‘Zionists Not Welcome’: San Francisco State University’s Apology to Jewish Community Sparks Backlash
An apology by the president of San Francisco State University to members of the Jewish community on Friday was met with backlash from anti-Zionists on campus, including a professor who described it as “a declaration of war” against Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians.
Following a meeting with SFSU students from the Jewish group Hillel, President Leslie Wong sent a mass email on Friday apologizing for past comments affecting the Jewish community — particularly a May interview in which he refused to categorically assert that Zionists were welcome at SFSU, saying instead, “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.”
After study and reflection, the president said last week, “I have come to understand how flawed my comments were.”
“Thus, I want to sincerely apologize for the hurt feelings and anguish my words have caused,” Wong continued. “Let me be clear: Zionists are welcome on our campus.”
This assurance was long sought by leaders of SFSU’s Jewish community and their supporters. The vast majority of Israeli Jews endorse Zionism — the movement to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the Levant — while a Pew Research survey published in 2016 found that most US Jews say “that caring about Israel is essential or important to what being Jewish means to them.”
Nonetheless, the phrases “Zionists not welcome,” “Zionism = racism,” and “Judaism =/= Zionism” were found written in chalk on campus shortly after Wong’s statement was emailed. A photo including some of these markings was posted online by the International Socialist Organization alongside a note of “solidarity with Palestinians,” which was shared by SFSU’s General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS).
In its own message, GUPS denounced Zionism as a “violent ideology responsible for the genocide and displacement of indigenous Palestinians,” and called for the immediate retraction of Wong’s statement. The students listed several demands, including increased financial support for the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) program and a public investigation “into the multiple incidents of attacks against us.”
Rabab Abdulhadi — director of AMED and GUPS’s faculty mentor — also opposed Wong’s apology, which she called “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 professor alleged that the president’s statement equated “Jewishness with Zionism, and [gave] Hillel ownership of campus Jewishness,” and framed it as a response “to donor pressures and the Israeli lobby.”
Similar sentiments were echoed in a critical letter published by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace on Tuesday, and another shared by the SFSU group Jews Against Zionism, which said “zionism IS NOT welcome on our campus. White Supremacy IS NOT welcome on our campus.”
The Black Student Union, African Student Association, Black Residents United in Housing, and Black Business Student Association likewise objected to the president’s apology, and pointed to “anti-Arab, Islamophobic, and anti-Palestinian” fliers that were found on campus in 2016 and 2017.
The fliers — some of which called Abdulhadi a “collaborator with terrorists” — were distributed by the David Horowitz Freedom Center and condemned by Wong.
In their own response to Wong, Hillel students said they appreciated that it took “humility to offer a personal apology.” They added, however, that they were “disappointed and frustrated about the lack of concrete action steps” offered during their meeting with the president.
Tensions have persisted for years between the Jewish community and SFSU, which is currently facing two lawsuits alleging that it suffers from “institutionalized antisemitism.” One of the complaints, which directly names Abdulhadi, is expected to be dismissed and re-filed.
The university came under increased scrutiny after Hillel was blocked from taking part in a February 2017 “Know Your Rights” information fair that was organized in part by SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies. An internal investigation found that Hillel “was improperly excluded” from the event.
SFSU again made headlines in April 2017, after Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat cancelled a scheduled talk at the school, where he faced disruptive protests led by GUPS the previous year. Barkat accused the university of making “no legitimate effort … to publicize the lecture” — a claim rejected by SFSU, which said the mayor only confirmed his appearance one week before it was set to take place.
In response to the controversy, 25 students from SF Hillel’s community sent a letter to Wong criticizing the university’s handling of the event and pointing out other concerns, including that “Jewish students are excluded from participating in campus events.”
That month, SFSU Hillel’s director warned that the university “keeps the organized Jewish campus community at arm’s-length, excludes our students from participating in campus events, allows speakers we invite to be shouted down and refuses to publicly stand against intolerance when it’s directed at the Jewish community.”
In June, after intervention from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the California State University chancellor appointed a liaison to review the campus climate for Jewish students. The liaison attended two sessions held by SFSU’s Task Force on Campus Climate, before it was suspended following resignations in December.