Operation Jewish American Scoliosis: Federal Investigation of Anti-Semitism at UC Santa Cruz

Operation Jewish American Scoliosis:

Federal Investigation of Anti-Semitism at UC Santa Cruz 

Shani Chabansky

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment

What happens when one person speaks for a large group of people? If everybody in the group feels the same way as the speaker, the statement is powerful. But things rarely play out so nicely, especially when people in the group feel misrepresented. Collective identity, with its ability to be so easily distorted, has been an issue on the tips of many kosher tongues for years. Why, in a nation boasting the power of free speech, do so many Jewish youth feel that their voices have been hushed in conversations about Israel? In an article published in the New York Times Book Review, Peter Beinart, professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York, directly addressed the widening gap between Jewish youth and Zionism. “For several decades,” he wrote, “the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”[1] Beinart’s article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” rallied up the scattered troops who feel deep within their bones that in many circles it is, at the very least, a kick in the progressive kishkes to support the Jewish state.


Federal Investigation of Anti-Semitism at UC Santa Cruz

Amid the scholastic trench warfare that is finals week, crunch time last quarter was associated with something far more troubling: On March 15th, 2011, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR) announced that the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened an official investigation of anti-Semitism on whose university? Our university! The investigation responds to a formal complaint filed in June of 2009 by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.[2] The complaint reports a “harassing and intimidating

environment for Jewish students” as a result of “rhetoric which demonizes Israel, compares contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls for the dismantling of the Jewish State . . . [and] crosses the line into anti-Semitism according to the standards employed by our own government.”[3] Rossman-Benjamin catalogues every activity of perceived anti-Semitism since 2001. Her twenty- nine page document highlights a variety of incidents, including a Community Studies course on violence and nonviolence, in which the instructor “[encouraged] students to engage in anti-Israel activism.” Our university’s failure to respond to this issue allegedly violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origins” in federally-funded events.[4] According to the complaint, our university has not upheld its part of the bargain. And we’re not the only affected campus. There is a similar investigation at UC Berkeley, but unlike the investigation here, Berkeley faces a federal lawsuit of anti- Semitism after a student was attacked “because she was holding a sign stating ‘Israel wants Peace.’”[5]


Responses to the Investigation

What you have before you is a personal investigation of an issue far deeper than the federal investigation itself. This is an attempt to shed light on what is already a nation-wide discussion, one in which the Jewish community in Santa Cruz must participate immediately. Most relevant to the conversation at hand are the students directly affected by the investigation, the voice of involved Jewish students, most of whom find the investigation unnecessary. A Jewish sophomore who was born in Israel and requested to remain anonymous, said, “Personally, I have never felt threatened because of my Jewish identity … The investigation to me sounds a little overdramatic.” Other Jewish students found frustration in the lack of accessible information detailing the mechanics of the investigation.

The plot thickens. Some feel the investigation is laying the groundwork for a postmodern Jewish armageddon right here on our very own campus. Shira Bogin, a Jewish junior with family in Israel, said, “It is completely offensive to me as a Jewish person to say that certain events and political backgrounds automatically make something anti-Semitic.” In an article published in an online news source, Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish and African-American junior who plans to visit Israel this summer, cites examples of harassment coming from within the Jewish community itself, as a result of her “choice to engage in [her] Jewish identity and speak out [on Israeli policy].”[6] Pierce and Bogin are just two of many students who feel threatened in the Jewish community for sharing a challenging opinion about Israel.

In fact, most young American Jews do not identify as Zionists.[7] Jewish journalist and Santa Cruz local Danny Wool suggests, “The problem is that [the complaint] is in itself anti- Semitic. One significant underlying feature of anti-Semitism is that it looks at the Jews as a homogeneous group.”[8] The semantics of the complaint suggest that all Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz feel that their Jewish identity is threatened by university-sponsored events which question the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. But Pierce and Bogin illustrate what Contemporary Jewry calls the “Distancing Hypothesis, the suggestion that American Jews increasingly are socially, culturally, ethnically, and emotionally distant from the State of Israel.”[9] As Israel Fellow of Santa Cruz Hillel, Erez Shachar, points out, “There is a large population of Jewish students (about 20%) on the campus and we cannot assume that there are not other experiences that need to be heard.”[10] The complaint refers to the students who feel threatened by the reported anti-Semitism not as “some Jewish students,” not as “the Jewish students,” but simply as “Jewish students.” The description of the victims is vague and does not accurately represent the feelings of all Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz.


Soap Box: Cultural Scoliosis and Critical Education Shpiel

         Beinart’s research detects a parting of the Jewish university sea, a ringing of the Jewish liberty bell; young Jews find themselves either as steadfast advocates of Israel or violators of Judaism for dropping their Zionist values. But it’s not that simple, other factors come into play; revealing a strong connection between those who define Judaism as a religion and those who support Israel as a Jewish state, Rossman-Benjamin said, “I really do believe that it is a religious issue. Even though not all Jews feel that way about Israel, but it is a religious belief. My love of Israel is based on being a Jew.” The matter is steeped with religious belief.

The investigation indicates a problem facing the Jewish American community. If some Jews feel their Jewish identity is threatened by anti-Zionism, but not all Jews are Zionist, then how can we recognize anti-Semitism? With so many varied definitions of Judaism itself, it is almost impossible to discern what constitutes bigotry against Jews. During our interview, Rossman-Benjamin addressed the ambiguous definition of anti-Semitism herself. “Anti- Semitism is somehow lost when you talk about racism and bigotry and hatred. I want there to be special language in university policy that addresses this particular issue and I want there to be some kind of a definition of what constitutes anti-Semitic behavior.” Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, but it does cover discrimination based on national origins. The Jewish students who feel their national origins are tied to Israel are covered in Title VI. But the ambiguous phrasing of the complaint suggest that all Jews feel their national origins are tied to Israel. As Pierce and Bogin demonstrate, this is clearly not the case.

