Over the past decade, as anti-Israel demonstrations have become a regular occurrence on many U.S. college campuses, Jewish nonprofits and individuals have turned to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for relief, and with some success. They convinced the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), for one, to investigate anti-Israel speech and actions at three University of California campuses, arguing that such speech is tantamount to anti-Semitism and violates the civil rights of Jewish students.
Yet some of those investigations have remained open for years; none have found evidence of wrongdoing by the universities, and last week a coalition of civil rights groups led by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged the DOE to dismiss the still-open investigations.
In a letter sent to two DOE staff members on May 14, CAIR and seven other groups argued that the OCR investigations into anti-Israel speech and actions at UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley have dragged on for too long, far longer than the office’s internal benchmark of 180 days. The letter also faults the OCR for not allowing Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students to have input into the investigations, which, these civil rights groups allege, has effectively quashed the students’ ability to express their political opinions about actions taken by Israel against the Palestinians.
A DOE spokesman acknowledged that some complex cases take the OCR longer than its internal goal of 180 days to resolve, and reaffirmed its position that rules for campus speech must be in line with the First Amendment. He declined to comment on any of the open investigations.
The coalition’s letter represents the latest salvo in a war over campus speech between the organizations purporting to represent Jewish and pro-Israel students and the groups claiming to speak on behalf of Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students. The result has so far been a perpetual stalemate, with advocates on each side claiming that the students on the other side are intimidating, marginalizing and silencing the students they represent.
Over the years, representatives on both sides have turned to lawmakers in Sacramento and UC leaders in an effort to bolster their claims. But the matter before OCR is of particular importance, in part because, as a federal agency, its decision could have the most far-reaching impact.
At its core, the question facing OCR investigators is whether anti-Israel speech can be anti-Semitic and, as such, violate the civil rights of Jewish students.
Since 2004, when OCR first affirmed its policy of investigating allegations of discrimination against students who shared both ethnic and religious characteristics — including Jewish, Muslim and Sikh students — Jewish individuals and groups have filed complaints against a handful of universities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By and large, the complaints focus on the way anti-Israel demonstrations and speeches on campus make Jewish students feel, and when OCR agreed to open investigations into a number of those complaints, advocates including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which initiated two separate complaints against UC Irvine, heralded the decision as a partial acknowledgement of their claims’ validity.
But in 2007, DOE dismissed the ZOA’s first UC Irvine claim, and has not released decisions about either ZOA’s second claim against UC Irvine (which OCR has been investigating since 2008) or the two other open investigations.
CAIR and its allies argued in their recent letter that by not resolving the complaints, OCR is “causing a profound chilling of student speech,” and they dispute the basic charge that anti-Israel speech could be anti-Semitic.
“While the DOE should thoroughly look into civil rights complaints, these allegations cross the line between protecting civil rights and targeting certain political views,” CAIR lead staff attorney Ameena Qazi said in a statement accompanying a text of the May 14 letter.
But Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who teaches Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz and who filed a Title VI complaint against her employer in 2009, argues that certain forms of anti-Israel speech do qualify as anti-Semitic under definitions adopted by the U.S. State Department and other official bodies. As such, -Rossman-Benjamin said the speech practiced by pro-Palestinian and Muslim students and student groups aren’t deserving of protection and wouldn’t be defended if they maligned another ethnic group.
“What happened to freedom of speech with the ‘Compton Cookout’?” Rossman-Benjamin asked, referring to a 2010 incident of anti-black racism by white fraternity brothers at UC San Diego that provoked investigations by both the DOE and the Department of Justice. “Who argued for their freedom of speech?
“I’m not trying to say anything about the response of the university to that,” Rossman-Benjamin continued. “I am trying to say that there is an egregious double standard that is discriminatory against Jewish students.”
Even as Rossman-Benjamin complains about certain forms of anti-Israel speech and demonstrations — including the “Apartheid Wall” that pro-Palestinian groups use to outline alleged human rights abuses by Israel — she herself has come under fire for comments. In a video posted on YouTube, Rossman-Benjamin appeared to suggest to an audience at a synagogue near Boston in June 2012 that students involved in pro-Palestinian activism on campuses have ties to terrorist groups.
“These are not your ordinary student groups like College Republicans or Young Democrats,” Rossman-Benjamin said of groups like the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). “These are students who come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations.”
The UC Santa Cruz chapter of SJP took offense and posted more than a dozen videos of its members responding to Rossman-Benjamin’s comments. The group also initiated an online petition urging outgoing UC President Mark Yudof to condemn Rossman-Benjamin’s remarks, which has garnered more than 1,800 signatures.
Rossman-Benjamin has stood by her comments, which she said were taken out of context. In a manner typical of the way each side’s claims in this debate often mirrors those of the other, Rossman-Benjamin said the SJP’s “campaign of defamation” is an attack on her own freedom of speech.
The debate has mobilized some more extreme groups on both sides — first and foremost, CAIR, which according to the Anti-Defamation League has offered “a platform to conspiratorial Israel-bashers and outright anti-Semites.” A local chapter of the anti-Islam organization ACT! for America — the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group — recently urged its members to send letters supporting Rossman-Benjamin to UC President Yudof.
More moderate voices have remained silent. In 2011, when Kenneth Stern, a longtime staff member with the American Jewish Committeen (AJC), co-wrote a letter warning about the perils of restricting speech, Rossman-Benjamin and others protested, and the AJC backed off.
Stern declined to comment for this article, but his co-author, Cary Nelson, an English professor at University of Illinois and former president of the American Association of University Professors, described the argument that anti-Israel remarks are anti-Semitic in some as a “third rail” in academic discourse.
And even though Nelson, who is Jewish, has at times made that argument, provoking howls of protest from his peers, he cautioned against taking Rossman-Benjamin’s approach, calling the Title VI complaints a “a portmanteau of very different kinds of impulses with very different origins.”
“The solution to loathsome speech is more speech,” he said. “Trying to restrict hate speech on campus is certainly a mistake.”