The mural honoring Edward Said at San Francisco State University.
An anti-Palestinian group is mounting an attack against students at San Francisco State University. Following an on-campus event honoring a mural of the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, the group asserted that an artistic stencil glorified “the murder of Jews.”
The university’s president, at the urging of pro-Israel advocates, has joined the condemnation of the students.
On 7 November, as part of the sixth annual event to celebrate the mural and Palestinian culture, activists with several allied student organizations, including the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and the Student Kouncil of Intertribal Nations (SKINS), an indigenous student group, set up informational tables on the campus’s Malcolm X Plaza.
The SKINS’ table made various stencils available for students to express themselves using images and slogans. One slogan read “my heroes have always killed colonizers,” which has been used for years by indigenous cultural workers in commemorating the resistance to the genocide of First Nations peoples and other indigenous communities around the world.
For the last two years, for example, indigenous communities have held cultural events entitled “My Heroes Have Always Killed Colonizers” in San Francisco during Indigenous Peoples’ Day — a day reclaimed from the national holiday celebrating the legacy of Christopher Columbus.
It didn’t take long for local Zionist watchdogs to launch a vicious attack against the entire event, the student organizations involved, and even the co-sponsoring academic department on campus, calling it “anti-Semitic” and insinuating that the stencil “glorif[ies] the murder of Jews.”
Leading the charge is notorious anti-Palestinian racist Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and her Amcha Initiative, who has sent repeated emails to San Francisco State University administration officials demanding that the university investigate GUPS and the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED), an academic department in the university’s College of Ethnic Studies.
In the recent past, Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has claimed that students involved in Palestine solidarity organizing have ties to “terrorist organizations” and made other racist assumptions which were caught on video. She and Amcha have also attacked university professors for publicly supporting and/or listing reading material on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Additionally, Rossman-Benjamin’s legal complaint against her own university — which alleged an anti-Semitic atmosphere and discrimination against Jewish students because of Palestine solidarity activism — was recently thrown out by the US Department of Education.
For years, Zionist groups such as Amcha have worked tirelessly to undermine Palestinian self-determination and Palestine solidarity student activism at San Francisco State University. In 2007, when the Edward Said mural was being planned, a pitched battle was waged against Palestinian students and the muralists by outside political forces and the administration itself.
The mural originally depicted symbols of the Palestinian right of return — a key and an image of Handala, the cartoon figure representing the struggle of refugees — but local and national Zionist organizations successfully forced the removal of the symbols from the final mural. During a period of sustained pressure from influential Zionist groups, the president of San Francisco State University at the time said he considered the symbols “inflammatory.”
Neighboring murals at the campus’s Cesar Chavez Student Center — of Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez and Filipino and Asian and Pacific Islander communities — depict militant resistance to colonialism and displacement, but have been ignored by the Zionist groups and the university administration.
Rabab Abdulhadi, an associate professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, told The Electronic Intifada that she believes this current attack is yet another instance of attempts to stifle discussion and debate about Palestine on campus.
“This is intended to intimidate university officials from continuing to support academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, which is the real point of campus life,” she said.
“It’s a well-orchestrated attack — we’ve seen these kinds of attacks [by Amcha] against the University of California and California State University campuses. This is a continuation. And we’ve been attacked from early on.”
“Justice for all”
In 2002, Abdulhadi noted, the university administration sanctioned GUPS for its anti-war activities, and the pressure against students continued when plans were being made to create the Edward Said mural years before it was completed.
Ironically, she added, Amcha’s assertions “actually feed into anti-Semitism. They’re saying all Jews are colonizers, and all Israelis are participating. This is real anti-Semitism. [The event] was about justice for all, and everyone should be interested in it.”
In a statement posted last week, San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong said he was “deeply disturbed” by the “incendiary language” of the stencil.
I am dismayed by the glorification of violence that this message conveys. There is no place at SF State for celebrating violence or promoting intolerance, bigotry, anti-Semitism or any other form of hate-mongering. We are a university community committed to furthering civil dialogue. Each of us must remain vigilant in working to achieve this goal.
The university is a place where dialogue, debate and the marketplace of ideas are cherished. We must also maintain a safe environment. Engaging in expressions that threaten and intimidate are counter to these goals. In addition to conveying my firm commitment to a safe and civil campus environment directly to any students involved, I will be meeting with members of the campus community to express my concerns, and to learn more about their perceptions of our current campus climate. University leadership will continue to gather information about this occurrence and address it appropriately. We prize our role as a forum for open discourse and we will continue to work toward a campus culture that cherishes civility.
“Less valuable” than Zionists
Since the historic 1968 student-led protests that led to the formation of the first ethnic studies department in the US the following year, students at San Francisco State University have fought hard to protect representation on campus. The General Union of Palestine Students at SFSU — the last remaining chapter of the 54-year-old organization — was opened in 1973.
Loubna Qatami, a graduate of San Francisco State University and an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, was an active member of GUPS as a student. In a personal letter to SFSU President Wong, seen by The Electronic Intifada, Qatami recounts the barrage of attacks Palestine activists endured by the administration and outside political groups.
Her letter states, in part:
I came into SFSU when it was popularly understood that the administration did not care to protect Arab and Muslim students from the rampant culture wars taking place on our campus after [11 September 2001]. I was there when GUPS was scorned for actions against the Iraq war.
I was there when College Republicans defamed flags that had Islamic religious writing on them. I was there when the College Republicans had students throw shoes at these flags. I was there when other students called us “terrorists,” “camel-riders,” and when they said “there is no such thing as Palestine” and the university found it of no interest to address such matters.
