On April 6, students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) protested the Israeli mayor of occupied Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who came to speak on campus. For nearly five months, the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) was under investigation by the SFSU administration after the protest. SFSU released the investigator’s report on Sept. 1.
Fight Back! interviewed Laila Zeytouna from the General Union of Palestinian Students about Palestine solidarity in the student movement, political repression by university administrations, and the SFSU investigation against GUPS.
Fight Back!: Why did students protest the campus speaking event of Israeli mayor Nir Barkat? Why should the student movement engage in this type of direct action to end U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, instead of engaging in dialogue with pro-Israel groups or working with university administrations?
Laila Zeytouna: We protested Nir Barkat because of his role as an Israeli politician working within a system that aims to ethnically cleanse and oppress Palestinians. Nir Barkat promotes racist, pro-war policies and he is the mayor of occupied Jerusalem, where Palestinians who live in the West Bank cannot enter without applying for permits from the Israeli military. This blocks their right to pray in sacred holy sites, to obtain necessities like food and medicine, see their families, and have a right to a historical city that has so much value to Palestinians. Mayor Barkat also urges Israelis to arm themselves against Palestinians. Why would the administration welcome such a man to speak on campus? With that being said, we should not dialogue with figures like him, because Barkat is a direct contributor to the occupation – he is a part of the terrorization of our people and land. At the end of the day, there is nothing we can say to each other to make the situation better, until there is a complete end to the occupation.
Fight Back!: After the action, how did the SFSU administration and pro-Israel organizations react?
Zeytouna: The very next day after the action, President Leslie Wong sent an email to the entire student body condemning the protest and announcing that an investigation will be launched. The pro-Israel organizations were furious and published articles right away. A lot of them were lies, saying we were threatening Jewish students, calling for their death, and singled out GUPS when there were numerous student organizations participating. We were not there to protest the Jewish students; we were protesting a horrible Israeli politician.
Canary Mission, a McCarthyist blacklist site, singled out two Palestinian women as the leaders of the protest and many of the people who attended. SFSU administration reached out to the people who got listed on Canary Mission and offered help through the University Police Department and counseling services. But the most important thing the administration could have done to protect the students targeted with harassment would have been to publicly denounce the false accusations. They did not do this, instead, Wong’s statement condemning our protest before any of the facts were investigated, made us more vulnerable to backlash.
Fight Back!: Do you think this follows a pattern of university repression against student protests for Palestinian rights across the country?
Zeytouna: Of course it does. As soon as we criticize Israel for their disgusting treatment towards Palestinians, our ‘freedom of speech’ is suddenly taken away. It is no secret that universities receive enormous funding from Zionist donors and institutions. SFSU tries to pride itself as being a haven of social justice and student activism, but their actions speak louder when the administration launches an investigation on students for protesting a politician. We have murals on our campus projecting Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez and Edward Said. The university’s attempt to silence us goes against everything these leaders fought for.
Fight Back!: What were the findings of the investigation conducted against your organization, and is it a student victory?
Zeytouna: The investigation confirmed that our protest was aimed at the mayor and his policies and not Jewish students. The report was not a perfect one. For example, it did not include the longtime repression against Palestinian students who organize on campus nor the harassment we endured as a result. It also included many irrelevant comments from people who disagreed with the form of our protest, telling us that dialogue would be more productive, even though this has no bearing whatsoever on whether policy violations occurred. But overall, the report is a victory because the facts demonstrate clearly that we did not target Jewish students, but that our protest was political. Zionists constantly try to victimize themselves and say that us protesting Israel is anti-Semitic and hateful. This is a complete distortion of our views and a distraction from the policy issues we are raising. We want human rights and justice for the Palestinian people – how is that anti-Semitic? At the end of the day, we find it a student victory for all Palestinian and pro-Palestine students at universities across the country who also face endless Zionist and university backlash. Truth shows us that justice stands with those who struggle.