Department of Education investigates allegations of anti-semitism at UCSC

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating a faculty member’s claim that UC Santa Cruz failed to address anti-Semitic hostility being promoted by professors, departments and residential colleges on campus.

On March 7, OCR notified the university that it planned on investigating allegations made by lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin which date back to 2001.

In a letter to the instructor and campus officials Arthur Zeidman, director of the San Francisco office, made clear that opening the allegations for analysis “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regards to their merits.”

Rossman-Benjamin alleged in her June 2009 complaint that “UCSC faculty, departments and residential colleges have misused their official university positions to promote a virulently anti-Israel political agenda that has created a hostile intellectual and emotional environment for Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state.”

According to Rossman-Benjamin, the university has repeatedly ignored the concerns of Jewish students, which has contributed to the creation of a malicious, anti-Semitic environment on campus.

“After 90 Jewish students signed a petition to the administrators of one of the residential colleges, telling them that a virulently anti-Israel event being sponsored by the college discriminated against them as Jews and asking the college to remove its name from the event—they did not ask that the event be canceled—the administrators refused,” said Rossman-Benjamin.

Katina Ancar, from the UC Office of General Counsel, said that UC Santa Cruz will “work with the OCR throughout the course of its investigation. At the same time, the campus continues its diligent enforcement of the laws, polices and practices that promote a diverse, inclusive atmosphere and the free exchange of ideas.”

“UC Santa Cruz is confident that OCR’s investigation will conclude that the allegations are unfounded,” said Ancar.

Kenneth Marcus, who previously directed the OCR and now is involved with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), said in an interview that the “OCR’s decision to open the Santa Cruz cases sends a very important signal to higher education: the federal government is now taking campus anti-Semitism very seriously even when it assumes the guise of anti-Israelism.”

UC Santa Cruz is not the first UC to experience political discussions over the Middle East escalate into hostility.

Last month, a former UC Berkeley student and co-president of the student group Tikvah sued the university in federal court over her purported assault by the campus leader of Students for Justice in Palestine while she was holding a sign that read “Israel wants peace”.

UC Irvine has also been a hotspot for high tensions among students regarding the Middle East.

Last year 11 students were arrested for disrupting a speech on campus given by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

There is also a long-running OCR case at UCI similar to the one at UC Santa Cruz, and although it was partially dismissed in 2007, it remains pending on appeal.

Marcus says that “the important question now is whether OCR can determine, in a reasonable and appropriate way, how true anti-Semitism can be distinguished from constitutionally protected political expression.”