It is crucial to understand why many students allegedly feel a “harassing and intimidating environment” when the university sponsors events which question the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. These students feel a different connection with Judaism than the students who do not feel threatened by such events. Speaking from the same place as the students represented in her complaint, Rossman-Benjamin said, “It’s just so wrong to use your Jewishness, like using your university affiliation, to do something that’s political. It’s using your Jewish affiliation to advance a political goal that’s not about Judaism or the Jewish people.” Arguably, Zionism is also a political goal, guided through religious values. For the students represented in the complaint, being Jewish means to believe that Israel should be a Jewish state.

It is not wrong for a Jew to steer political orientation away from religious Zionism. Pierce said, “I do not believe that speaking out about this makes me an anti-Semite, in fact I see it as an expression of Jewish values regarding social justice.” In fact, many suggest that a religious connection to Israel is an aging characteristic in the Jewish spectrum. Gary Rosenblatt, editor-in- chief of The Jewish Week, writes, “On the one side are young people, raised as liberals and humanitarians, who have grown up seeing Israel through the prism of intifadas, harsh and inconclusive wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and increasing international isolation. On the other side are their elders who recall the courageous, even miraculous, early successes of the Jewish State and who are not afraid to call themselves nationalists when it comes to Israel.”[11] Neglecting the childhood of today’s liberal youth, the complaint only takes into consideration the older generation’s nationalist vision of Israel.

The image of a spine is a powerful metaphor for the Jewish community. Simply put, scoliosis is a condition in which the vertebrae are misaligned, creating a curve in the spine. Although tension and discomfort are common symptoms, most cases of scoliosis do not require surgery; a more effective antidote would be to build the muscles surrounding the curved areas and to increase flexibility. The spine of the Jewish community does not require surgery. The Jews who criticize Israel in the name of Judaism itself deserve to be included in the definition of anti- Semitism’s victims. It would behoove Jewish training establishments to build Jewish education using what Rosenblatt calls “an open exploration of issues rather than the candy-coated version.”[12] A Bar or Bat Mitzvah could instigate long-term projects of social reform. The Birthright trip could get non-Jewish youth to Israel and carefully selected trips could explore the occupied territories of the West Bank. We, the Jews in Santa Cruz, are part of the Diaspora. And whether we like it or not, we have a role to play in the presentation of Israel. If we wish to strengthen the spine of our community, we must face the tension and discomfort of inconvenient curves and welcome each individual vertebrae.

Playing host to alternative culture, UC Santa Cruz is a magnet for students in search of a special kind of education. What Rossman- Benjamin calls “…a whole college that’s based around the notion of identity politics,” others consider a space in which open debate is not only tolerated, but welcomed. A growing interest in the new Jewish Studies major and the endless struggle for an Ethnic Studies program exemplify our student body’s willingness to participate in an exploration of social inequality. This is a championing feature of our university, and one about which to unabashedly boast over the seder table.


More information on the details of federal investigation of anti- Semitism at UC Santa Cruz will appear in the upcoming fall 2011 issue of Leviathan Jewish Journal.


Special thanks for editorial assistance from Matthew Borden, Amberly Young and Melinda Széll.

[1] Beinart, Peter. “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” New York Review of Books. May 12, 2010. american-jewish-establishment/ 2 The Institute for Jewish and Community Research. “Feds Open Anti-Semitism Investigation at UC-Santa Cruz.” March 15, 2011. releases/03-15-11.html

[2] The Institute for Jewish and Community Research. “Feds Open Anti-Semitism Investigation at UC-Santa Cruz.” March 15, 2011. releases/03-15-11.html

[3] Rossman-Benjamin, Tammi. Complaint Alleging Hostile Environment for Jewish Students at UC Santa Cruz. June 25, 2009. releases/03-15-11a.html 4 Zeidman, Arthur. “US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Opens Investigation in Response to Complaint Alleging Hostile Environment for Jewish Students at UC Santa Cruz.” March 7, 2011.

[4] Zeidman, Arthur. “US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Opens Investigation in Response to Complaint Alleging Hostile Environment for Jewish Students at UC Santa Cruz.” March 7, 2011.

[5]  “Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed By UC Berkeley Jewish Student against the University of California Seeking Damages for Anti-Semitic Assault.”

[6] Pierce, Rebecca. “A Jewish student responds to the charge of anti-Semitism at UC Santa Cruz.” March 21, 2011. responds-to-the-charge-of-anti-semitism-at-uc-santa-cruz.html

[7] Cohen, Steven M. and Kelman, Ari Y. “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel.”

[8] Wool, Danny. “Accusations of Anti-Semitism Too Common.” Santa Cruz News. com. March 16, 2011. semitism_too_common.

[9] Heilman, Samuel. “Editor’s Introduction to the Distancing Hypothesis Issue.” Contemporary Jewry. October 1, 2010. content/9568l457716553v3/fulltext.html

[10] According to the Hillel website, the population of Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz is 17.46%. aspx?AgencyId=17827


[11] Rosenblatt, Gary. “Alienation From Israel Hitting Liberal Seminaries.” The Jewish W eek. May 3, 2011. rosenblatt/alienation_israel_hitting_liberal_seminaries

[12] Rosenblatt, Gary. “Day Schools Need New Israel Ed Approach.”The Jewish W eek. February 16, 2011. rosenblatt/day_schools_need_new_israel_ed_approach

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