UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug
UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug INN Staff

The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) notified the University of California, Santa Cruz, last week it will be investigating allegations a series of "pro-Palestinian events" at the university crossed the line into anti-Semitism and created a hostile environment for Jewish students, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports.

The probe "in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits," Arthur Zeidman, director of the San Francisco office, said in a letter to the instructor and campus officials. The investigation came following a formal complaint of such events filed by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin in June 2009.

Campus counsel Carole Rossi said the university will cooperate with the federal investigation, saying, "We not only look forward to fully participating in OCR's review of the matter, we are confident that the agency will determine that the allegations are unfounded. Our campus is absolutely committed to the enforcement of policies that protect every individual from unlawful discrimination and harassment — and that value and support an atmosphere of personal and intellectual freedom."

In her complaint, Rossman-Benjamin alleged administrators repeatedly failed to address concerns voiced by herself, and students, about academic departments and residential colleges at Santa Cruz sponsoring speakers and film screenings she described as "viciously anti-Israel" with campus funds. She also said some professors use their classes to promote an anti-Israel political agenda and failed to intervene when students were verbally harangued for defending the Jewish state.

"The impact of the academic and university-sponsored Israel-bashing on students has been enormous," Rossman-Benjamin said. "There are students who have felt emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated, to the point they are reluctant or afraid to express a view that is not anti-Israel."

Kenneth Marcus, a former director of OCR who now heads the anti-Semitism initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said investigations into anti-Semitism bias are rare. Regulations allowing such cases to be investigated as violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were suspended in the last years of the Bush administration, but revived and clarified in October of 2011, he said.

"Investigations are very common, but this is anything but the usual case," he said about the probe in Santa Cruz. "What they are investigating is the atmosphere throughout the university and raises very subtle questions about the definition of discrimination, the meaning of anti-Semitism and where the lines are between harassment and the First Amendment."

UC Santa Cruz is not the first public university in California where heated discussions about the Middle East have devolved into polarizing debates about academic freedom and alleged anti-Semitism. In 2005, the Zionist Organization of America complained to the Department of Education about Jewish students at Irvine being subjected to slurs and discrimination at events similar to those at Santa Cruz.

The civil rights office concluded after a two-year investigation that "although offensive to the Jewish students, the speeches, articles, marches, symbols and other events at issue were not based on the national origin of the Jewish students, but rather based on opposition to the policies of Israel."

In response, the Zionist Organization of America encouraged potential Jewish students and donors to take their money elsewhere.