Written by Kristin Szremski
Civil rights statutes are being used to silence campus solidarity work.
Cooperation between academic authorities at the University of California at Davis and influential Zionist organizations could have an adverse impact on Palestine solidarity work there and on college campuses across the country.
The implications of what is unfolding on the UC Davis campus go far beyond issues of free speech. Several pro-Israel forces and the institutionalized pro-Israel bias of university administrators have converged to create a formidable agenda that conflates support for Palestinian rights with the violation of Jewish students’ civil rights. If left unchallenged, this could create a nearly impossible environment on university campuses for the free exchange of ideas, especially those that include criticism of Israeli policy.
Alert to this institutionalized bias, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of 150 academics from 20 universities and colleges, issued a statement on 10 March decrying University of California President Mark Yudof for delivering “a blow to the right to dissent and protest” (“California scholars for academic freedom protest UC president’s apparent bias regarding the right of free speech and dissent on UC campuses,” US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 10 March 2012).
“It should not be necessary to explain that one can protest the actions of a government without committing a hate crime,” the letter states. “We applaud and endorse any initiative ‘to foster a climate of tolerance, civility and open-mindedness,’ but we do not believe that criminalizing dissent can ever serve that purpose.”
At issue is the controversy surrounding a silent and peaceful walkout staged by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other social justice groups on 27 February. Zionist organizations, including StandWithUs, brought the “Israeli Soldiers Speak Out” tour to campus as part of a national campaign to combat Israeli Apartheid Week, the global effort to raise awareness of Israel’s policies among students. The UC Davis protesters stood up and walked out of the auditorium silently. But one student, unaffiliated with SJP, stood and heckled, egging on security personnel to remove him from the scene.
Despite the overwhelming video evidence that SJP students were silent, Yudof and the campus Hillel organization condemned the Palestine solidarity group, conflating its members with the actions of one.
Yudof characterized the students’ protest as “hate-driven attacks,” in a 9 March open letter, in which he “condemned” the student dissenters, while touting a one-sided “tolerance” policy that, according to the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, advocates for one group of students “rather than promoting tolerance across the board.”
This tolerance policy involves cooperation with two Zionist organizations — the Anti-Defamation League and the Museum of Tolerance. The ADL has a long history of spying on American citizens and selling the information to Israel. It also smears anyone advocating for Palestinian human rights with the label of anti-Semitism (“The Anti-Defamation League: A protector of civil rights or silencer of free speech?,” American Muslims for Palestine, 2011 [PDF].)
The Museum of Tolerance, a project of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, is in the process of building a museum on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery in occupied East Jerusalem that dates back to the seventh century. It’s a museum that most Palestinians will be prohibited from visiting, due to Israel’s racist restrictions on movement.
The fact that administrators have turned to these two institutions to — in Yudof’s words — help “improve campus climate for all students and to take full advantage of our marvelous diversity” shows the university system does not value its Palestinian, and other Arab or Muslim students (Open letter to UC community from President Yudof, 8 March 2012).
In addition, Yudof met earlier this year with directors of Hillel, the Zionist campus network, from each of the ten UC campuses as well as a number of rabbis about “how Israel is faring on campus” (“The truth about UC campuses,” Jewish Journal, 8 March 2012).
But he refused to grant the same access to members of the UC Davis branch of SJP, who requested a meeting to discuss the recent controversy.
Using the Amcha Initiative and its project, the Investigative Taskforce on Campus Anti-Semitism, Rossman-Benjamin has lobbied Yudof and other administrators to clamp down on student Palestine solidarity activists.
Rossman-Benjamin is the instructor who filed complaints of anti-Semitism against UC Santa Cruz in 2009. In March 2011, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating her complaint retroactively under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which was reinterpreted in October 2010. The new interpretation allows Jewish students to be protected based upon their ethnicity instead of their religion.
While all students should be protected from discrimination, Zionist organizations are manipulating Title VI to say all events or lectures that present the Palestinian narrative are hostile and threatening to Jewish students. This matter is especially important because Title VI regulates federal funding to educational institutions.
