earlier letter of concern regarding the campus climate at SF State. Their letter, and President first response are included.
Dear President Wong:
Thank you for your response of April 5. However, you responded to only some of our concerns, and we are collectively shocked by the implication at the end of your reply - that institutionalized anti-Semitism is not an issue for the President of a public university, especially one that that celebrates its diversity. If you recall, two years ago, Hillel supported the University when an outside entity alleged that SF State was one of America’s most anti-semitic campuses. We did not agree with the motivations or strategies of that list, but today we can no longer defend the University in good faith from charges of anti-Semitism.
Your reply largely ignored the issues we tried to raise. With respect to the Mayor of Jerusalem, we do not dispute you should prioritize security. But that is irrelevant to our major concerns: (1) Jewish and/or pro-Israel speech is treated differently on this campus - you never publicized the event to students and, ironically, your first public communication was your tweet criticizing the Mayor for canceling; and, (2) you did not consult any of the student groups likely to be affected by the Mayor’s visit. You invited Mayor Barkat a month before his scheduled visit. Why didn’t you start preparing students and your team then? Because of the way you recklessly handled this event, Palestinian groups were angered and made very troubling statements, including a call to “End ties with fascists, racists, and Zionists on SFSU campus.” To be clear, you yourself have increased the polarization of campus, pushing people towards positions of divisiveness and offense rather than bringing students together.
We also think you caused a genuine safety issue. We understand protesters planned to break into the Barkat speech. We believe the frustration and anger you provoked by the reckless way you planned this event would have gone beyond peaceful demonstration and potentially led to physical hostility. You yourself are putting Jewish and Hillel students in harm’s way.
You came to our Hillel house last year, looked students in the eyes, and told us that the decision to tell the university police to stand down stemmed from concern that the confrontation would escalate to violence. What has changed? Perhaps your police force is more prepared, but nothing has been done to combat the anger and culture of anti-normalization at the heart of the protest.
As importantly, your reply also brushed aside the issues relating to anti-Semitism on this campus. We are still waiting for you, as the leader of the university, to genuinely respond. This is not an issue where we “all have a role to play”. To be clear, we don’t think Jewish students are the only ones being affected by the culture you are creating on this campus. We’ve seen hostility towards your leadership from many groups at SF State. But the effect on Jewish and Hillel students has now crossed the line.
Participation in Jewish life at SF State has become increasingly politicized. As you know, on the quad, and in classrooms, we have to decide every day whether we need to take a stand - again - against lies, intimidation, and one-sided stereotypes. We know that prospective Jewish students have decided not to come to SF State precisely because of the campus climate. As Jewish students and students with an interest in Israel, we are all still learning and trying to decide how we fit into both Israel’s and our own Jewish narratives. Because of the hostile climate on SFSU’s campus, we are forced to pick sides and hide who we are.
We cannot in one letter re-raise all the issues we have previously brought to your attention about recent anti-Semitism on campus.
We still have heard nothing from you on our exclusion from the Know Your Rights fair - in fact, we have not even had our initial intake interviews yet, almost two months after the event. We contrast this to your immediate and impassioned campus-wide condemnation of the David Horowitz posters (which we also condemned). It seems there is an alarming double-standard. We also now know, from our advisors, that anti-semitic rumors of “zionist power” freely flow, and are repeated, throughout the University and your administration.
We are also sad to learn you are out of the loop on the Director of Human Relations position search. As participants in the search, we can share that only one finalist was interviewed and deemed unsuitable. We understand ASI shares our frustration about the pathetic slowness of this process, and the fact it is back to square one. Again, if any of this was a matter of Presidential concern, and a priority for you, the position would likely be filled already.
We end this letter as we started our previous communication to you. Please share with us your vision for Jewish student safety and inclusion on this campus. When does institutionalized anti-semitism become a Presidential issue? How far does it have to go?
In terms of specific steps, the following would go a long way towards demonstrating a serious commitment to change:
From: President's Office
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 1:18:23 PM
To: Rachael Pauline Cunningham; Leslie Wong; Alison M Sanders; Luoluo Hong
Subject: Re: Letter of Concern from Jewish and Hillel Students
Dear Jewish and Hillel students,
Thank you for sharing your concerns with me about the upcoming event with Mayor Nir Barkat. By now you have likely heard that Mayor Barkat has decided to cancel his visit to San Francisco State University, and the event we had scheduled for Thursday April 6 has been cancelled. Mayor Barkat cited lack of publicity and dissatisfaction with the organization of the event as the primary reasons.
I understand fully your frustration, and I share many of your concerns. However, this situation is a complicated one, so I’d like to provide some context for the visit, so you can better understand all the factors at play.
Last April, Mayor Barkat visited campus and his presentation to students, faculty and staff was disrupted. Subsequently, I extended the invitation for him to return to campus the next time he was in the Bay Area. In that invitation, I asked for at least three weeks’ notice so the campus could adequately prepare for his visit to campus. This preparation includes an array of activities from logistics and security to communication to our varied stakeholders about the event. I committed to hosting a safe event where a respectful dialogue could occur.
Unfortunately, and similar to last year, the notice Mayor Barkat would be coming to campus came to my office very late. He offered one date and time, the morning of April 6, for his visit. I felt as though I should fulfill my promise to host the Mayor Barkat, despite his office not giving San Francisco State the preparation time requested. Since the confirmation of the event with his office on March 29, we have been expeditiously organizing for his arrival, with safety and respectful dialogue as the primary focus of our preparations. We have communicated with numerous groups directly, both on- and off-campus about the event. My goal in inviting Mayor Barkat to return to campus has always been to allow him the chance to speak that was taken from him, and you, last year.
I empathize with your frustrations and I fully agree there is more work to do to build a better campus climate. I also want to correct some of the assertions in your letter.
I have said many times that your safety and well-being, and the safety of all SF State students, is my top priority. I have been working with my leadership team since we met last year to address the systemic issues that were illuminated when Mayor Barkat visited our campus last year. We’ve implemented an array of new processes and programs to work to improve the climate on our campus, and we continue this work today. The search for the director of human relations is in the finalist stage and the University hopes to appoint a successful candidate as a result of the committee’s ultimate recommendation. Campus safety takes all our cooperative effort. It is not just the President's job – we all have a role to play.
Your voices, safety and feelings of well-being are extremely important to me. I would like to invite you to work with my leadership team in ongoing dialogue to continue addressing the climate issues you raise in your letter and when we spoke last year. These issues on our campus have manifested over time and change will only come with sustained effort and concentration, making our campus a more welcoming place for all our students.