Defining the Dialogue: Part I A civil rights complaint could re-evaluate academic freedom

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Within Jewish communities here at UC Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the question of Jewish identity in relation to Israel is one without any clear answer. For some, Jewishness is intimately tied to Israel, inseparable from it. For others, the state of Israel does not define nor determine their Jewish identity.

When Hebrew language lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin filed a federal complaint in 2009 against the university, claiming anti-Semitism had been allowed to occur at UCSC without consequence, the question of anti-Israelism became one tied to anti-Semitism.

Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint has led the federal government to investigate the university. Now, what is left to be determined is whether or not the school has violated the Civil Rights Act, specifically Title VI, which protects individuals from discrimination based on race, gender and natural origin.

What the university must now define is anti-Semitism, and what constitutes an act of anti-Semitism. Most importantly, can speech — particularly political speech — be anti-Semitic? And if so, how? What does anti-Semitism look and sound like?

Even more challenging is the question of anti-Semitism in relation to Israel: Is anti-Israelism by default anti-Semitism?

City on a Hill Press will run a three-part series looking at the various aspects of campus dialogue on Israel and Palestine.

In Part I: Anti-Semitism in the Quarry & the Classroom, City on a Hill Press will look at where the campus is now, how it got here and the story behind Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s Title VI filing.

A filing that, to say the least, is not without controversy.


In March, University of California president Mark Yudof wrote an open letter to the community condemning recent “incidents of intolerance” toward Jewish speakers and students.

At UC Davis, hecklers interrupted a presentation given by visiting Israeli soldiers. The hecklers “accused the speakers of being associated with rapists and murderers,” according to Yudof’s email.

Less than two weeks after the UC Davis incident, Israeli flags at the UC Riverside chapter of Jewish student organization Hillel were defaced with the word “terrorist.”

These events occurred on different campuses, by different people with different motives. But are they isolated? Is there a bigger systemic problem that needs to be addressed? That’s the question Rossman-Benjamin has posed.

Rossman-Benjamin filed a Title VI complaint against UCSC in 2009. She said the university had allowed anti-Semitism to take root — or rather, the dialogue around Israel and Palestine had become tainted with anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior.

The formal investigation opened just over a year ago in March 2011.

“My own meter told me, when people are talking about acts that are going to be harming or destroying the Jewish state or harming Jews, to me that was a kind of anti-Semitic statement,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

The jury is still out on whether or not UCSC has allowed the civil rights of Jewish students to be threatened, but Rossman-Benjamin’s views are clear: The university has allowed the classroom and college programming to promote anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior.

Rossman-Benjamin said in a recent interview that since 2001, she has seen numerous events sponsored by colleges and departments at UCSC that she describes as “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel.”

Rossman-Benjamin is specifically targeting the speech “sponsored” by the university, dialogues taking place within the academic setting and using university resources. This extends to college programming and course readings.

Previously, the UC had outlined its policy on academic freedom in the UC Code of Conduct expectation that professors teach dispassionately and without interest — or more pointedly, that their curricula and lectures remain free of personal bias and politics.

However, in 2003, the policy on academic freedom was revised to allow for more open classroom dialogue. The rationale was that open dialogue within the classroom, between students and faculty, fosters critical thought.

Acknowledging the change within the university’s guiding codes of conduct and ethics for professors, Rossman-Benjamin wrote in a 2009 article, “Academic Freedom and Anti-Zionists,” that the new policy did not account for “indoctrination.” Academic freedom, she asserts, continues to have limitations — and professors should work within them.

“It became very political — it became indoctrination,” she said in an interview with City on a Hill Press. “The point at which you move from education to indoctrination is problematic at a university because it violates the very mission of the university, which is to educate and search for truth and knowledge, not to indoctrinate and not to bring your political opinions and beat your students over the head with them.”

Within the 29-page complaint submitted to the federal government, Rossman-Benjamin details several instances where she believes the well-being of Jewish students was threatened, including two events held in early 2009: Cowell College’s “Pulse on Palestine,” and College Nine and Ten’s “Understanding Gaza.” Both events, the complaint states, were anti-Semitic in content.

“[Pulse on Palestine] was a platform for anti-Israel propaganda,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote in the official complaint. “But because Cowell College was sponsoring it, the event would be perceived by students and members of the University community as giving legitimacy to the demonization of the Jewish State and those who defend it.”

Allison Garcia, one of the student organizers of Pulse on Palestine, said in an email that the purpose of the event was to “promote peace and nonviolence not only in Palestine, but everywhere.”

Garcia said that despite their purpose, she and the other organizers were pressured to cancel the event, and there was a time she didn’t think it would even come to fruition.

“Certain individuals misinterpreted what we were really trying to do,” she said. “It felt a little threatening, and as a student I was worried that I could face a penalty, especially because some of the pressure and backlash was coming from individuals who had higher authority on the UCSC campus.”

