Feds on hunt for anti-Semitism at U.C. Santa Cruz

Allegations of anti-Semitism at U.C. Santa Cruz have attracted the attention of the federal government.

In response to a June 2009 complaint filed by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin that the Santa Cruz campus had become a hostile environment for Jews, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched a major investigation this week into complaints of anti-Semitic activities at the school.

“There has been a pervasive problem at the university since about 2001, in which events sponsored by the university, both academic departments and residential college, have crossed the line from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic,” said Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew at U.C. Santa Cruz.

A prominent figure in the Jewish Studies department, Ross-Benjamin said she filed the complaint after witnessing many university-sponsored events that made her and other members of the Jewish community on campus feel alienated, uncomfortable or attacked.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

In November 2010, anti-Semitic harassment on campus became punishable by law under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which mandates that federally funded schools ensure that their programs and activities are free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Religion had not previously been covered; students of Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths are now protected. A school stands to lose federal funding if it is found to be in violation of the law.

As of March 16, OCR had notified the university of the investigation, but U.C. officials had not yet seen the specific allegations, according to U.C. Santa Cruz campus counsel Carole Rossi.

“We will, of course, fully cooperate with such an investigation,” Rossi said in a statement. “And as OCR noted in its communication with the campus, that office’s decision to review an individual’s allegations in no way implies that the agency has determined that the allegations have merit.”

But for Rossman-Benjamin — who says she has been complaining about the atmosphere on campus and how it might affect Jewish students for the past decade — it has been gratifying for her concerns to get any sort of recognition at all.

“It’s disturbing on a number of levels, but one primary concern, as a faculty member, is that this [anti-Semitism] was often coming from faculty,” she said, citing examples of professors who took “virulent” anti-Israel stands in the classroom, and an academic panel sponsored by eight academic departments in which visiting professors directed students on how to work for divestment from Israel.

“If we were talking about events thrown by student groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine or a Muslim student union, that’s what those groups do. I understand that,” she said. “But coming from the university, it really legitimizes it, makes it acceptable at an academic level, and that seems unethical. It’s an abuse of academic freedom.”

News of the investigation originally was released by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, an S.F.-based think tank.

“It is only the second major systemic anti-Semitism case that OCR has opened and may have important precedential value,” Kenneth L. Marcus, head of agency’s Anti-Semitism Initiative, said in the release. The investigation’s outcome, he added, will “demonstrate whether OCR means what it says about its commitment to addressing hate and bias in federally funded higher education programs.”

While stressing that the OCR office acts as a neutral party, a fact-finder, Department of Education spokesperson Jim Bradshaw said OCR will investigate “whether the university had notice of the hostile environment, and, if so, whether the university had an adequate process to respond to complaints about it.”

In regard to whether or not the U.C. Santa Cruz administrators had notice of the environment, Rossman-Benjamin says there’s no question they did — not only because she has repeatedly told them about it, but because students have, too.

“One student wrote a very poignant and compelling e-mail to a bunch of administrators saying ‘This is hurtful to me, I urge you to not sponsor this,’ ” Rossman-Benjamin said, alluding to a university-sponsored event at which there was going to be fundraising for anti-Israel organizations.

“It comes down to academic integrity,” she added. “If you were a student, how would you feel if you couldn’t speak your mind in class because you knew your professor was very anti-Israel, had signed a boycott petition?

“People talk a lot about diversity and inclusiveness and principles of community here. But that doesn’t seem to extend to the Jewish students.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.