I have taught at SFSU - with a few interruptions - for more than twenty five years. As a young faculty member, I participated in the student/faculty strike of 1968/69. I was also at SFSU much later when the infamous "mural incident" took place, the incident in which student body funds were used to sponsor a mural portrait of Malcolm X laced with what most observers saw as clearly anti-semitic symbols. Being Jewish, I was hurt and stunned by this incident. I had lost a teaching position and risked my academic career in support of what later became the College of Ethnic Studies, but some of my African American and Latino students, even a few with whom I had an especially warm relationship, were demonstrating in favor of the mural. These students, as it happened were associated (as minors or majors) with the College of Ethnic Studies. They were also very willing to talk to me about their views, and it was clear to me that knowing that I was a Jew, they bore me no personal animus. As was usual at that time, our arguments circled around the twin issues of First Amendment protections -even for hate speech? - and the line between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. These students were loud and vociferous, but they were not dangerous. I felt that for the most part, they were young people of good will, filled with a generalized outrage at injustice and woefully ignorant about the issues in which they were swept up. It was my impression, for example, that these students did not know very much about Malcolm X and what he did and did not stand for, especially in relation to Israel.
In the years following the mural incident, a Jewish Studies program was initiated in the College of Humanities where I teach. The program was started with private endowments from Jewish foundations, and it has subsequently continued to grow -at a financially strapped public institution -as a result of further contributions from private sources. The Modern Greek Studies program and, without private money, the Women Studies Program are precedents for such a program in the College of Humanities, but I could not help but wonder why so little effort was made to build ties to departments in the College of Ethnic Studies. Later, I do recall a brief, good moment when a few talks about sephardic Jews and conversos were co-sponsored by Jewish Studies and La Raza Studies, but other than that, I have seen little serious bridge building. The program seems to me relatively isolated in an enclave in the college of Humanities. This has always puzzled me. We were led to believe that Jewish Studies was brought to SFSU in large part to counter what the established Jewish community perceived as "a hotbed of anti-semitism," and yet the program itself did little to address the problem for which it was reputedly brought into existence. I recently became bothered by this situation again when the Jewish Studies Program, despite low enrollments, received yet more private money to establish a Chair for a Distinguished Professor. Suffice it to say that though the program could have made an offer to either Michael Lerner or Arthur Waskow, both of whom, if hired, would have immediately started to build the sort of intellectual, social and political bridges necessary to both combat anti-semitism and establish bonds of solidarity throughout the university. For whatever reason, the program decided to hire a young and hardly distinguished Community College instructor who, in my eyes, is far less qualified-either intellectually or for his bridge building capacity than Lerner or Waskow. If nothing else, this decision on the part of the Jewish Studies Program gives the lie to a remark in a letter from Professor Laurie Zoloth that "ours is arguably one of the Jewish Studies programs in the country most devoted to peace, justice and diversity since our inception."
I am recounting this history as background to discuss a letter from Professor Laurie Zoloth of Jewish Studies addressed to her colleagues at SFSU. The letter is now circulating around the internet, and I have already received concerned inquiries from friends in various parts of the country about its accuracy. For this reason, I think it is important to publicly repudiate the letter as purveying a distorted and inflammatory account of what actually transpired at SFSU during the lunch hour on Tuesday, May 7 at Malcolm X Plaza in front of the Cesar Chavez Student Union. Unfortunately, I missed most of what Professor Zoloth refers to as a "Peace In The Middle East" rally organized by Hillel students. I saw it begin, however, on my way to a luncheon appointment, and on returning from lunch, I also saw the last climatic half hour of the event during which the S.F. police were called and escorted the Hillel students away from an angry crowd of counter demonstrators. I think there are some important lessons to be learned from reflecting on this event, but before turning to those lessons, I want to talk about the event itself.
