Federal Judge to Throw Out Lawsuit Alleging Anti-Semitism at SFSU

Opponents say the lawsuit, which alleges violations of civil rights, is an attempt to silence Palestinian activism.

Professor Rabab Abdulhadi talks to the press about the her court hearing in San Francisco, Calif. Wednesday, November 8, 2017. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In the saga of tension between a Palestinian and Jewish student group at San Francisco State University, a legal judgment issued Wednesday shrank claims of institutionalized anti-Semitism on campus.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in San Francisco told a packed courtroom that he is “almost undoubtedly” going to dismiss a complaint filed by the Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel legal group, on behalf of Jewish students alleging systemic anti-Semitism on campus. 

The 2016 student protest of a visit by Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, was at the center of the lawsuit, which alleged that the university failed to intervene. An independent investigation issued by the university found that the protest inflicted fear of safety on both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students.

Lawfare and law firm Winston & Strawn LLP in June filed the 78-page complaint against the university, California State University’s Board of Trustees, and professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The complaint filed in June alleged a longstanding culture of anti-Semitism on campus allowed by the university. The university maintains that it did not violate the rights of Jewish students in response to events outlined in the claim while Abdulhadi and Palestinian students call it an attempt to silence anti-Zionist opposition on campus.

Before the hearing, supporters of Abdulhadi held a rally with signs that read “No hate at S.F. State” and “Teaching Palestine is a right” and followed the lawsuit into the courtroom.

(Daniel Kim/Special to the S,F. Examiner)

From the start of the hearing, U.S. District Judge William Orrick expressed concern over lack of evidence from the plaintiffs proving specific intent to discriminate, and that students were discriminated against for their religion.

The suit also claims that a Jewish campus organization, SF Hillel, was intentionally barred from tabling at a “Know Your Rights” event in February with full knowledge of the administration, violating the civil rights of its members.

“Failure to act is not enough,” Orrick told the courtroom. “I think more needs to be alleged than the events that are being described.”

Seth Weisburst, an attorney for the plaintiffs, tells SF Weekly he is optimistic that they will be able to move toward a trial date. They hope for monetary damages, a court order that would force the defendants to stop the alleged behavior, and a change to campus culture that treats Jewish students as “second-class citizens.”

“Today’s hearing made clear that this important litigation will get the time and attention it deserves, ensuring that our clients are able to continue their pursuit of justice,” reads a statement from Lawfare.

Once ordered, the plaintiffs will have 30 days to submit a concise complaint— which Orrick advised to not include claims from as far back as 1968. The lawsuit cites the historic creation of the College of Ethnic Studies that year as launching an anti-Jewish animus.

After the hearing, Abdulhadi told the crowd of supporters that Lawfare wanted to undermine Palestinian activism and that this suit has had on taxing effect her and her academic projects. She has been targeted by conservative groups in the past, like in 2016 when one group took responsibility for posting flyers connecting Abdulhadi of terrorism.

“This is really a serious attack,” Abdulhadi says. “This is new McCarthyism.”

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