Standing tall in Santa Cruz: U.C. lecturer wages war against anti-Jewish activity on campus

On the third floor of the Baskin engineering building at U.C. Santa Cruz, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is going over points of Hebrew grammar.

Her 25 students in first-level Hebrew — a panoply of African Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites — are calling out the gender associations of Hebrew words Rossman-Benjamin is reading from her notes. Some words, like “father” and “brother,” are easy to remember; they are grammatically masculine. Others, like “door” and “window,” just have to be memorized.

“It’s pretty random,” Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew language at U.C. Santa Cruz, tells her students. “The way to know is its form, how it looks.”

For the past 10 years, Rossman-Benjamin has been following that same directive with single-minded determination: Focusing on “form” and “how it looks,” she has been tracking incidents of anti-Israel activity at this coastal campus.

Perhaps in isolation, the incidents she tracks might be considered legitimate stands against the Jewish state, even when the criticism is harsh, as it often is.

But when looked at together — the anti-Zionism, the demonization of Israel and Israeli leaders, the comparisons to Nazi Germany, the questioning of the Jewish state’s legitimacy — Rossman-Benjamin says they take the form of something more insidious: a sustained, inaccurate and hateful assault on a core aspect of Jewish identity.

Such rhetoric has been present on California college campuses for years, raising recent concerns most notably at San Francisco State University, U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Irvine. The effect of the rhetoric, she and her allies claim, has been manyfold — from harming the well-being of Jewish students to impacting the integrity of academic discourse on the Middle East.

At U.C. Santa Cruz, as on other campuses, a combination of activist student groups and left-leaning academic departments has subjected Israel to withering censure — harsher treatment, critics say, than is meted out to any other nation.

So far at Santa Cruz there have been no claims of anti-Jewish violence or harassment, as have been alleged at other schools. Still, Rossman-Benjamin contends that the consequence of this rhetoric has seeped beyond the confines of debate, submerging Jewish students in an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation that no other campus group is forced to endure.

“Here, the problem has to do with faculty and administration who misuse their classrooms and university-sponsored events in order to promote their personal political agendas,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “My complaint isn’t about anti-Semitism. My complaint is about a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

Since 2001, Rossman-Benjamin’s repeated appeals to the university have been met with silence or dismissal. So in 2009, she lodged a landmark complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the atmosphere on her campus is so hostile that Jewish students suffer discrimination as a result.

In March of this year, the San Francisco division of the department’s Office for Civil Rights announced that it had opened an investigation of U.C. Santa Cruz.

She has also taken her concerns all the way up the university chain of command to Mark Yudof, the U.C. president. In September, she helped organize a letter to Yudof — urging him to address anti-Jewish bigotry on U.C. campuses — that included more than 5,000 signatures. Yudof responded at length in October, describing efforts on several fronts to improve the campus climate, but insisting that the university is limited when it comes to controlling the content of speech. In a subsequent letter and press release, Rossman-Benjamin dismissed Yudof’s efforts as “wholly inadequate.”
Such activism has made Rossman-Benjamin, 55, something of a pariah on campus.

Not a single member of the Santa Cruz faculty has endorsed her read on the situation — save for her husband, professor Ilan Benjamin, who chairs the chemistry department. Several have accused her of intimidation and of infringing on their academic freedom.

Even in the Jewish world, she has proven divisive.

For example, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs recently was considering a resolution warning Jewish organizations against using legal means to “censor” perceived anti-Israel activities on campus. On Oct. 24, the JCPA board backed off voting on that controversial resolution until at least May, but it did urge caution in using federal civil rights laws for combating anti-Israel campus events.

Rossman-Benjamin remains not only unbowed, but as committed as ever.

Bruce Thompson, a historian at U.C. Santa Cruz, had this to say about his fellow member of the Jewish Studies faculty: “The great sociologist Max Weber made a famous distinction between an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility, between leaders who search for modest, pragmatic solutions that will work, and those who start from conviction and worry about the constraints and consequences later. Tammi is obviously a person who starts from conscience.”

Friends describe Rossman-Benjamin as driven, a woman of deep conviction and high principle, unafraid to defy opponents and go it alone when she feels a larger purpose at stake.

Since arriving in Santa Cruz in 1989, she has founded a Conservative congregation (when the local Reform synagogue no longer suited her), tried unsuccessfully to start a Jewish day school (opposition came from some quarters of the local community), and publicly confronted the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism over the movement’s lack of commitment to traditional biblical understanding.

Inevitably, she has stepped on some toes.

“There are people in town who really don’t like Tammi, many of them at the university,” said Angela Eisenpress, a friend of Rossman-Benjamin’s who worked with her on the day school project.