When I passed by the rally at its beginning, I was puzzled and disturbed by what I saw. There were a swarm of Israeli flags taking up a large corner of Malcolm X Plaza. The mood was that of a football rally and the placards among the Israeli flags were in praise of Israel. My first thought was that in the light of the recent events in the West Bank and Jenin, in particular, this rally must be designed as an open provocation in the spirit of Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. If not an open provocation, I said at lunch, the rally was an act of incredible insensitivity. After all, how would one expect people still grieving the death and destruction in Jenin to respond to such pro-Israel assertions? How could Professor Zoloth, the leaders of Hillel and the Jewish Studies program not know this? It was obvious to me within a few minutes of passing by the rally. In her letter, Professor Zoloth shows no awareness of the context of the rally. When the philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, was brought to Vichy France to lecture on the triumphs of German philosophy to imprisoned French officers, the issue was not so much what he said as that he was speaking at all in that context. The issue was not that he took pride in the achievements of German philosophy but that he would talk about those achievements as an extension of the German occupation of France. So this sort of insensitivity, this inability to recognize the feelings of others, this failure to even notice their deepest concerns, I thought, was an outgrowth of the insular Jewish Studies program that had been built at SFSU. Rather than mitigate anti-semitism as planned, it would intensify it. The issue, as I saw it, was not who to blame for disrupting a rally so much as it was how to educate sensitive, responsible and reflective human beings. Both Hillel and the Jewish Studies program, if measured by the events of May 7, have failed miserably at that task.
I returned from lunch about an hour later to a rally that was becoming tense and confrontational. I stood just outside the perimeter of the crowd as the Hillel students were backed against the Student Union by a crowd chanting: "Take It Down! Take It Down!" The crowd was clearly referring to a large sign that had the message "We Support Israel" (or something to that effect) attached to the wall of the Student Union. There were also two Israeli flags that had been attached to the same wall of the building. The confrontation of the counter demonstrators and the Hillel students was about the sign and those flags. I remembered, in that context, that my big objection to the mural was that it was attached to a public building, the Student Union. I had argued to my students that having the mural attached to a public building gave it the sense of official endorsement as opposed to Constitutionally protected individual expression. Maybe the same issue was being re-cycled in a new context.
At any rate, I didn't hear anti-semitic epithets or talk of a blood libel to which Professor Zoloth refers, but I was viewing events from just beyond the periphery of the crowd. It is possible that I missed them being uttered in another part of the crowd or at other times during the event as it unfolded. What I can say for sure, though, was that the main issue of that moment was the removal of the flags and sign attached to the Student Union. I also saw leaders of the counter-demonstration doing everything they could to keep their ranks at a respectful interval from the Hillel students without being able to control the ebb and flow of the crowd. I saw no violence, and having been at a lot of demonstrations, I thought the police did a good job of controlling and containing what was a potentially explosive event.
The most blatant distortion in Professor Zoloth's letter is to refer to the rally organized by the Hillel students as a "peace" rally. It clearly wasn't. For example, a colleague with whom I was watching the events unfold pointed out to me that, had the Hillel students mounted a Palestinian flag as well as an Israeli flag on the Student Union, the entire tenor of the event might have been different. Similarly, if the sign attached to Student Union had made even a moderate gesture in the direction of peace by saying, for example: "We support the Saudi peace proposal," I suspect the event might have turned out differently. At any rate, Professor Zoloth's inflammatory claim that "an angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths, surrounded us" is wrong on several counts. The crowd remained under control - however precariously - through the combined efforts of the counter-demonstration's leaders and the police. But second, the crowd was chanting "Take It Down! Take It Down!" When finally the sign was removed and the flags were taken down, the police escorted the Hillel group away and the counter demonstration dispersed. Sadly, there is not even a hint of recognition in Professor Zoloth's letter of what was really behind the outrage of the crowd. She can only see anti-semitism where the main issue was outrage at Sharon's murderous policies. Her ploy is to turn a political issue into an identity issue. So she speaks in her letter of how hard it is to be at SFSU as a Jew, but I have been on campus for more than twenty five years and have had no problem about being a Jew whatsoever. The issue seems to be not that of being a Jew but one of asserting one's identity with some sensitivity and forethought. But this in turn means facing up to hard questions, questions such as what really happened at Jenin, with honestly and openness.
I think the lesson to be leaned from incidents such as the one we are describing is that of the danger of conflating issues of identity with political issues. To combat anti-semitism effectively, we must stand together with others - particularly Palestinians - as Jews. That is the answer to anti-semitism. This is one way of saying that there is a crying need for a Tikkun Community at SFSU. Since, from all indications, the Jewish Studies program and Hillel have no interest in organizations such as the Tikkun community, we must build it outside of their confines. We cannot cede Jewish identity to Philistines.