Letter from Tammi Benjamin to Ken Stern (Head of the AJC) regarding anti-Semitism on campus and Title VI

Tammi Benjamin is a lecturer at the University of California, and has filed a federal complaint against the university, alleging discrimination against Jewish students, in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  There is a link to her complaint in the body of the letter.  I believe all the links below (in the body of her letter) should work, but if not, please feel free to contact me and I will forward them to you.

I am copying the entire text of Ms. Benjamin’s letter below.  I think it is important that we, as Jews, ALL read this letter in its entirety along with Mr. Stern’s statement, which can be found at the following link:

http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/about/pres/let/antisemitism.htm

John Poris

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Dear Mr. Stern,

I am a lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), one of the three universities you mention in your recent statement co-authored with AAUP president Cary Nelson.  I am also the author of a federal complaint against my university, alleging a long-standing and pervasive pattern of discrimination against Jewish students emanating from faculty and administrators, which I believe is in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  (See HERE for a copy of my complaint).

Since your statement assails the reactions of “some” to the incidents on these three campuses, reactions which you claim “are making the situation worse by distorting the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and what has been called the ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’,” and since, to the best of my knowledge, mine is the only Title VI complaint that has been filed in reaction to anti-Jewish harassment at any of these three campuses, it is clear that your statement is directed at my Title VI complaint.  I would like to make the following points in response to your charges. I do so because I believe these charges are both inaccurate and unfounded.

1) Without offering a shred of evidence — not even one example — you imply that the “working definition” of anti-Semitism in the Title VI complaint is distorted. However, the complaint contains dozens of examples of rhetoric that fit squarely within the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism.  Here are two:

  • In March 2007, a conference entitled “Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism” took place at UCSC, sponsored by eight university departments.  Four professors and one graduate student, none of them scholars of Israel or Zionism though all of them self-proclaimed anti-Zionists, delivered papers demonizing the Jewish state, denigrating its founding ideology and encouraging actions such as divestment in order to harm Israel.  The five talks were replete with gross misrepresentations of the facts, selected half-truths, and numerous unsubstantiated claims, such as the following: Zionism is racism; Israel is an apartheid state; Israel commits heinous crimes against humanity, including genocide and ethnic cleansing; Israel’s behavior is comparable to Nazi Germany; Jews exaggerate the Holocaust as a tool of Zionist propaganda; and Israel should be dismantled as a Jewish state.

  • In the Summer of 2007, a UCSC Community Studies class designed to train social activists was taught by a professor, who described herself in her on-line syllabus as an active participant in the “campaign against the Apartheid Wall being built in Palestine,” and whose course readings, all biased against Israel, included such unreferenced and anti-Semitic statements as 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.”

“We define Zionism as a settler-colonial political movement that seeks to ethnically cleanse historical Palestine of the indigenous population and populate it as a Jewish-only state.”

“Not only does the Zionist project use the experience of the Holocaust to legitimate the creation of an exclusionary state at the expense of the displaced indigenous Arab population, it also attempts to foreclose the possibility of other peoples…from calling attention to genocidal practices which in many ways mirror the atrocities that took place in World War II.”

Both of these examples, and almost all of the others included in the complaint, involve language that clearly meets the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism, including rhetoric that denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination (such as by claiming that Zionism is racism); that makes mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of the Jewish collective; that applies a double standard to Israel’s behavior not applied to any other democratic nation; that uses the symbols associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. blood libel); that compares Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and that accuses the Jewish people and the state of Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust.

Where is the distortion, Mr. Stern?  If these are not anti-Semitic expressions, then what are they?  Moreover, if the EUMC working definition, which you helped to draft, can not be used to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and expressions of anti-Jewish animus on college campuses, then what good is the definition?

2) As you well know, the existence of anti-Semitic incidents per se does not constitute a violation of Title VI.  Although the complaint provides many examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric, nowhere are these incidents, in and of themselves, claimed to be violations of federal anti-discrimination law.  Rather, it is argued that the long-standing and pervasive nature of such anti-Semitic expression has contributed to creating a hostile environment for Jewish students, and it is this hostile environment that has violated the provisions of Title VI.  The complaint contains numerous student testimonies corroborating this claim.  Here are a few:

  • A Jewish student in a Community Studies class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wrote: “The professor used her lectures, classroom discussions and course readings as a vehicle for her own personal vendetta against the state of Israel, against Zionism, against Israelis and against Jews…Many times when I would confront the professor in class or on [the class email list], she would argue with me so harshly that I felt personally assaulted by her.”

  • A Jewish student in a senior seminar class in Politics wrote: “My final topic and presentation involved a discussion of Zionism, and was followed by a question and answer session. This session didn’t actually involve any questions, but was rather a blunt attack on me by my fellow students. Several students kept asking hurtful and very personal questions, while the professor sat quietly in his seat. I felt as if I was under attack…one student contemptuously responded that Zionism was Nazism and that I as a Zionist am nothing less than a Nazi. I was numb. It was silent in the class; the professor said nothing. Can you even begin to imagine how painful it is to hear such a thing? I, as the granddaughter of holocaust survivors, am now being called the name of the very same people responsible for the murder of my granduncles and aunts. I still cannot believe the events of that day. I cannot believe I was called a Nazi. And above all, I cannot believe my professor didn’t even react. I must admit that I spent the ten-minute break in the bathroom stall crying my eyes out. I was heart-broken.”

  • In response to an anti-Zionist panel discussion sponsored by one of UCSC’s 10 residential colleges, a student wrote: “I am so perplexed and distressed when intelligent academics fail to recognize Israel’s legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East. This anti-Zionism is tossed around without any compassion to the Jewish people. As a Jew, Israel is central to my identity–to my culture, to my religion, to my ethnicity. To claim so misguidedly that Israel is illegitimate, and furthermore, should be revoked–is so hurtful and so offensive beyond words. [My college’s] sponsorship of this event is more than hurtful, it’s absolutely unsettling. My trust in UCSC as a non-discriminatory academic environment has been damaged.”

