UC Santa Cruz From a Jewish Boy’s Perspective

By Oren Gotesman

In March of 2011, the US Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights announced that it was going to launch an investigation regarding the alleged harassment and intimidation of Jewish students at UCSC under Title VI of the Department of Education Civil Rights Act. Title VI “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in all programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.”[1] The investigation is meant to determine whether the anti-Israel behavior of certain UCSC faculty in their classrooms and departmentally sponsored events has created a hostile environment for Jewish students who have some identification with Israel. UCSC Lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin submitted this complaint and argued that the administration of UC Santa Cruz was responsible for one-sided events that developed a consistent feeling of harassment, intimidation, and alienation towards Jewish students who have a connection with Israel[2]. Since Rossman-Benjamin filed her complaint it has become the subject of heated debate and controversy at UCSC. I will first examine the legal basis for the complaint, and then consider the validity and implications of some common critiques of it.

I constantly see students focusing exclusively on whether or not a statement or event is anti-Semitic. This approach to the complaint is problematic, as Rossman-Benjamin considers the hostile learning environment at UCSC to be the main catalyst of the investigation. The real issue is whether or not this environment leads to anti-Semitism, not necessarily the anti-Semitic comments themselves. Because the meaning of “hate” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, the United States adopted a definition of what kind of criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The “…State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s [three D’s] for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line.”[3] The “three D’s” are:

Delegitimization: “When Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied –alone among all peoples in the world– this too is anti-Semitism.”[4] An example of delegitimization is using slander in order to make Israel publicly look far worse than it is, often by undermining the democracy of the country altogether.

Demonization: “When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz –this is anti- Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.” Another common example of demonization of Israel is the common reference to Israeli soldiers as perpetrators of genocide or baby killers.

Double standards: “When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored; when Israel’s Magen David Adom, alone among the world’s ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross –this is anti-Semitism.” Double standards is one of the D’s that critics of Boycotts Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) use against Israel. Choosing to boycott Israeli products, and not those of China, for example, is holding Israel to a different standard than that of the rest of the world.

According to the First Amendment, we as students have a lot of liberty to discuss a wide variety of topics, including both Judaism and Israel. This freedom applies whether the context is good or bad, true or false, and includes hosting events that openly violate the “three D’s.” The University employees, on the other hand, are not allowed to violate these rules by injecting whatever political opinions they want into the campus setting. According to the complaint, faculty members have used their classrooms and departmentally sponsored events to criticize Israel, rather than provide an evenhanded perspective on the Middle-East. Rossman-Benjamin argued that the following points are not academic speech, but in fact are purely political propaganda, if not hate speech:

1: In January 2009, Cowell College was responsible for sponsoring “Pulse on Palestine,” an event that featured a movie titled “Occupation 101.” Despite a petition with ninety signatures of UCSC students requesting that Cowell rescind sponsorship of this event, the college did not withdraw its support and the event went forward as planned. The event presented the following as fact: “Israel is entirely responsible for the plight of the Palestinians and their violence against Israel” and “Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing.” [5]

2: Faculty members have used their classrooms to promote an anti-Israel bias. In one case a faculty member used her readings to state the following: “Israeli massacres are often accompanied by sexual assault, particularly of pregnant women as a symbolic way of uprooting the children from the mother, or the Palestinian from the land.” A student of this class stated that “[the professor] even used the class website to distribute information about anti-Israel protests occurring in the Bay Area and to invite her students to attend.” [6]

3: In March 2007, four professors and a TA, none of whom are scholars of Israel or Zionism, held a a conference called “Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism.” This event presented the following ideas as factual: “Zionism is racism,” “Israel is an apartheid state,” and “Jews exaggerate the Holocaust as a tool of Zionist propaganda.” [7] Though there was a short Q&A, the event gave no time for an official rebuttal in which students could explore the idea that Israel isn’t a racist, apartheid state.

Most pro-Israel students who are knowledgeable about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would know how to refute or argue adequately against the above claims. The issue, however, is that the pro-Israel community can’t be responsible for the faculty and departmentally sponsored events’ one-sided dialogue. If professors make “hateful” comments about Israel in their classrooms and a properly educated student isn’t there to correct that information, then the class leaves with the belief that those opinions are fact. If a college or faculty member spends over an hour lecturing or showing a biased video on why Israel is a Nazi state that commits genocide, then a short Q&A will do little to influence the bigoted and misleading message the audience has been exposed to. It’s acceptable when the Committee for Justice in Palestine (CJP) and The Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee (SCIAC) have events that challenge one another, but when the faculty adopts a one-sided political ideology, it begins to silence the other side.

