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Jewish Journal

Bay City Hate

E-mail stirs global furor over face-off between Jews and Palestinian supporters at SFSU.

by Aleza Goldsmith

May 23, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Call it the e-mail read around the world.

Laurie Zoloth wrote the e-mail May 9, in the wake of a pro-Israel rally that turned ugly, but the Jewish studies chair at San Francisco State University (SFSU) sent it only to friends and some colleagues.

Within a few days, however, it had been circulated to thousands of e-mail addresses across the nation and in Israel, finding its way onto Jewish Web sites and worldwide media venues.

One local Jewish community leader, who asked not to be identified, said he was being flooded with calls wondering if there had been a pogrom at SFSU.

And Paul Cohen, International Hillel's senior consultant for campus strategic services, said "the issue has gotten way out of proportion."

In the e-mail, Zoloth described the aftermath of the May 7 rally, when "an angry crowd of Palestinians and their supporters" surrounded the pro-Israel supporters screaming, "Get out or we will kill you" and "Hitler did not finish the job."

She wrote that the pro-Palestinians were "an angry, out-of-control mob, literally chanting for our deaths" and yet "the police could do nothing more than surround the Jewish students and community members who were now trapped in the corner of a plaza, grouped under the flags of Israel."

What's more, she wrote in the e-mail, "Not one administrator came to stand with us." A police contingent, however, escorted the Jewish students to safety.

SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan was among the recipients of Zoloth's e-mail. While not entirely pleased with the notoriety it has brought to the campus, Corrigan responded Monday with a strongly worded letter, which he said has since been circulated to more than 30,000 people, condemning the turn of events at the rally.

He also met Monday with Jewish community leaders and Jewish SFSU students and their parents, listening to several suggestions for addressing the pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian tensions on campus on a long-term basis. According to Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, suggestions included:

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• A follow-up meeting in the next few weeks, to ensure the Jewish community's concerns don't go by the wayside when the semester ends.

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• Making sure the standards for rallies apply across the board.

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• Finding a better way to address "civil discourse" on the campus.

Corrigan said that he and other SFSU administrators have taken several definitive steps to address the Jewish community's concerns.

For instance, he is currently in the process of forming a task force, made up of university and community representatives, to study the tensions on campus throughout the summer.

Also, since the rally, the university has filed charges with the campus judicial affairs office against at least one pro-Palestinian demonstrator. That individual, whose name has not been released, seized and stamped on an Israeli flag.

In addition, the department of public safety is currently reviewing video tapes and personal accounts of the incident to decide whether disciplinary and/or criminal action against organizations and individuals are warranted, according to Ligeia Polidora, SFSU public relations director. San Francisco's district attorney has been asked to assist.

"Not only are Jewish issues going to be addressed, but we will redouble our efforts with regard to the conflicts on this campus that resulted from the situation that is concerning so many of us," said Corrigan, referring to the rally.

"There has been a lack of understanding of cultures and a prejudice being brought to campus," he added, noting that he is "most disturbed" that, in some cases, people on both sides of the issue have reacted with "emotion and anger" rather than "reason and rationality."

Sophomore Dikla Tuchman, an organizer of the pro-Israel rally, said she and others in her group were cleaning up and saying their goodbyes when the event was "sabotaged" by pro-Palestinians, armed with whistles and bullhorns. Although the rally had ended at 1:30 p.m., Hillel had reserved the campus space until 2 p.m., so "it was still our time" when the pro-Palestinians demanded that the Jewish students clear out, she said.

She added that the campus public safety officers told her, "There is nothing we can do here," when asked why the pro-Palestinians were allowed to intrude.

"All of a sudden the entire counterprotest was surrounding us and screaming and yelling as we were trying to go about our business," said Tuchman, 20.

Zoloth said she had heard reports from students who were spit upon and who felt both physically and emotionally threatened.

"Something has gone morally awry at this university," she said, adding that an anti-Semitic climate has permeated the entire campus.

"It's difficult to be in an atmosphere where we are constantly defending ourselves against blood libel, where Jews are compared to Nazis."

While Tuchman admitted that there "may have been a few" belligerent people "on our side, their entire crowd was like that."

Representatives from the General Union of Palestinian Students could not be reached for comment.

The pro-Israel contingent was eventually escorted off the campus by a group of both San Francisco and campus police. Officers from the San Francisco Police Department were called in as reinforcement after the rally.

"The conversation was getting heated on both sides," Polidora explained. "Our goal was to keep everybody safe."

Cohen said he was disappointed that the controversy undermines the fact that throughout 90 percent of the day, "this was the most successful rally for peace in Israel at SFSU for years."

While he admitted the university administration made "some errors" in its handling of the event, he said, "I do believe they were trying to act in good faith."

The SFSU Academic Senate passed a resolution Tuesday, endorsing Corrigan's letter responding to the event, calling upon the campus community to "promote a hate-free environment."

In his letter -- posted on the SFSU Web site -- Corrigan wrote that a "terribly destructive" group of pro-Palestinians "abandoned themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat" at the rally last week.

He wrote that the pro-Palestinians "completely violated the values" of the university, adding that their "hateful speech and threatening behavior is not passing unchallenged. We will take steps to ensure encounters like those" will not occur again.

Zoloth called Corrigan's letter the "right response" to the growing anti-Jewish sentiment plaguing the institution. She said she hopes his words "mark the beginning of potential change" for Jewish students and staff.

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