  • 90 Jewish students signed a petition to the administrators of one of the residential college, requesting that the college rescind its sponsorship of an event that the students believed would be a hateful, one-sided attack on Zionism and Israel, that is “politically biased and discriminates against the Jewish student population.”

Despite the substantial evidence brought to demonstrate a hostile environment for Jewish students at UCSC, you have wrongly insinuated that the complaint was filed to silence all criticism of Israel.  Rather, the intention has always and only been to protect Jewish students, as Title VI provides. And this is undoubtedly what motivated 13 Jewish organizations (including the American Jewish Committee) and 38 members of the U.S. Congress to write letters last year to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, urging him to ensure that Jewish students are covered under the provisions of Title VI and have the same protections as other ethnic minority students, such as African American, Latino, and Arab.

Again, where is the distortion?  How have the provisions of Title VI been abused?  If, as you suggest, the provisions of Title VI should not be used to protect Jewish students in this way, were the efforts of 13 Jewish organizations and 38 senators in vain? Now that Jewish students have won equal protection under federal law, why would you want to take that protection away?

Thankfully, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights does not see things as you do.  The OCR does not believe the complaint distorts the provisions of Title VI.  In fact, after a thorough evaluation of the complaint, they concluded that the charges raised were serious enough to warrant a federal investigation.

3) Like you, I believe there are many things a university could and should do to combat anti-Semitic bigotry, and that “Title VI is a remedy when university leadership neglects its job to stop bigoted harassment of students.”  Indeed, that is precisely why the Title VI was filed: After years of documenting examples of faculty and college-sponsored anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and its effects on Jewish students, and using this evidence to encourage faculty and administrators to address the problem with the means available to them, no university leader was willing to address — or even acknowledge — this longstanding and pervasive problem.

UCSC is not unusual in this regard.  University leaders on many UC campuses have been unwilling to adequately acknowledge and address the problem of anti-Semitic bigotry.  Outraged by this refusal to protect Jewish students, 12 major Jewish organizations, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union, signed a letter to UC President Mark Yudof, urging him to address the harassment and intimidation directed against Jewish students on UC campuses.  The American Jewish Committee was also requested to sign the letter to President Yudof, but your organization refused.

4) Ironically, although you refused to stand together with other Jewish organizations in order to demand the safety of Jewish students at the University of California, you have made common cause with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization that has not only been wholly unsympathetic to the plight of Jewish students, but has vilified and sought to silence those who have struggled to stand up on their behalf.

Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been looked to as the authority on academic freedom.  In recent years, however, the AAUP has been responsible for a tragic distortion of those same principles.  That organization has rushed to the defense of professors — often their own members and leaders — whose unscholarly, politically motivated, anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish state and its supporters have been identified as egregious abuses of academic freedom by many in the Jewish community, and AAUP leaders have assailed all those who would raise legitimate concerns about these abuses.

Consider the following facts about the organization with which you have partnered:

  • In 2006, the AAUP organized a conference on academic boycotts, which was heavily weighted with speakers who backed the academic boycott of Israeli universities.  The conference was postponed after an article taken from a Holocaust-denying magazine was circulated by AAUP organizers to conference participants.  Joan Scott, the chief organizer of the conference and the head of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1999, posted on-line a scathing note blaming the postponement on “a carefully-orchestrated campaign to abort the conference by a lobby of people (pro-Israel occupation) who believe that any representation of a point of view other than theirs is anathema.”

  • In 2007, the AAUP published “Freedom in the Classroom,”  a statement drafted by the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, as a response to perceived challenges from groups outside of the University who “have sought to regulate classroom instruction.”   The authors of the report acknowledge that professors have been accused of indoctrinating rather than educating students and of failing to provide balanced perspectives on controversial issues, but they belittle these accusations and instead call those outside groups who would raise them — a thinly-veiled allusion to Jewish organizations combating anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish students — “a modern menace.”

  • On the heels of the publication of the 2007 AAUP report, five prominent academics calling themselves The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University, including the AAUP’s Joan Scott, issued a public statement condemning outside groups that have “defamed scholars, pressured administrators, and tried to bypass or subvert established procedures of academic governance” in order to achieve their political ends.  The Ad Hoc Committee’s harshest condemnation was directed at “groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel…[that] have targeted scholars who have expressed perspectives on Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which they disagree.”

  • Two current members of the AAUP’s elite Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure have endorsed the anti-Semitic U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

5) Mr. Stern, you have exploited your credentials as the American Jewish Committee’s director on anti-Semitism and the lead drafter of the EUMC “working definition” of anti-Semitism to add credibility and legitimacy to this spurious statement. In so doing, you have also undermined the efforts of a great many in the Jewish community and done enormous harm to the cause of combating campus anti-Semitism.  It is unclear to me why you would do such a thing.  What is clear is that your co-authorship of this statement is an egregious and shameful failure of Jewish leadership, and I urge you to publicly retract it.

The following individuals have been copied and blind-copied on this email: the leaders of the Jewish organizations that signed a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asking him to ensure that Jewish students are protected under the provisions of Title VI; the leaders of other Jewish organizations that have been at the forefront of fighting campus anti-Semitism; and several hundred individuals who are deeply concerned for the safety of Jewish students on campuses across the country. I encourage all of them to write to you and AJC Executive Director David Harris, adding their voices to mine in condemning your statement and urging its retraction.

Sincerely,

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Lecturer, University of California Santa Cruz

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