Insider’s guide to campus bias faced by Jews

UC Santa Cruz Professor and cofounder of AMCHA Initiative, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, spoke about the alarming rise in campus anti-Semitism at T.E.A.M.’s 5th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, March 30, at Congregation Beth Am in San Diego.  Nicole Bernstein from StandWithUs and Jean-Jacques (“J.J.”) Surbeck, T.E.A.M. cofounder, also spoke at the event about what it takes to stand up for Israel in the trenches of U.S. campuses.

By Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

SANTA CRUZ, California–How many of you saw the recent news story about the African American student at San Jose State University who was racially harassed and bullied by his dormitory roommates?  As soon as the student came forward to report the incident, university, county and state officials began investigating. Within days, prosecutors had filed hate crime and battery charges against three of the roommates and the university suspended them.  Within weeks, State Assembly Speaker John Perez announced the creation of a Select Committee on Campus Climate, and its first charge was to look into this incident, and to find a way to prevent incidents like this one from occurring on California campuses.

Compare that to the situation for Jewish students. Over the last several years Jewish students on campuses across California have also been physically, emotionally and intellectually harassed, intimidated, threatened and bullied, not only by their fellow students but also by some of their professors — and distressingly, university administrators have turned a blind eye to this long-standing and pervasive anti-Jewish bigotry and they have ignored Jewish students’ pleas for help.

To underscore what I am saying, just two weeks ago the University of California released a huge campus climate survey of all UC students, and lo and behold Jewish students on many campuses, including at UCSD, reported the highest level of discomfort with overall campus climate of all identified religious groups.

I want to talk about the hostile environment that many Jewish students are facing on California campuses today, and why the situation is growing more and more alarming. And then I’d like to talk about what we – the dedicated community activists who care about the safety and well-being of Jewish students – can do about the problem.

An overview of anti-Semitism on California campuses

There are two major sources of anti-Jewish sentiment on California Campuses.

1. Muslim and Pro-Palestinian Student Organizations – The first are members of Muslim and pro-Palestinian student organizations.  The Muslim Student Association (MSA/MSU) and the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) have a presence on most California university campuses.  For more than a decade, these groups have sponsored speakers, films, exhibits, and guerrilla theater that engage in discourse or use imagery and language considered anti-Semitic by the US State Department.

For example, this past November, the General Union of Palestine Students at San Francisco State University hosted an all-day event that included an art project creating placards and t-shirts from stencils. One stencil was an image of Leila Khaled, a well-known member of the US State Department-designated terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization that has killed more than 150 Jews. Another stencil bore the words, My heroes have always killed colonizers; it was a clear reference to the killing of Israeli Jews.

Students from Muslim and pro-Palestinian student groups have also been responsible for aggressively confronting Jewish students at pro-Israel events and for disrupting pro-Israel speakers, such as the talk of the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine in 2010. These students have also been responsible for incidents in which Jewish students have been threatened, physically harassed, and assaulted.

Over the last couple of years, MSA and SJP groups have been responsible for promoting campaigns to boycott Israel or companies that do business with Israel, which are known as BDS – boycott, divestment, sanctions – campaigns. On campus, BDS campaigns are generally accompanied by talks, rallies and exhibits which contain anti-Semitic imagery, rhetoric and action. SJP and MSA members on more than 40 college and university campuses in California have lobbied for anti-Israel divestment resolutions to be considered by their student senates, and of those, 3 divestment resolutions have succeeded: UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Berkeley.  Over the last few years, several students who opposed divestment have reported fearing for their safety in the days leading up to and after the student senate votes about the divestment resolutions, saying that they were “continuously intimidated” and “repeatedly threatened.”

It’s important to point out that the students who engage in these anti-Israel campaigns are generally motivated by very strong religious and political convictions.

Driven by their strong religious and political convictions, both the MSA and SJP have forcefully promoted their anti-Israel message on campus and have successfully courted other student groups, and even faculty members and departments, to join them in their anti-Israel activism.

This combination of the deeply-held religious and political convictions of the Muslim and pro-Palestinian group members, coupled with the strong alliances they have formed with other student groups and faculty, have created a tsunami of anti-Israel sentiment on some campuses, which is simply overwhelming for many pro-Israel Jewish students.

2. Anti-Israel Faculty – The second significant source of anti-Jewish sentiment on California campuses are anti-Zionist faculty.  In classrooms and at departmentally-sponsored events on a number of California campuses, faculty members have advanced lies and distortions about Zionism, Israel, and Jews, and advocated the elimination of the Jewish State. Although their rhetoric is unscholarly, politically motivated, and even at times anti-Semitic, these professors have wrapped themselves in the mantle of academic freedom, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to challenge their behavior.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen that many faculty members on California campuses have expressed support for BDS campaigns, particularly campaigns to boycott Israeli universities and professors. In fact the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched by about a dozen faculty on California campuses, and hundreds of faculty members across the state have endorsed it.  At UCSD, at least 14 faculty members have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, including ethnic studies professor Curtis Marez, who is the president of the American Studies Association, an organization which recently made big news by voting to impose an academic boycott of Israel.

