The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a faculty member's complaint that a series of pro-Palestinian events at a California university crossed the line into anti-Semitism and created a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The department's Office for Civil Rights notified the University of California, Santa Cruz, last week that it planned to look into allegations made by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin dating back to 2001.
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.
In her June 2009 complaint, Rossman-Benjamin said administrators repeatedly failed to address concerns voiced by her and several students about academic departments and residential colleges at Santa Cruz sponsoring "viciously anti-Israel" speakers and film screenings with campus funds.
She also alleged that some professors have used their classes to promote an anti-Israel political agenda and failed to intervene or joined in when students were verbally attacked for defending the Jewish state.
"The impact of the academic and university-sponsored Israel-bashing on students has been enormous," she 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."
Campus counsel Carole Rossi said the university will cooperate with the federal investigation.
"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," Rossi said in a written statement. "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."
Kenneth Marcus, who used to direct the education department's civil rights office and now heads the anti-Semitism initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said the department typically launches more than 1,000 investigations a year, most of them involving individual students with learning disabilities.
Investigations based on anti-Semitism bias are rare, Marcus said, in part because the Department of Education did not have regulations until 2004 allowing it to handle such cases as violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The regulations were suspended in the last years of the Bush administration, but revived and clarified in October, 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, a liberal, 16,000-student school known for idyllic setting amid coastal redwoods, counter-culture vibe and Grateful Dead memorabilia collection, 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.
A former University of California, Berkeley, student who was co-president of the Zionist student group Tikvah sued the university in federal court earlier this month over her alleged March 2010 assault by the campus leader of Students for Justice in Palestine.
The student, Jessica Felber, claims she was injured when the other student leader rammed a shopping cart into her as she was holding a placard reading, "Israel Wants Peace." She claimed the confrontation was the latest episode of harassment, intimidation, incitement and violence directed at vocal supporters of Israel and to which university officials had turned a blind eye.
The university has denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, tensions between Jewish and Muslim students have run high at the university system's Irvine campus for several years, and the campus chapter of Muslim Student Union was suspended for four months last year after a group of students interrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
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."
Last year, the Zionist Organization of America encouraged potential Jewish students and donors to take their money elsewhere.