“Anti-Semitism on Campus in the Bay Area”

Image: A panel of experts discuss issues of anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, 11/13/17)

This is a continuation of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Next there was a panel talking about anti-Semitism on campus, specifically at San Francisco State University.   The situation there has been particularly difficult lately (see this article from the J Weekly for more about the specifics.) The panel was composed of Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies at SFSU, Ollie Bern, Director of the San Francisco Hillel, and Abigail Michaelson Porth, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. Each of them came to the issue with a different point of view, although all were in basic agreement on the problems.  Seth Brysk, the Central Pacific Regional Director of the ADL was the moderator.

The panel talked about the differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-normalization. The latter is a tricky concept; here’s a Jewish point of view on it and a pro-Palestinian point of view on it. I don’t feel qualified to explain it myself at this point.

Marc Dollinger spoke at length about his belief that the University should be a place where we engage with ideas. He was clear that while he sympathizes with students who feel upset, it is also important for them to learn to listen to new ideas and to develop and articulate their own thinking.

Ollie Been was eloquent about the challenges, that no student should be required to have a particular point of view in order to participate in university discussions. He also told us that at least one professor of ethics at SFSU has argued for the exclusion of Hillel from campus life, since it is a Jewish organization.

Abigail Michaelson Perth talked about the response of the Jewish community in our area, specifically the decision to invest in SFSU. Jewish foundations have funded programs of many kinds on the campus, not just the Jewish Studies Department. She expressed her frustration at the way that support of the university was received, as evidence of undue influence:  “We feel dismissed and our students disrespected.”  Marc Dollinger pointed out that the community support has been critical for Jewish faculty, staff, and students.

Panelists noted that other Bay Area campuses have handled similar conflicts quite differently. Ms Michaelson Perth pointed out that there are examples of best practices at many of the University of California campuses – not at all hard to find. The situation at SFSU is therefore particularly frustrating.

Ollie Been expressed concern for both populations of the students, the marginalized Jewish students, and the Palestinian students as well. Both are very small minorities on campus. He spoke about the need to build relationships with other communities. Allyship has to be genuine.  Building relationships is hard work and must be sincere and ongoing. We have to teach students how to do this and mirror in larger J community. WE have to show up for others.

Seth Brysk mentioned a resource on the ADL.org site: Think. Plan. Act. It’s a set of tools for dealing with anti-Semitism on campus.

There was a question from the floor about potential students. Dr. Dollinger was candid that SFSU can be a shock to sheltered Jewish students. However, he pointed out that it is an opportunity to engage with people who have had different experiences. For the right student, it can still be a worthwhile experience.

Ms Michaelson Perth said that while it is important for the Jewish community to continue to be involved at SFSU, we should also recognize that it isn’t for everyone. And for the Jewish community at large, we have to make choices about continuing to invest in a campus that is so hostile.

Ollie Been said that anti-Semitism is everywhere. SF Hillel is there for the students. It’s important not to over-dramatize the situation. It is possible to fight BDS without invoking Hitler. He also advocated for a student-centered approach to activism on campus.

Marc Dollinger recounted an incident that inspired him. He said that the current Hillel students are smart, brave, and intelligent. At one meeting, the University President said that Zionists are not welcome on the campus. An undergraduate challenged him immediately and asked him to define Zionism, and then engaged with him about his definition.

There was a lot more, all of it thought provoking.


Published by


Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

Leave a Reply