I was the one, President Wong, who checked the GUPS email account with thousands of death threat emails! I was the one that opened up the GUPS door in the mornings and found pictures of the Twin Towers blowing up with captions titled “Terrorists.”
Mr. President, I was there when President [Robert] Corrigan used every indirect policy excuse to roadblock the inauguration of the Edward Said Cultural Mural and called images so central to the Palestinian community and cause, the key and Handala cartoon, a reflection of a “culture of violence” and “hate to Jews.”
… Despite being told we were not counted as part of the system, despite being told we were less valuable than Zionist voices on campus, we were the students who committed to believing SFSU was different.
We were the students who were both attacked and unprotected. Yet we were the students that reflected the overwhelming majority of student perspectives and interests on campus. Our student allies were the first to come to our defense and to say that an attack on GUPS was an attack on the SFSU student body. Yet time after time, voices from outside campus, Zionist voices with national anchor institutions, non-profit organizations … and right-wing media campaigns stole our place at SFSU. These forces stifled the voices of the majority of the student body.
These power structures marginalized my community, time and time again with nothing done by the university administration.
… We ask of you to maintain the university as a space of public knowledge, freedom of speech and intellectual exchange. We ask you to rise to the occasion of protecting your student body, those most marginalized who are in fact being attacked by culture wars that impact ethnic studies, student organizations and students of color on campus. Rather than investigating a “stencil” we ask you to investigate the broader political backing, rationale and agenda of the people waging this war on our student body. We urge you to practice your commitment to social justice.
“Belligerent smear campaign”
Local and national solidarity groups and coalitions, including the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Atzlan (MEChA) and SKINS have drafted letters and a petition denouncing Amcha’s attacks and demanding the university protect freedom of speech.
In a petition to San Francisco State University President Wong, MEChA and SKINS say that they represent students who are “horrified by the baseless attack and allegations of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against the General Union of Palestine Students, the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative, the Cesar Chavez Student Center [and] the organizers of the sixth annual anniversary of the Palestinian Cultural Mural honoring the late Professor Edward Said.”
The petition adds:
We are proud to continue the rich legacy of justice-centered student activism at SFSU. GUPS has historically stood for justice in/for Palestine and has linked our struggle with that of all people’s struggles for self-determination, justice and peace.
We are concerned over our own safety and the safety of our friends, allies, and all those standing in solidarity with our movement, especially when their photos and names have been posted online as if to make them a moving target for violence.
This belligerent smear campaign meant to slander the Palestinian movement on campus has directly created a hostile environment that makes it impossible for us to express our views and exercise our academic freedom.
The petition concludes by demanding that Wong “condemn this smear campaign, uphold our academic freedom as a core value of SFSU, and ensure our safety and the safety of all.”
Sara Kershnar of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) told The Electronic Intifada that several groups, including a cadre of anti-Zionist Jews, are demanding a meeting with the SFSU president.
“This is about the right of people who are struggling for liberation to have their expression of that struggle protected,” Kershnar said. “It’s not the same as hate speech, expressions of fascism or racism or homophobia. Those are very different things, and we look to institutions to make the correct distinction.”
She added that it’s important for the administration to know that these political Zionist organizations do not represent general Jewish values and opinions.
“Manipulation” of Jewish history
The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s letter states, in part,
As Jews committed to ending racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of oppression, we stand with the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED), and we stand against the baseless attacks on them by Tammi Benjamin and the Amcha Initiative. We urge President Wong to recognize this attack for the politically motivated attempt to silence Palestinian students and faculty that it is.
These attacks on student activists are political attacks and are a reflection of politically motivated, false charges of anti-Semitism targeting Palestinian and Arab students around the country. On campuses from UC Berkeley to Rutgers, organizations like the Amcha Initiative and the Zionist Organization of America, and others, have attempted to manipulate the Title VI Civil Rights Act to serve its political ends. This is cheapening and weakening crucial civil rights protections by characterizing protected political speech as anti-Semitism. This is but one example of the outrageous lawfare being used to target Palestinian students and professors and their supporters.
Furthermore, these attacks come in a climate in the United States that is extremely hostile to Arabs and Muslims. From acts of vigilante violence to racist ads displayed on buses in San Francisco to government use of immigration law to target well-respected Chicago community activist Rasmea Odeh, Arabs and Muslims face a climate of intimidation and repression that extends far beyond campus.
As Jewish people well-versed in the history of anti-Semitism backed with state power, we reject Ms. Benjamin’s manipulation of our history. As people committed to ending racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and all other forms of oppression, we reject this attempt to undermine the true meaning of racism. Tammi Benjamin and Amcha do not speak for Jews when they irresponsibly slander Palestinian students; rather, they intervene politically to support Israel and Zionism.
GUPS, AMED and the Cesar Chavez Student Center are incredibly important parts of the SFSU campus and are a space where under-represented voices are heard. Whenever people would use political clout and intimidation to silence those who are vulnerable, it is incumbent upon all of us to defend them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have signed on to this statement.
Kenneth P. Monteiro, the dean of the Department of Ethnic Studies, did not respond to a request for comment by Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, as activists wait to meet university officials, Professor Abdulhadi said she has been extremely gratified by the huge amount of support by allied student groups. Dozens of student representatives from a wide spectrum of communities of color and grassroots organizations attended a coalition meeting last week to address this situation. “The extent of support is amazing,” she said. “It really shows that we are a part of a coalition of justice on campus.”