Of course, if a professor wants to express support for a boycott of Israel outside of the university, that is his or her constitutionally-protected right.  The problem, however, is that many pro-BDS faculty believe that they have the right to bring their anti-Israel, anti-Semitic propaganda onto the campus and into the classroom.

Here are two examples of professors who have used their faculty positions and university resources to promote the boycott of Israel:

  • David Klein is a mathematics Professor at Cal State Northridge, who is a founder of the academic boycott of Israel and organized the boycott of the Israel Abroad program on CSU campuses.  For more than 4 years he has been using his university’s server to promote his web pages calling for the economic, academic, and cultural boycott of Israel.  His web pages contain a litany of false and inflammatory statements and photographs intended to incite hatred and promote political activism against the Jewish state.  Not surprisingly, Klein is the faculty advisor for the SJP group on his campus.
  • David Lloyd is a professor of English at UC Riverside. He is also a founder of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  In January he organized an event on his campus that featured Omar Barghouti, the founder and most vocal advocate of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The event was funded and sponsored by the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences along with the Department of Ethnic Studies, a third of whose faculty have endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, including the department chair. Students in 8 courses were given course credit for attending and listening to Barghouti’s hate speech, which was pure anti-Israel propaganda laced with classic antisemitism:
    • Invoking the classic blood libel, Barghouti accused Israeli soldiers of “hunting children,” saying that sharpshooter Israeli soldiers target Palestinian children and shoot to kill, and that the soldiers “entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport,” leaving the children with their “stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in their torsos.”
    • Barghouti accused “Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups” of “buying and paying for the allegiance of Congress” and controlling the media.

The impact of this academic Israel-bashing on students has been enormous. There are many students who have reported feeling emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated by their professors, to the point that they are reluctant or afraid to express a view that is not anti-Israel in their classes or class assignments.  Unfortunately, Jewish students who do feel emotionally or intellectually threatened as a result of their professor’s anti-Semitic discourse are often afraid to come forward and confront the professor or to complain to an administrator, because they are concerned about potential retaliation.

3.  Administrators – Although anti-Israel student groups and faculty are the primary sources of the New Anti-Semitism on California campuses, another important contributor to the problem are University administrators.  In general, administrators have been unwilling to acknowledge let alone address acts of anti-Semitism, and even engage in a clear discriminatory double standard: language and behavior that would never be tolerated from either students or faculty when directed against other campus minorities go unchallenged by administrators when they are directed against Jewish students. Instead, university leaders routinely turn a blind eye to the kinds of anti-Semitic behavior of students and faculty that I’ve just been describing, claiming that such behavior is protected by freedom of speech or academic freedom.

Understandably Jewish students have reported being extremely upset by the insensitivity that university administrators have shown to their pleas for help, and the discriminatory double standard administrators have applied to Jewish concerns.

So there you have it, the major sources of the anti-Semitism on California campuses: Members of Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups, anti-Zionist faculty, and administrators who turn a blind eye to their anti-Semitic activities but immediately and forcefully address all other kinds of racist bigotry.

A New Kind of Attack on Jewish Students

But that is not the whole picture.  Recently, Jewish students have found themselves facing a new kind of campus anti-Semitism.  Not only have pro-Israel Jewish students had to suffer the anti-Jewish bigotry of their fellow students and their professors, recently they have been vilified and attacked for even trying to call attention to the anti-Semitic behavior they are experiencing.

Students (and faculty) who speak out about anti-Semitism are accused of using their Jewishness to promote an illegitimate and racist “Zionist” agenda, of censoring legitimate criticism of Israel, and of creating a hostile environment for Arab and Muslim students; Jewish students (and faculty) are called racist and Islamophobic; they are denied their basic civil rights and freedom of expression — in fact, they have been told they do not even deserve such rights.

Please understand what’s happening here, and the insidiousness of these arguments:  Such  student protesters are not arguing for the legitimacy of their criticism of Israel or for their constitutional right to criticize Israel.  They are rather arguing for the illegitimacy of any Jew who speaks out about anti-Semitism, and they are denying the basic civil rights of Jews to freedom of speech.   Although these ideas sound extreme, they are not uncommon on university campuses. Nor are they just ideas;  they have been translated into anti-Semitic action. For instance, at the anti-Israel “occupation” rally last November, a student who expressed concern about the anti-Semitic banners displayed during the protest was physically assaulted by a protester who screamed in his face, “You are racist and you should die in hell.” Other protestors screamed at a group of Jewish students, “Leave our space,” “Death to Israel,” “F*** Israel,” and other curses, until they left the building.

This new aspect of the New Anti-Semitism on college campuses, which includes denying Jewish students the right to speak out about anti-Semitism and retaliating against them when they do, began rearing its ugly head in earnest the summer before last, with the publication of two landmark official documents acknowledging, for the first time, the existence of anti-Ssemitism and a hostile environment for Jewish students on some California campuses.

The first document was the UC Jewish Student Campus Climate Report, published in July 2012.  That report described the results of a fact-finding mission to several UC campuses, including UCSD.  Jewish students reported that they are confronting significant and difficult climate issues as a result of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment and activity, including BDS campaigns, which have caused them to feel isolated and undermined their sense of belonging.

Soon after the release of that report, pro-Palestinian groups on many UC campuses, along with a California faculty group that supports the boycott of Israel and two legal groups, launched a well-coordinated   campaign demanding that the UC President reject the report, on the grounds that it violated the freedom of speech of anti-Israel students and student groups.

To this day, none of the report’s recommendations have been adopted by UC administrators.

The second document to be viciously attacked by anti-Israel groups was Assembly Resolution 35 (AR 35). In August 2012, the members of the California State Assembly unanimously approved a very important resolution acknowledging and condemning anti-Semitism on California college and university campuses, specifically naming several manifestations of the problem.

Almost immediately after AR 35 was approved, a similar coalition of student, faculty, and legal groups launched a campaign similar to their previous assault on the Jewish Campus Climate report, this time demanding that California State Assembly members revoke AR35.

Sadly, because of the backlash against AR 35 from these anti-Israel groups, no UC or CSU leader has supported this very important Assembly resolution or abided by its recommendations.

The lowest blow, however, was yet to come.  Not satisfied with torpedoing the Jewish Student Campus Climate Report and AR 35, a coalition of anti-Israel legal and civil rights groups went after one of the few legal remedies currently available to Jewish students who experience anti-Semitism on their campuses: Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  This federal statute protects students in federally funded schools from discrimination based on their race, color, or national origin.

Until recently there were three Title VI complaints on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California that were being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education: one at UC Berkeley, one at UC Irvine, and one at UCSC – that was my complaint.

Beginning about a year ago, a coalition of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel student groups and the legal, civil rights, and activist organizations which support them, carried out a massive campaign to pressure the Dept. of Education into closing the three complaints filed on behalf of Jewish students, as well to revoke Title VI protections for Jewish students altogether.  This coalition even filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, claiming that pro-Israel organizations were abusing Title VI complaints as part of a coordinated campaign to trample the free speech of Palestinian “human rights” activists on college campuses. So it did not come as a big surprise that in mid-August, the Dept of Education dismissed all three complaints on the exact same day, I firmly believe as a direct result of the massive pressure that the department had received from these Arab and Muslim lobby groups.

It’s important to appreciate what’s happening here. These legal groups are claiming that just by filing a Title VI complaint alleging violations of Jewish students’ civil rights, the civil rights of Muslim and Arab students are being violated.  If that sounds Orwellian, it’s because it is.

To summarize: pro-Israel Jewish students are experiencing two levels of anti-Jewish bigotry on college and university campuses.  First, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students and anti-Zionist professors who use hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery, who actively promote the dismantling of the Jewish State, and who support terrorism against Jews, act to create a hostile and threatening environment for many Jewish students, some of whom report at times feeling physically unsafe, emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated by peers and professors, isolated from their fellow students, and unfairly treated by faculty and administrators.  On top of that, Jewish students and their supporters who DO speak out about the antisemitism they are experiencing or witnessing are liable to be defamed, harassed, intimidated, and bullied into silence.

Efforts to Protect Jewish Students from Anti-Semitic Harassment

So what can be done about the serious and growing problem?

I’d like to tell you about efforts to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment, efforts which our organization, AMCHA Initiative, and others have been particularly involved with.

At the heart of these efforts is the understanding that the primary responsibility for addressing the problem of campus anti-Semitism rests with university administrators.  However, given the reluctance of many university administrators to even acknowledge the existence of campus anti-Semitism let alone address it, it seems clear that without external pressure, university leaders will not be motivated to do anything.

Therefore, the efforts of AMCHA and other organizations involved with protecting Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment have focused on bringing the following 3 kinds of pressure to bear on university administrators:

1)    Public pressure – We believe that one of the most effective kinds of external pressure comes from outraged university consumers and stakeholders such as students, prospective students, alumni, parents, donors, and taxpayers.  In fact AMCHA – which means Your people – was created to harness the “power of the people” to speak in one voice about the problem of campus anti-Semitism and demand that administrators protect Jewish students.  We’ve launched numerous letter-writing and calling campaigns and several petitions to bring the “voice of the people” to university administrators.  Recently our letter-writing and calling campaign at SFSU resulted in the University expelling the head of the pro-Palestinian student group, who had posted dozens of murderous and violent messages on social media.  This past week we called on AMCHA supporters to write or call SFSU President Wong, urging him to investigate the faculty member who led a trip to the Middle East that included meeting with terrorists, and who organized an university-sponsored event that glorified terrorism and promoted the boycott of Israel.  Please get involved with one of our campaigns, or the campaigns of other organizations such as StandWithUs, or consider starting your own campaign for mobilizing public pressure on university administrators.