Rossman-Benjamin was born and raised in a Conservative family outside of Philadelphia. She studied literature at McGill University in Montreal and earned a master’s in applied linguistics from Concordia University in Montreal. At 25, she arrived in Israel on what was supposed to be a trip around the world teaching English and wound up staying three years.

It was 1982 and the Lebanon War was raging, but Rossman-Benjamin said she doesn’t recall being particularly affected by the hostilities, or by the massacres of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. She spent time at Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley, then moved to Jerusalem to teach at the Hebrew University, where Ilan was pursuing his doctorate. They married in 1983.

He went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, and Rossman-Benjamin enrolled there in a graduate course in psychology. Benjamin’s second postdoctoral posting brought them to San Diego, where their twin sons were born. In 1989, he was appointed to the faculty at U.C. Santa Cruz, so he and his wife moved the family 450 miles to the north.

At the time, there was a single synagogue serving Santa Cruz, Reform Temple Beth El, now of Aptos but then located in Santa Cruz. Rossman-Benjamin became an active member, serving on the board and teaching b’nai mitzvah classes. But as her sons got older, she began to worry about their Jewish education.

“I was growing, too, as a Jew,” she said. “And when you have kids, the things that you can settle for you don’t want your kids to settle for.”

She joined Eisenpress and others to seek funding to start a school at Beth El. When the group fell short of the numbers necessary to make the school a reality, Rossman-Benjamin instead turned her attention to starting a synagogue. In 1994, 15 families founded Kol Tefillah, a Conservative-affiliated congregation that meets in an office building. Rossman-Benjamin headed up the religious school and Ilan served as president for eight years. Each Saturday, the couple continues to make the 21⁄2-mile walk to attend services.

“[Tammi] ignores the naysayers,” said Eisenpress’ husband, Eli, also a member of Kol Tefillah. “She doesn’t have any particular interest in being popular in all segments of the community or finding other people who support her ideas before she goes ahead.”

That kind of commitment, rather than a particular political identification, is what Rossman-Benjamin said animates her campaign on campus. Israel is central to her religious identity. For her, vicious attacks on its right to exist are not just abstract academic discussions; they are tantamount to attacks on her Jewishness.

“I don’t separate my Zionism from my Judaism,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “What it means to be a Jew is to have a love and a connection for Israel. It’s a part of my identity.”

In 2001, Rossman-Benjamin began noting activity at U.C. Santa Cruz hostile to Israel. Some examples she has cited:

• A flyer for one event depicted a jet with a Star of David dropping bombs on civilians.

• Eight university departments were listed as co-sponsors of a 2007 conference that Rossman-Benjamin said was “replete with gross misrepresentations of the facts, selected half-truths and numerous unsubstantiated claims.” Among them: Israel is racist, apartheid and comparable to Nazi Germany.

• “Occupation 101, ” a film she claims is filled with lies and distortions, was screened and followed by a panel discussion in 2009.

• The syllabus for a course taught by a self-described anti-Israel activist included readings that all took an anti-Israel perspective.

• In June 2011, “Teach-in on Islamophobia” included speakers who were known for their anti-Israel animus and activism, blamed the Jews for Islamophobia and used language that demonized the Jewish state and Jews. At a table at the event, a U.C. Santa Cruz professor handed out a letter encouraging students to endorse a U.S. boat that was part of an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

After failing to get responses to many of her complaints, Rossman-Benjamin and her husband appealed to the academic senate, but a committee report on the matter, released in 2008, concluded that Middle East–related events on campus did not constitute threats to the academic integrity of the university. Several professors reported to the committee that Rossman-Benjamin’s activities were intimidating faculty and posed a threat to academic freedom.

None of those professors agreed to comment for this story.

Undeterred, in 2009 Rossman-Benjamin took her appeal to the federal government. Capitalizing on a policy change that afforded Jews protection under Title VI, a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin, Rossman-Benjamin submitted a 29-page letter to the Office of Civil Rights detailing years of anti-Israel activity at U.C. Santa Cruz.

The letter said, in part: “The anti-Israel discourse and behavior in classrooms and at departmentally and college-sponsored events at UCSC is tantamount to institutional discrimination against Jewish students, which has resulted in their intellectual and emotional harassment and intimidation, and has adversely affected their educational experience at the university.”

OCR has said nothing publicly about the complaint. It is unclear whether and how the claims are being investigated and when a conclusion might be reached. But Rossman-Benjamin said that even if her claims are found wanting, the investigation “brings a certain kind of scrutiny to the situation” and her efforts will have been worth it.

“I feel like I’m the strongest one, as an individual, to make the case that I make,” she said. “I’m not doing this with an organizational agenda. I’m not doing this even from a position of strength. I’m doing this with everything to lose.”