Jewish college students may return to more harassment

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

SAN DIEGO – Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the recently retired UC Santa Cruz Hebrew and Jewish Studies professor who heads the national AMCHA Initiative, said Monday that she fears that Jewish students across the country may bear the brunt of a lot of anger now that they are returning from winter break to their college campuses.

In an interview this week with San Diego Jewish World, Rossman-Benjamin said the recent United Nations Security Council vote—with the U.S. strategically abstaining – that blamed Israeli “settlements” in large measure for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians, will embolden supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to aggressively push their campaign to delegitimize Israel.

Such campaigns often lead to Jewish college students suffering “verbal and physical assault, destruction of property, suppression of speech, harassment, intimidation and bullying,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

Add to that the anger and in some cases sheer hatred directed from college campuses toward the incoming administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump—with some campus administrators “coming out and saying they are willing to violate the law in different ways”—one can foresee a climate of campus unrest and possible violence, she added.

“It has been historically true that in that situation Jews are the most vulnerable, the ones who will get hurt,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

A bill now going through Congress gives Rossman-Benjamin some “hope” that the situation can be ameliorated.  Entitled the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” it requires the U.S. Department of Education to adopt as part of its Civil Rights Code the definition of anti-Semitism that has been promulgated by the U.S. Department of State.  Included in that definition is the concept that anti-Zionism, which takes the form of suggesting that Israel is evil and should be destroyed, is inherently anti-Semitic.

The 3Ds—“demonization, delegitimation, double standards”– are components of this kind of anti-Zionism, Rossman-Benjamin said.  Zionism is demonized by comparing it to the “two greatest evils of the  20th century – Nazism and Apartheid.   Those are the two that are used unfairly, unreasonably and falsely against Israel, and why?  It is to label Israel as evil because what do you do with evil? You destroy it.  You can’t let evil exist in your midst.  It is all interactive, the idea is to demonize, to delegitimize, and you have this breathtaking double standard that you hold Israel to, that you wouldn’t hold any other country to.”

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act “would require the Department of Education to use its sister federal government department’s definition of anti-Semitism,” Rossman-Benjamin said.  “The definition by the State Department has been adopted by many nations of the world; there is no logical reason why it should not be used domestically.”

If the Department of Education adopts the State Department’s definition, the AMCHA Initiative executive director said, “we could use that as a way of insuring Civil Rights protections for Jewish students, who are extremely vulnerable on college campuses – both because they are the subject of harassment because of the conflict thousands of miles away … and because they haven’t been seen as a protected minority.”

“They haven’t been seen as a group that requires the same protection as other under-represented minorities such as African-Americans, Latinos, and etcetera,” she said. “And so universities haven’t dealt with them fairly in that way, but they also take their cue from the federal government which hasn’t dealt with Jewish students fairly. Since 2004 when the federal government acknowledged that Jewish students would be protected by Title VI (of the Civil Rights Code), there have been about eight Civil Rights complaints filed in behalf of Jewish college students. I filed two of them, and those complaints have all been dismissed.”

Title VI outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin (but not religion).  “Jews, Sikhs, Muslims fall in the cracks because religion is not a protected category,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

“But in 2004 and again in 2010, what the federal government has said was, yes, these religious groups are protected if the harassment against them is based on their ethnic characteristics.  It can’t be solely based on religious discrimination; it has to have something that has to do with the perception of that group ethnically, and then it is considered under the general rubric of ‘national origin.’”

Once they are considered to be protected, she added, “the Office of Civil Rights looks at whether this is truly harassment.  Do the acts that are being complained about rise to the level of harassment – defined as action that is so severe that it leads to a diminution of the ability of students to have the full educational experience that they are entitled to? “

Next, the office of Civil Rights asks “what motivated that harassment?” And sometimes, even though the students were harassed, the harassment is found to be for causes other than that they are Jewish.  For example, rather than the harassment being anti-Semitic, it is seen as resulting from opposition to Israel’s policies.

Rossman-Benjamin said that the State Department definition clarifies that language that is really geared toward destroying the Jewish State, or denying Jews self determination, is “really trucking in anti-Semitism” and “then we have a chance of the federal government saying to the universities ‘you’ve got a problem that we really have to deal with.’”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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