A few weeks ago, we ran an op-ed by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who has filed a Title VI complaint to the government’s office of civil rights. She cites a number of instances in which she believes Jewish students were discriminated against as the targets of anti-Israel advocacy. The case, as with all these recent Title VI cases, raises a number of challenging questions about the limits of free speech and what exactly constitutes anti-Semitism.
As part of our ongoing attempt to grapple with these questions, we present here unfiltered a piece written by a Shani Chabansky, a senior at UC Santa Cruz, which is appearing concurrently in New Voices Magazine. Last year, the author wrote a longer article, originally published by the Leviathan Jewish Journal, detailing the ongoing struggle over Title VI at her university, which can be read at New Voices.
Last spring the United States Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at my school, University of California, Santa Cruz. The investigation was prompted by a Title VI complaint filed by my own Hebrew teacher, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. She complains that UCSC has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because it has failed to address what she alleges to be university-sponsored anti-Semitism. The investigation is a waste of time — but worse than that, it’s also damaging UCSC’s Jewish community. I have seen friendships fall apart during arguments over the investigation as this situation has turned Jew against Jew. So as a Jew and a Zionist, one of the very students Rossman-Benjamin claims to protect, I have a few complaints of my own.
I’m a Jewish Studies major and the editor-in-chief of the Leviathan Jewish Journal — UCSC’s long-running undergraduate Jewish publication. As such, I have a bit of personal experience in what it means to be a Jewish student at UCSC. In my three and a half years at UCSC, I have not been discriminated against for being Jewish.
Rossman-Benjamin wants to defend the students who feel threatened when our university sponsors events that she says demonize Israel. She says that it’s wrong for our university to use its position of power to promote something political. In her complaint, she wrote, “Because UCSC has failed to ensure that Jewish students are able to obtain their education in an environment that is free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination, I believe that the university has violated Title VI and must be required to live up to its obligations under the law.”
Although it’s difficult for me to hear my teachers criticize Israel, I don’t need protection from their criticism. It isn’t my university’s responsibility to shelter me from challenging opinions. Instead, I hope to arm myself with the tools to participate in uncomfortable dialogue. I came to UCSC to learn new ways of seeing the world, to challenge my own beliefs and to learn to clearly express my own thoughts. That’s what higher education is all about, even though that will unavoidably include discomfort. It’s not easy to hear things that conflict with my opinions. But rather than shielding me from difficult conversations, I want my education to teach me how to engage in them respectfully and with confidence.
Everything I learn at school is connected to politics. It pops up in the most unexpected places, even in Rossman-Benjamin’s own Hebrew classes. Her politics enter her classroom every week during her “cultural lectures.” For instance, when she discussed the situation of the Ethiopian Jews, she did a wonderful job of explaining their dreadful living conditions prior to making aliyah and the saintly effort to save them. Yet she neglected to mention the fact that many of them are now completely ostracized in Israel, occupying the edges of society. And far from simply drilling us in dik-dook (grammar), our workbooks had stories from the Torah, pictures of shofars, seder plates, kiddush cups and other religious vocabulary. It was like I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah all over again, only this time it wasn’t at a synagogue, but a public university.
In her Feb. 17 op-ed in The Forward, Rossman-Benjamin argued that faculty members have “violated the tenets of their profession to promote their own virulently anti-Israel political agenda.” But political agendas are everywhere, even in her choice to teach Modern Hebrew by solely focusing on the Jewish experience, while excluding the narratives of Israel’s many religious minorities. I resented the politics of her cultural lectures and the religiosity of the workbook, but I put my anger aside so that I could learn the language of my people.
Rossman-Benjmain takes exception to the fact the Mark Yudof, the president of the UC system, has weighed in. In an interview with the Forward, Yudof said, “I think it is about people engaged in abhorrent speech on our campuses. But I am skeptical at the end of the day that with those two instances we will be found to be in violation of Title VI.” In the op-ed Rossman-Benjamin wrote, “Ultimately it is up to the federal government — not Yudof — to determine whether there has been a violation of federal law at UCSC.”
Shouldn’t the students decide whether or not there is anti-Semitism? While, Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint appears to speak for the students, it only offers limited information. Over the years, the students who felt that they were victims of anti-Semitism have approached her seeking her support. Instead of teaching them how to respond to the criticism of Israel she misreads as anti-Semitism, she helped them with testimonials about their experiences, which she included in her complaint. But only the students who feel victimized approach her.
Her eyes are closed to the many Jewish students at UCSC, myself included, who don’t feel that they’re victims of anti-Semitism. However, we are victims of discrimination from sources within the Jewish community itself because we have challenging opinions about Israel. For instance, in a piece published on Mondoweiss, an influential leftwing blog, Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish African-American senior at UCSC, wrote, “I have been harassed by some UCSC students and even a staff member from Hillel…for my choice to engage in my Jewish identity and speak out on [Israeli policy].” Rossman-Benjamin never meets the Jewish students, like Pierce and I, who don’t share her feelings for Israel.
Although her complaint gives voice to some students, there are many Jewish students whose voices are left out. But it goes beyond exclusion. Her complaint not only leaves voices out, it silences them. In its definition of “anti-Jewish bigotry,” Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint creates a definition of what is Jewish that essentially amputates from the Jewish community all Jews who criticize Israel.
Generally when we hear about anti-Israel activism on college campuses, we picture a non-Jew speaking out against Israel. It’s no question that criticism of Israel can sometimes slip into anti-Semitism. But at UCSC, most of the criticism of Israel comes from fellow Jews. In her complaint, she claims that an academic conference, a Community Studies course and a Committee for the Justice of Palestine (CJP) event all contained examples of anti-Semitism. Yet she neglects to mention the fact that the professor who organized the academic conference and taught the Community Studies class is Jewish and that the CJP has Jewish leaders.
She also overlooks the fact that Yudof and George Blumenthal, the chancellor of UCSC, are both Jewish. In the op-ed, she condemned Yudof’s skepticism toward the situation. “If Yudof truly valued the protections that Jewish students have recently been afforded under Title VI, he would not pass premature judgment on my complaint.” If you didn’t know that Yudof is Jewish, you might think that he’s being insensitive. But as a Jew himself, he’s perfectly capable of recognizing the face of anti-Semitism.
Most of the anti-Semitism in Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint comes from Jewish professors and students who criticize Israel. I am a Jewish and a Zionist, but if we accept the logic of her complaint, I am an anti-Semite because I have participated in the events she calls anti-Semitic. So if the federal government’s investigation finds truth in Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint and my university puts an end to criticism of Israel, I will have been written out of my own Jewishness.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman