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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit alleging hostility against SFSU’s Jewish students

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More than 40 students and community members rallied Wednesday in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building to support SFSU professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against the university. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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A lawsuit alleging a longstanding anti-Semitic culture on San Francisco State University’s campus fostered by the university’s administration and a faculty member was thrown out Wednesday by a federal judge.

The suit was filed against the university, a faculty member and the California State University’s Board of Trustees in June by the Lawfare Project and law firm Winston & Strawn LLP, on behalf of a group of current and former students and community members who are Jewish and claim they have experienced discrimination in hosting and attending on-campus events.

The lawsuit also alleged failure by the university’s leadership to censor various non-Jewish student groups who publicly criticized Israeli policies and disrupted events hosted by Jewish student groups, resulting in a hostile environment on campus for Jewish students that has some fearing for their safety.

“Jews are literally afraid to walk from point A to B on campus — they hide their identity, can’t have the Star of David exposed, because they don’t know what will happen to them,” said Lowell Jacobson, an attorney with Winston & Strawn LLP.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick sided with the university and the professor named in the suit, Rabab Abdulhadi, who filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it aimed to suppress campus debate about Palestinian rights.

SFSU also asked Orrick to dismiss the suit in August, stating that the university had no power to censor free speech on campus.

In a statement issued days after the lawsuit was filed in June, SFSU’s leadership disputed its allegations, asserting that “instances of intolerance or anti-Semitism are neither promoted nor tolerated at S.F. State by the president or by administrators.”

Orrick dismissed the lawsuit but indicated he will allow the plaintiffs to submit a more concise complaint.

The suit was sparked by a 2016 incident in which various SFSU student groups claiming solidarity with the struggle to free Palestine protested a speech held on campus by Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem. The plaintiffs’ complaint also attempted to trace incidents of anti-Semitism at the university back to the 1970s.

According to the lawsuit, Barkat’s speech was interrupted by student protesters because school administrators failed to intervene, and instead ordered campus police to “stand down.”

In a later incident that same year, the lawsuit claims that SF Hillel, an international Jewish campus organization, was improperly excluded from an on-campus civil rights information fair.

SFSU spokesperson Elizabeth Smith confirmed that the university has launched an investigation into the incident.

But Orrick said the plaintiffs’ complaint lacked in specificity and failed to prove intent by both Abdulhadi and SFSU administrators to willfully discriminate against Jewish students.

Since 2013, Abdulhadi, a professor of both Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas and Race and Resistance Studies, said she has been the target of protests by conservative groups claiming she supports terrorism.

“This is new McCarthyism. This is really a serious attack [and] this has been very taxing,” Abdulhadi said Wednesday.

Before the hearing, more than 40 students and community members rallied in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. in a show of support for Abdulhadi and to demand that the university protect students’ right to free speech.

“This court hearing and what is happening at S.F. State is an attack on … all the work that has gone into building a foundation at S.F. State that actually reflects international solidarity, social justice and and the antithesis to hate,” said
Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

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