By Peter Schmidt, The Chronicle for Higher Education
March 15, 2011
The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has announced plans to investigate the University of California at Santa Cruz for anti-Semitism, based on a lecturer's complaint that administrators there had turned a deaf ear to her concerns that critics of Israel were creating a hostile climate for Jewish people on the campus.
The case marks the first major investigation of anti-Semitism on a college campus by the civil-rights office, known as OCR, since its decision last fall to step up its efforts against such discrimination in a manner that some civil-rights experts saw as likely to pull the agency into debates over campus speech critical of Israel or Zionism. The University of California system is now defending itself against allegations of anti-Semitism on several fronts, as its Irvine campus remains the subject of a separate OCR investigation, undertaken in 2008, and its Berkeley campus and system administration were named in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a Jewish student this month.
Kenneth L. Marcus, who was the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights from 2002 to 2004 and now directs the Institute for Jewish and Community Research's efforts to fight anti-Semitism, said on Tuesday that the investigation of Santa Cruz "would have been a nonstarter" if the OCR had not adopted the harder line against anti-Semitism urged by his organization and other Jewish groups.
Under the agency's changed approach toward such complaints, announced in October as part of a broader effort to crack down on forms of student bullying and harassment seen as violating antidiscrimination laws, the OCR made clear that it intends to investigate charges of anti-Semitism where the discrimination might be based partly on ethnicity, and will be less likely to assume that anti-Semitic incidents are the result of religious discrimination, which falls outside its purview.
The Santa Cruz investigation "is a really important signal from OCR that they may be taking their new approach to anti-Semitism as seriously as we wanted them to," Mr. Marcus said. "There is still a big question as to how vigorously they will pursue cases that involve a mix of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. This suggests a willingness to go forward."
'Harassment and Intimidation'
The new investigation is in response to a June 2009 complaint sent to the OCR by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew on the campus. In her letter, she describes several incidents in recent years in which administrators there rejected demands that the university drop its sponsorship of events focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that she regarded as one-sided attacks on Israel and Zionism. In some cases, she said, all that resulted from such complaints was that the people who brought them were villified by faculty members as threatening academic freedom.
"The anti-Israel discourse and behavior in classrooms and at departmentally and college-sponsored events at [Santa Cruz] 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," Ms. Rossman-Benjamin' letter said.
In a letter sent to Ms. Rossman-Benjamin on March 7, Arthur Zeidman, director of the OCR's enforcement office in San Francisco, said his agency would investigate whether the university had failed to fufill its obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to respond to her concerns. He noted that the OCR's decision to open such an investigation "in no way implies" that it has made a determination as to the merits of her complaint to the agency.
In a written statement, Santa Cruz's campus counsel, Carole Rossi, said the university would "fully cooperate" with the OCR's investigation.
The separate lawsuit against the University of California system was filed in U.S. District Court this month by Jessica Felber, a former Berkeley student who now works as a campus liaison for Hasbara Fellowships, an organization established by the Jewish organization Aish International. It argues that the university tolerated an anti-Semitic climate on the campus and failed to deal with complaints of "campus terrrorist incitements" by two student groups, the Muslim Students Union and Students for Justice in Palestine.
The lawsuit accuses the university of failing to have provided Ms. Felber with adequate protection against anti-Semitic violence in a March 2010 incident in which a student involved with Students for Justice in Palestine "intentionally rammed" a shopping cart into her on the campus, causing her an injury for which she received medical attention.
The Berkelely campus on Tuesday issued a statement that said it "is committed to maintaining an inclusive and respectful campus environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone, without regard to religion, race, ethnicity, or ideology," and rejects "any allegation or implication that bias or prejudice plays any role" in how the administration deals with students or student groups.