One day last March Jessica Felber, then 20, a Jewish undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, was standing on her campus, holding a placard bearing the words: “Israel Wants Peace.” At that moment, Husam Zakaria, a Berkeley student leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, reportedly rammed Felber from behind so hard with a loaded shopping cart that she had to be taken to the university’s urgent medical care facility. This violent episode has become sadly emblematic of a wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents that have rippled across the country, nowhere more so than in the “Golden State,” which has become an epicenter for the New Anti-Semitism in America. What makes this case different is that Felber fought back, charging this month in a federal lawsuit that UC Berkeley has ignored mounting evidence of anti-Jewish animus and should be held liable for the injuries she suffered. Her suit also contends that “physical intimidation and violence were frequently employed as a tactic by SJP and other campus groups in an effort to silence students on campus who support Israel”.
Sixty miles or so south of Berkeley along the Pacific coast, University of California Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin makes a similar case against her own employer. For several years, Rossman-Benjamin has spoken out against anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism at the University of California, but she insists that the problem is not limited to a few rogue students: “Professors, academic departments and residential colleges at UCSC promote and encourage anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behavior,” she insists, “much of which is based on either misleading information or outright falsehood.” Rossman-Benjamin describes an atmosphere at Santa Cruz in which taxpayer-supported, university-sponsored discourse that “demonizes Israel, compares contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls for the dismantling of the Jewish State, and holds Israel to an impossible double standard – crosses the line into anti-Semitism…” Like Felber, Rossman-Benjamin is fighting back. The Santa Cruz whistle-blower filed a civil rights action with the U.S. Department of Education’s powerful Office for Civil Rights, arguing that UCSC has created a hostile environment for Jewish students. Last week, OCR sent a powerful signal to academia when it informed Rossman-Benjamin that it is formally opening an investigation of her claims.
The Jessica Felber and Tammi Rossman-Benjamin stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Over the last decade – since 9/11 and the start of the Second Intifada – there has been a persistent drumbeat of allegations by students and professors at many university campuses across the country. It is true that most Jewish students will not face these problems, particularly if they avoid visibly associating themselves with the Jewish state or with Jewish institutions. Moreover, the reported incidents are disproportionately concentrated in coastal states and on highly politicized campuses, especially in California. Neverthless, problems are continually arising even on campuses like Indiana University which do not seem to fit the profile. In its widely read 2006 report on “Campus Anti-Semitism,” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observed that anti-Semitism had once again become a “serious problem” at many post-secondary institutions nation-wide. In numerous cases, Jewish and Israeli students, particularly if they are outspoken supporters of Israel, have been physically accosted or confronted with a mix of classic anti-Jewish stereotypes and “progressive” anti-Israel defamations. While it is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem – in part because of the dismal state of reporting on this issue – there is much support for the conclusion that Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg reached in their book, The Uncivil University; i.e.,anti-Semitism has now become systemic throughout American higher education, even on the quieter campuses. Since 2006, the problem has only gotten worse, as old-fashioned bias has entered into the university-centered international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
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