In Rossman-Benjamin’s opinion, events like “Pulse on Palestine” and “Understanding Gaza” were “unscholarly, not academically motivated, [and] politically motivated.”

They aren’t talking about facts and proper analysis but real lies, half-truths and distortions, and sort of pseudo-analysis that’s really about pursuing or advocating a political end, which is to harm the Jewish state,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “One could say it’s pro-Palestinians, but it’s political, and advocating on behalf of the Palestinians is advocating against a certain people and a certain national group [with] which many on this campus identify.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman, one of the speakers at both “Pulse on Palestine” and “Understanding Gaza,”  sees complaints like Rossman-Benjamin’s as a move to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.

Barrows-Friedman is a reporter with the Electronic Intifada, an independent online publication “focusing on Palestine, its people, politics, culture and place in the world,” according to their website. She said the move “by some faculty members and Zionist Jewish groups” is an attempt to quiet oppositional voices they know are valid.

“[I]f they … respected and wanted an actual dialogue and discussion because they knew their opinions were righteous, then they wouldn’t attempt to silence those discussions,” Barrows-Friedman said.

She said there is “a lot to defend” when it comes to Israeli policies, and rather than having a dialogue, many try to quiet their opposition.

“And the way to do that, unfortunately, is to cry anti-Semitism even when it has nothing to do with the Jewish religion at all but it has to do with legitimate criticism of the policies of the Israeli state,” Barrows-Friedman said.

To offer alternative opinions and speakers to the events Rossman-Benjamin saw as anti-Israel, she attempted to organize and fund speakers to visit UCSC and the Santa Cruz community.

However, Rossman-Benjamin said she felt she was not received in the same way critics of Israel had been previously.

“We never had the backing of the university, we never had the legitimacy — if you will — of the university,” she said. “And to me, that there was a legitimate perspective and that was coming out of the classrooms, not legitimate in our eyes but legitimate in the eyes of the institution. It was legitimated because whatever happens in the classroom is part of the academic programming — it’s part of the university.”

But Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is not only aimed at university-sponsored events — she wants professors to re-examine the dialogue fostered in their own classrooms.

For Rossman-Benjamin, the core issue is the role of politics within the university, at university functions and within lecture halls. By sponsoring speakers, events and classes, the university was “legitimizing” a specific political ideology, she said.

“If a department or a college puts their name on it, it has the stamp, the seal of approval in a way of the university,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “It has the name of the university behind it as a legitimate academic program.”

UCSC alumna Maytal Miller — known as Jennifer Miller while a student here — attempted to have Cowell College remove funding from “Pulse on Palestine.” Miller rotated a petition and received signatures from students before meeting with college program coordinators.

Despite her efforts and student support, Miller said the coordinators did not take her petition or give it the consideration it warranted.

“If any other demographic had come up to them and said, ‘You are sponsoring an event that is discriminating against me,’ … it would have been dealt with immediately,” Miller said. “I was shocked and highly disappointed that my complaint, which was backed up by 90 other students, was not taken seriously.”

Miller attended the event and said it reaffirmed her concerns, calling it anti-Israel and anti-Semitic in content. In Miller’s opinion, what was even more concerning was that attendees took in the information as fact.

“I sat in that room with my blood boiling as I listened to these people tell lies,” Miller said. “It’s all about not telling the whole truth — they didn’t talk about the intifada, for example. They talked about how in Gaza they can’t have any poles for construction — but how about mention that they use those poles to make kassam rockets?”

She said Pulse on Palestine was anti-Semitic because its intent was to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel. The issue for Miller was not just content of speech, but intent.

However, student organizer Garcia maintains that the event was focused on promoting peace internationally.

“The event was in no way meant to attack a certain group and in no way intended to be anti-Semitic and it was disheartening to hear that someone would think that was our underlying intent,” she said in an email to City on a Hill Press. “That’s not who I am and that’s not what I represented for my college.”

Nonetheless, Miller felt the event was biased and had a clear anti-Israel agenda.

“This kind of event was intended to incite hatred toward Israel and people who support Israel, and in essence, toward Jews,” Miller said. “There’s a huge difference between being critical of Israeli policy and delegitimizing the Jewish state.”

It is because of the experiences of former students like Miller that Rossman-Benjamin says her Title VI complaint is valid. Rossman-Benjamin believes her concerns should not be taken lightly, and that Jewish students are in fact uncomfortable at UCSC.

And where do we go from here?

If Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is found true, the university could lose its federal funding. A public institution like UCSC cannot continue without that money. Rossman-Benjamin does not believe it will ever come to that, that the complaint would put pressure on the university to change, but funding would never realistically be pulled.

And Rossman-Benjamin has reason to believe that. In April, after accusations of racial discrimination, UCSD came to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights.

As a result, UCSD has agreed to work cooperatively with the federal government to ensure that students’ civil rights are protected.

Rossman-Benjamin says UCSC will follow suit and do what is necessary to change before closing its doors.

Defining the Dialogue: Part I A civil rights complaint could re-evaluate academic freedom

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