Rossman-Benjamin was also instrumental in threatening the organizers of the April 2011 “Litigating Palestine” symposium held at UC Hastings College of Law with Title VI violations (“Pressure on law conference threatens free speech,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 April 2011).
In all, approximately ten cases of Title VI violations have been filed with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights or in federal court. Six of these cases involve Palestine solidarity work. None, so far, has succeeded, according to the Jewish Daily Forward (“Coming up empty on Title VI,” 13 March 2012).
Rossman-Benjamin is also behind the amendment of an anti-Semitism complaint against UC Berkeley, which was dismissed by US District Judge Richard Seeborg in February (“Lawsuit against UC Berkeley dismissed,” The Daily Californian, 12 December 2011).
The original complaint, filed by former student Jessica Felber, said campus administrators allowed the “development of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses” for allowing an SJP event that featured a mock Israeli checkpoint. But with Rossman-Benjamin’s help, Felber amended and resubmitted her complaint to allege Berkeley officials violated Title VI by allowing the SJP event to take place, and that student activists used “hate speech” for trying to raise awareness about checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles Israel has imposed illegally upon the Palestinian people (“Amended complaint in lawsuit alleging anti-Semitism,” The Daily Californian, 2 February 2012).
Rossman-Benjamin wrote a letter to Yudof on 6 March, in which she accused the university of not protecting Jewish students from a hostile environment. She also criticized campus police for refusing to “take the names of the disrupters” (Letter to President Yudof: harassment of Jewish students on UC campuses demands your attention, Amcha Initiative, 6 March 2012).
On 9 March, the Amcha Initiative posted an update, praising supporters for pressuring Yudof into issuing his letter. Rossman-Benjamin also took credit for influencing Yudof to characterize Palestine solidarity work as “anti-Semitic.” And, on 17 March, she chided Yudof for not going far enough in his condemnation of the SJP’s protest, which she intimated, broke the law.
“Their behavior was an egregious infringement of the Jewish students’ freedom of expression and assembly, and a clear violation of university policy, state law and common decency,” she wrote along with Leila Beckwith, the other Amcha founder (“Dear President Yudof,” Doc’s Talk, 17 March 2012).
This growing trend to criminalize Palestine solidarity activism on campuses throughout the University of California system comes after the arrest and prosecution of the Irvine 11, who did nothing more than express political dissent at a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010. Ten students were ultimately convicted of conspiring to disrupt a public meeting and of disrupting a public meeting in September 2011, and sentenced to community service.
Over the years, numerous racist incidents against students of color, including Arabs and Muslims have taken place with very limited response from UC administrators. In October 2010, the Palestinian section of an international peace mural at UC Davis was defaced with the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism (“Palestinian symbol defaced in multicultural mural,” The California Aggie, 4 October 2010).
But in this case, the star evoked the Zionist colonial settler enterprise in Palestine, where the star has come to symbolize settler “price tag” violence against Palestinians.
Campus officials said in a memo they would address the incident during a “Student Activities Fair,” reported student newspaper The California Aggie. Yet a full investigation was launched recently when the word “terrorist” was scribbled on an Israeli flag hanging outside the UC Riverside Hillel office in March (“Israeli flag defaced at UC Riverside,” Los Angeles Times, 7 March 2012).
Laying the foundation to suppress dissent
The Amcha Initiative’s stated mission is to unite the Jewish population in California to “express their concern for the safety and well-being of Jewish college and university students,” with one, united voice. But Rossman-Benjamin’s actions imply that Amcha and the Investigative Taskforce on Campus Anti-Semitism are working instead to criminalize Palestine solidarity activity on campus.
Rossman-Benjamin’s letters to Yudof may be an attempt to lay the foundation necessary to file yet another Title VI complaint, as well as to urge a criminal investigation into the constitutionally protected protest.
“Besides illegally conspiring to disrupt a lawful meeting and thereby suppress the freedom of speech of the Jewish students and their speakers, members of the SJP and their supporters created a physically and emotionally hostile environment for the Jewish students,” she wrote.
Kristin Szremski is an independent journalist and currently the director of media and communications for the American Muslims for Palestine.
This article was first published at The Electronic Intifada.