Latest update: December 30th, 2013
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin lives and teaches in the belly of the beast, and although she is on faculty, her position as lecturer of Hebrew Language at the University of California, Santa Cruz means she has practically no political pull.
But Rossman-Benjamin is not easily deterred.
For years the Jewish instructor has been trying, in her own, respectful, non-confrontational way, to right a serious wrong she sees and hears from students about, on the California campuses: rank anti-Semitism. First she filed a Complaint in 2009, and then, just two weeks ago, filed an Appeal from the Office of Civil Rights refusal to act on her Complaint.
IN 2010, DEPT OF EDUC. EXTENDED CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS TO PROTECT JEWS FROM DISCRIMINATION
And in fact, there was good news on the legal front in the past few years: a much heralded announcement regarding the Civil Rights laws, by which the U.S. Department of Education extended legal protection from discrimination to Jews.
But a decision in August by the Office of Civil Rights to close the file on Rossman-Benjamin’s Complaint, coincidentally on the same day and for the same reasons it rejected two other Complaints filed alleging anti-Jewish discrimination against California colleges, may well mean that the legal protection extended to protect Jews from discrimination in education has been rolled back up.
The Office of Civil Rights has thus once again shut its door to Jews discriminated against – whether through overt action or by the creation of a hostile environment – on U.S. college campuses.
Rossman-Benjamin carefully documents dozens of examples of discriminatory behavior creating a hostile environment for Jewish students qua Jews in the Appeal she filed less than two weeks ago.
But here’s the real issue: Rossman-Benjamin is not focused on the nastiness of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students, her concern – indeed the sole focus of a complaint she filed with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights – is the official sponsorship of such actions, activities and antagonisms by the universities themselves.
Inexplicably, the OCR chose to ignore the essence of Rossman-Benjamin’s claim. Instead, it pretended that the professor was complaining about student behavior, and then rejected the complaint as unworthy of its review because, according to the OCR, Rossman-Benjamin was complaining about First Amendment protected speech.
The fact that other “First Amendment protected speech” was deemed worthy of review and indeed, nearly immediate corrective action and investigations both by the universities and the OCR, when the speech was directed at groups other than Jews, is very much a significant aspect of Rossman-Benjamin’s appeal.
But first, let’s look at the main focus of Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint, and how the OCR responded.
THE UNDERLYING COMPLAINT, FILED IN 2009
Rossman-Benjamin’s 2009 Complaint charged that professors, academic departments and residential colleges at the California universities were promoting and encouraging anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behavior, and creating a hostile environment for Jewish students, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Specific examples of anti-Semitic behavior in the Complaint included:
ZIONISM AS PROMOTING ETHNIC CLEANSING
(1) The university department-sponsored “A Teach in on Islamophobia: Between the War on Terror and Arab Revolution,” sponsored by the Asian Diasporas Research Clustier of the Institute for Humanities Research and by the UC Center for New Racial Studies, as well as various anti-Israel organizations, such as the Students for Justice in Palestine.
At this teach-in, both panelists blamed Israel and American Zionist organizations and individuals for contributing to Islamophobia to silence all criticism of Israel; one panelist referred to Israel as a “colonial settler state” whose Zionist ideology promotes “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid,” and said that anyone who “challenged these ‘truths’ is engaging in Islamophobia and racism.”
OFFICIAL PROMOTION OF THE FREEDOM FLOTILLA TO BREAK ISRAEL’S BLOCKADE OF GAZA
Debra Ellis, the university official responsible for coordinating educational events at the California campus at which this event took place, was seated at a table promoting a U.S. boat to Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II. Ellis handed out copies of a letter she wrote, encouraging students to go to the official U.S. Boat to Gaza website, to endorse the effort to launch a U.S. boat to Gaza, to “write letters to Gaza” that would be transported on the boat, and to write federal, state and city representatives, encouraging them to endorse the campaign.
The University official took these steps while even the United Nations — hardly a bastion of pro-Israel propaganda — has officially found that Israel’s naval embargo around Gaza is an appropriate and legal means of preventing the importation of weapons that would be used to attack the Jewish state.
COLLEGE SPONSORSHIP OF FILM VILIFYING PRO-ISRAEL JEWS
(2) An additional allegation raised by Rossman-Benjamin concerned the sponsorship by two California colleges of a screening of the film, “Between Two Worlds,” and a follow-up question and answer session by the filmmakers.
The film, according to Rossman-Benjamin, focuses on in-fighting in the Jewish community, particularly between Jews who who support Israel and those who seek to harm it through various activities such as boycotts. The film presents pro-Israel students as extremists who seek to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.
Rossman-Benjamin documented the horrified responses of Jewish students to the showing of the film, and the submission of a petition signed by 70 UCSC students which stated:
We believe the screening of this film is intended to vilify, delegtimize, and silence many Jewish students who feel that the campus climate is hostile towards them because they identify with Israel. …. The fact that residential colleges, including Colleges [the two were referred to by numbers for privacy purposes], support such positions and the incitement of hostility by sponsoring this and similar events which demonize and delegitimize Israel and Jewish students on campus who support Israel is horrifying to say the least. As UCSC students, we … find it highly inappropriate for a College to portray Jewish supporters of Israel as extremists and Jewish values as antiquated.
The response from the Director of Academic and CoCurricular Programs for the two Colleges, Provost Helen Shapiro and UCSC chancellor George Blumenthal ignored the concerns of the students and instead focused solely on the “Colleges’ right to show the film.”
Adding insult to injury, the school officials shared with the filmmakers the concerns by the Jewish students and the fact that the students filed hate/bias complaints about the film.
