Santa Cruz, Calif. — Shlomo Dubnov, an associate professor at University of California, San Diego, had an unusually busy schedule the first week of May. On Monday, he checked out the “Palestinian wall” erected on campus, then attended a pro-Palestinian spoken word performance and a lecture on “Palestine: Past, Present & Future.” Wednesday, it was a pro-Palestinian “Speak Out!” and Thursday, a lecture by Alison Weir, who, according to her website, is an expert in the “massive ethnic cleansing accomplished in Israel’s War of Independence” — all organized by the UCSD Muslim Students Association and co-sponsored by the UCSD Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.
It was Justice in Palestine Week, and Dubnov, a musicologist and self-described secular Jew, was monitoring the activities as head of the local chapter of the pro-Israel group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He felt offended by much of what he saw and heard. He was especially disturbed by advertising for the event and by publicity on the MSA’s website listing the school as a co-sponsor. “I think that Jewish students should have the right to feel offended by what’s going on on the campuses,” he said, “and they have to find ways to be organized and respond.”
But should Jews make a federal case out of it?
That question has been hanging since last year, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights expanded its coverage to include Jews among those protected by Title VI of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Dubnov is answering the question in a markedly different way than one of his colleagues at UC’s Santa Cruz campus, where a faculty member’s complaint about anti-Israel activities has set off a federal probe.
Until October 2010, Jews had been excluded from the civil rights law’s protection. The language of that statute protects ethnic or racial groups from discrimination, intimidation and harassment sponsored by or even institutionally tolerated by a school receiving federal funds. But for the last several years, Jews were viewed as an exclusively religious group, until the OCR reinterpreted the law to cover “any discrete religious group that shares, or is perceived to share, ancestry or ethnic characteristics (e.g., Muslims or Sikhs)…” including, Jewish students.
Now in response to a complaint filed by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz, the OCR has launched its first formal investigation into anti-Semitism on campus. The probe, announced last March, is focused on incidents reported to have occurred there over the past eight years. While the investigation is not yet complete, the first results are already in: Jews on and off campus are publicly berating each other over criticism of Israel on college campuses and at what point this criticism becomes anti-Semitic — and when it does, should we call in the feds?
No, according to Kenneth Stern, director of anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee — or at least not in this case. He charges that some people “believe the only way to ‘protect’ Jewish students is by imposing censorship.”
“While some of the recent allegations… might well raise a claim under Title VI, many others simply seek to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers,” Stern declared in a statement co-authored with Cary Nelson, head of the American Association of University Professors. “This approach is not only unwarranted under Title VI, it is dangerous.”
Yes, said Kenneth Marcus, a director at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. A former OCR assistant secretary who helped push for the Title VI revision, Marcus took Stern and Nelson to task in widely published online comments and in a note to the Forward.
“Ken Stern has done a lot of good work for the Jewish community but his statement with Cary Nelson was a doozy,” he wrote. “It will unquestionably make it harder for Jewish students to get protection from campus-based anti-Semitism if the American Jewish Committee is perceived as being against them. The AJC should distance itself from Stern’s statement if it wants to maintain credibility in this area.”
“Difficult to understand,” said the Zionist Organization of America’s president, Morton Klein, in an open letter blasting Stern and Nelson’s statement. “In fact, it’s shocking.”
“The only voices being stifled on our campus are Tammi’s, mine and Jewish students who complain about the problem of campus anti-Semitism,” lamented Rossman-Benjamin’s husband, Ilan Benjamin, a chemistry professor at UCSC. Benjamin told the Forward that he and Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew studies at UCSD, have been “trying unsuccessfully for about eight years to have the university even acknowledge that there is a problem.”
“It’s tragic,” said Rossman-Benjamin. It was her 29-page letter, filed in 2009, that triggered the OCR’s investigation into UCSC, one of several California public campuses where Middle Eastern politics have erupted in confrontations ranging from highly vocal to allegedly physical, with incidents of swastika painting and website hacking.
Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint focused especially on the role of university units or academic departments as co-sponsors of campus events and seminars that she claims went “beyond legitimate criticism of Israel,” using rhetoric that “demonizes Israel, compares Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls for dismantling of the Jewish state and holds Israel to an impossible double standard.”
In one instance, she reported, a film-and-panel-discussion event was co-sponsored by Cowell College — a prestigious UCSC interdisciplinary humanities center — and several avowedly anti-Israel organizations. The film, “Israel 101,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote, promoted “falsehoods,” among them, that Israel is “entirely responsible for the plight of the Palestinians and their violence against Israel”; that Israel “is guilty of ethnic cleansing,” and that Israel’s security barrier “is called a ‘hate wall’ and an ‘apartheid wall’ rather than acknowledged as a protective measure that Israel has been forced to undertake to protect innocent civilians from suicide bombings and other terror attacks.”
According to Rossman-Benjamin, the film also claimed that “Jews in America wield excessive power over American foreign policy.”
The panel discussion that followed “was clearly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel,” she reported. One panelist, she said, urged the students to engage in anti-Israel political activity, such as demanding that the university divest from Israel.