2)    Legal pressure: In some cases, the anti-Semitic behavior of students, faculty and administrators violates the law, and when it does, legal action, or the threat of legal action, may prove effective.  For instance, when students, faculty, or administrators engage in behavior which creates a hostile environment for Jewish students, a Title VI complaint can be filed with the U.S. Department of Education.  Although the three Title VI complaints I mentioned earlier were dismissed, there have been some recent developments suggesting that the tide might be turning: Just this month Title VI efforts by the ZOA at Brooklyn College resulted in the University president apologizing to Jewish students and creating new policies for protecting them from anti-Semitic harassment. In addition, Title VI efforts by the ZOA at Northeastern University resulted in the SJP group on that campus being suspended.  My own Title VI complaint is currently under appeal, and I am hoping that these recent Title VI successes are indicators that the DOE is more favorably inclined to extending federal protections to Jewish students.  In addition, AMCHA Initiative has focused on state laws, particularly those that prohibit the use of state resources for political purposes or boycotts, to suggest that the behavior of anti-Zionist faculty may be illegal.  For instance, in January we submitted a formal complaint to the California Attorney General urging her to investigate the Israel Boycott webpage of CSUN professor David for violations of these state laws.

3)    Legislative pressure – Virtually all universities, but especially public universities, are beholden to state and federal legislators for essential support of their institutions.  Therefore it’s important to educate legislators about campus anti-Semitism, so that they can exert pressure on university administrators to address the problem – or risk losing state or federal support.  At the state level, AR 35, the state assembly resolution condemning campus anti-Semitism, was an important first step, but it needs to be followed up by other legislative action to make a difference. In February, AMCHA launched a petition informing the heads of the state senate and assembly education committees about the anti-Semitic and potentially illegal behavior of UC and CSU faculty who use state resources to promote the boycott of Israel, and urging legislators to investigate. In addition, the recently formed state assembly committee on campus climate is another opportunity for raising the issue of campus anti-Semitism with state legislators, and Jewish students and community members need to make it a point to be at each meeting of the committee to make sure our concerns are heard.  Another excellent opportunity for informing state legislators about our concerns and enlisting their support is the Jewish Caucus which was recently established by San Diego senator Marty Block. At the federal level, legislators should be urged to strengthen legislation protecting Jewish students, such as Title VI, and to pass legislation ensuring that federal monies are not being used for antisemitic purposes, such as to promote boycotts of Israel.

Moving Forward

While none of the strategies that I’ve described has so far managed to significantly eliminate the problem, those that have shown the most promise involve group efforts and coalitions, especially among Jewish communal organizations and their members. Future efforts should strive to enlarge these coalitions, so that they can include as many organizations and individuals as possible. I believe it is only by putting aside institutional and ideological differences and showing a united front in defense of the safety and well-being of Jewish students that we have any hope of winning the war on campus anti-Semitism.

Preceding provided by AMCHA Initiative.  San Diego Jewish World seeks sponsorships to be placed, as this notice is, just below articles that appear on our site.  To inquire, call editor Donald H. Harrison at (619) 265-0808 or contact him via [email protected]

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5 Responses to “Insider’s guide to campus bias faced by Jews”

  1. eli hauser says:

    You are doing important work. Stay strong. Read the White Rose to see a difficult parallel.

  2. Dana Keren says:

    I am appalled but regretfully not surprised. I am 68 years old and born in Poland. We have come full circle and have learned nothing from history.

  3. curious says:

    Interesting piece.
    The wikipedia art. on universities and antisemitism sums things up thus: “In recent years, accusations of antisemitism have sometimes been made in relation to the activities of pro-Palestinian organizations on university campuses. These accusations are controversial and have almost always been rejected by the organizations in question.” Hmmm. I beat up someone, then when they complain I label the complaint controversial and I reject it–move along people, nothing to see here.


  1. […] no one was surprised when AMCHA cofounder and UC Santa Cruz professor Tammi Rossman-Benjamin penned an op-ed March 31 in a local Jewish paper entitled “Insider’s guide to campus bias faced … The piece regarding the report tells readers (and donors) that “Jewish students have found […]

  2. […] Note: Zev Hurwitz, editor of The UCSD Guardian, recently responded to an article by AMCHA Initiative’s Tammi Rossman-Benjamin that was headlined “Insider’s guide to campus bias […]

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