Making great hay from this breach of privacy, the filmmakers proceeded to send out emails and announce on their website that there had been a “McCarthyite network inside the Jewish community,” referring specifically to the UCSC Jewish students’ petition. The filmmakers wrote that “would-be censors are connected to a larger campaign trying to use the U.S. Civil Rights Act to silence debate, claiming films like ours create a hostile environment for students.”
That sure is one way to silence students from raising concerns in a way that should have been treated with respect, including respect for their privacy.
ZIONISM AS SYNONYMOUS WITH RACISM IN FEMINIST STUDIES CLASS
(3) Yet another example of how the university’s sponsorship and control over academic activities and content created a hostile environment for Jews on campus was the case of a UCSC Feminist Studies Class on Race and Gender. The class explicitly described Zionism as synonymous with racisim, and texts were given equating Zionism to colonialism.
Rossman-Benjamin submitted several articles from the syllabus as supplements to her underlying claim which included faculty who used their classrooms or class resources to promote hatred towards the Jewish state, thereby contributing to the hostile environment on campus. The feminism class readngs were, according to Rossman-Benjamin, “unabashedly anti-Zionist or anti-Israel, three of them encourage anti-Israel activism, and one of them, arguably, condones terrorism against Israel.”
Astonishingly, the OCR ignored Rossman-Benjamin’s evidence concerning “A Teach-In on Islamaphobia,” “Between Two Worlds,” and the Feminist Studies Class. Instead, in rejecting her Complaint as not worthy of further action, the OCR mentioned incidents which the professor had not included as part of her Complaint: an event called “Costs of War on Israeli Society,” as well as the event “Truth and Consequences of Israel’s Gaza Invasion.”
In addition to ignoring claims she did make and referring to ones she did not, the OCR mischaracterized Rossman-Benjamin’s allegations regarding anti-Semitic graffiti on campus.
The anti-Semitic graffiti per se was not the gravamen of Rossman-Benjamin’s concern, it was the response by the university officials which, in the professor’s view, provided raw evidence of a double standard in treatment of ugly, anti-minority actions on the campuses that was the issue.
Again, the OCR mischaracterized Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint, ignoring what she was actually complaining about and instead discussing, then rejecting as not actionable what was not at all the focus of Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint:
My allegation was that the University was applying a double standard when it came to anti-Jewish graffiti, and it was this double standard which caused Jewish students to feel discriminated against by University administrators.
Just one set of examples:
UNIVERSITY REFUSAL TO CONDEMN SWASTIKAS AND DEATH THREATS TO JEWS AS ANTI-SEMITISM
During March, 2011, Rossman-Benjamin noted that there had been several incidents of swastika-related graffiti at UCSC, one of which included the threatening message: “Blood will be shed @ UCSC on 4/20/11.”
In response to a newspaper article several days later about the swastikas, the Chancellor sent out an email describing the swastika graffiti, but he never referred to it as anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. In contrast, there had been anti-African American graffiti the previous year. To that, university officials sent out an email denouncing the graffiti as racist within hours of its discovery. Rossman-Benjamin provided several such examples in her Complaint.
FIRST AMENDMENT, WHILE NOT IMPLICATED, WAS USED BY OCR AS BASIS FOR REJECTING COMPLAINT
Because the OCR mischaracterized Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint as being about the impact of what she believes to be anti-Jewish events and incidents on the campuses, the Office of Civil Rights concluded that her allegations were based on “the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thought that a student might find personally offensive,” and were therefore barred by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
How many times could Rossman-Benjamin repeat, with strong emphasis, that it was not the events or incidents that she complained about, it was the university-sponsorship and promotion by university employees, faculty and administration that created the hostile environment for Jewish students at the California campuses.
It appears that thus far there is no limit to the number of times Rossman-Benjamin would have to direct the heads of the university and those in the Office of Civil Rights to focus on the actual words she used, and not on some red herring which those vested with responsibility for understanding the difference kept reeling in and displaying.
This is a news article and not a legal brief or a scholarly article for a law review about exactly the wrong way for professors, administrators and civil rights assessors should go about conducting an investigation. Therefore, the last piece of evidence to note is that although the OCR pointed to the First Amendment as the basis for rejecting a complaint about an atmosphere of discrimination that has resulted in fear by a minority group, the exact opposite was the response to contemporaneous claims of racial harassment of black students on another UC campus.
BUT NO FIRST AMENDMENT IMPLICATIONS WHEN ANTI-AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDENT ACTS TOOK PLACE
As Rossman-Benjamin pointed out in the appeal she filed from the dismissal of her complaint:
On March 11, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice invoked civil rights laws, including Titile VI of the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, to open an investigation of the University of California San Diego. Specifically, according to media reports, students at the University of California San Diego (“UCD”) organized a social event off campus calling it a “Compton Cookout” and promised to expose guests to “life in the ghetto.”
In addition to the offensive promise of seeing “life in the ghetto,” a cardboard sign was found with the words “Compton Lynching,” and students on the schools radio stations were accused of using racial slurs on the air, and a student was alleged to have hung a noose in the campus library at UCSD.
All of the incidents were unquestionably offensive, but all were actions engaged in by students, and, as Rossman-Benjamin pointed out, are “classic cases of the ‘mere expression of views, words, symbols or thought’” which are protected under the First Amendment. But in that case, the Department of Justice, followed by the Office of Civil Rights just a few weeks later, began official investigations of potential Title VI violations.
That’s right. The same office that tossed out Rossman-Benjamin’s claims which they mischaracterized as merely expressions by students that are protected by the First Amendment were claims instituted by the government when there was no allegation even of official university sponsorship or support. The only difference, it appears, is that Rossman-Benjamin was complaining about anti-Jewish animus, while the government saddled up and rode off in immediate pursuit of students speaking offensively about African Americans.
It appears there is not only a problem with official sponsorship of anti-Semitism on California campuses. The problem may also extend to the Office of Civil Rights.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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