If you believe that the above three points are evidence of UCSC injecting political (if not hate) speech rather than academic speech into the classroom, you would likely believe Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint has some merit. Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is essentially stating that the faculty and administration at UCSC have frequently broken federal law and no one has done anything about it. It wouldn’t matter if we believed Rossman-Benjamin is a right wing extremist who could never represent most Jews, the U.S. Department of Education created standards for what it considers anti-Semitism and Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is merely informing the state that its schools are not living up to those standards. Rossman-Benjamin used the aforementioned three examples, among others, to illustrate that these events are not only non-academic, but can leave Jewish pro-Israel students with a feeling of alienation or intimidation. These students feel this way because many Jews have a very important connection to Israel. They may value the country for religious, cultural, or spiritual reasons, or even because it’s a land that they can flee to in the event of persecution. I don’t mean to say that all criticism of Israel is bad, but the act of making one-sided statements about Israel, without acknowledging other points of view, can be hateful, especially when an administrator or professor is behind them.

The students’ reactions to the investigation have been varied and at times very negative. A student who attends the Olive Tree Initiative as well as a faculty member told me that during an Islamaphobia conference in June of 2011, a literature professor at UCSC claimed that Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint was Islamaphobic. The complaint does not address Islam or the Muslim Student Association, and it doesn’t even deny that the Palestinians have a legitimate narrative and deserve a peaceful state. In fact, the complaint isn’t even in favor of Israel, rather it’s against one-sided, nonacademic events and narratives. Therefore, the accusation seems baseless.

I heard one African American student question Rossman-Benjamin’s rationale for involving the government. He inquired why she chose to focus so much on the bad environment specifically for Jewish students and not on the environment for other students. He stated that: 1. There is an abundance of Jewish students on campus, 2. There is a Hillel near campus, 3. The regents are Jewish, 4. There is a Jewish Studies major on campus, and therefore other ethnic groups and religions need better representation.

This particular student was vocal about minorities not being represented properly at UCSC, as well as other issues involving minorities on this campus. I suspect many other students share this man’s feelings. When he presented her with such statements, Rossman-Benjamin simply said “don’t Jews have civil rights too?” Though this was just the opinion of one student, it did make me wonder whether or not the students on this campus view the Jewish community as a “more privileged minority.” In Fall 2011, I participated in a small survey of Jewish students regarding the environment for Jews here at UC Santa Cruz. When I brought up the idea of Jews being viewed as a privileged minority, one of the non-Jewish evaluators said, “The Jews are a privileged minority, as they work hard and therefore are able to inherit wealth from their ancestors.” I was completely speechless. Personally, my grandparents lost everything in the Holocaust and had little to pass down to my parents. Her statement only solidified my idea that many view the Jews as an exceptional minority, often without reason.

Perhaps the idea that Jews are a more privileged minority is one of the reasons this complaint is difficult for some people to take seriously. Perhaps people, even Jews, believe that we are capable of dealing with criticism on campus because we are privileged. Even if it’s true, the issue isn’t that the Jewish students at UCSC aren’t able to defend themselves against criticism of Israel; the main problem the complaint is trying to address is that the colleges are holding events that foster a skewed and hateful view of Israel. What happens when our university sponsors events that call Israel a Nazi state without representing an opposing view which addresses the implications of such a statement? What happens when people tell students that Israel kills Palestinians for no reason? What happens when students see Israel as the sole reason for a lack of peace in the Middle East? Many students agree with Rossman-Benjamin that these statements breed hatred towards Israel and its supporters. Regardless of how one feels when someone calls anti-Israel dialogues anti-Semitism, the idea that UCSC is funding hate is completely unacceptable. The main question I think we should all ask ourselves is, “Has the school violated the federal anti-discrimination laws?” The question of whether to reform the law because of the inaccuracy of the “the 3D’s” or the term “anti-Semitism” is a conversation for another day.  It is our responsibility to question if the school has failed to obey anti-discrimination laws, and if it has failed, then what are the consequences for the Jewish pro-Israel population and the anti-discrimination laws of other groups?


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