As word spread Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Education is investigating allegations that UC Santa Cruz has permitted anti-Semitism and a hostile environment for Jewish students, swastikas and a threatening message were found scrawled in a campus bathroom.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights notified UCSC last week that it planned to look into allegations made by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin dating back to 2001.
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 UCSC sponsoring "viciously anti-Israel" speakers and film screenings with campus funds.
It is unclear whether or not the graffiti is related to the investigation.
Rossman-Benjamin says she was moved to file her complaint after years of receiving an unsatisfactory response from the UCSC administration and Academic Senate.
"I have no problem with a political event or individuals exercising free speech," she said. "The complaint isn't about the rhetoric or events, it is about the hostile environment created for Jewish students. The university administration doesn't respond to Jewish students as they do other ethnic minorities."
The complaint also alleges professors have used their classes to promote an anti-Israel political agenda. One student claimed she was called a "Nazi" in class for defending the Jewish state, and the professor remained silent.
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.
UCSC counsel Carole Rossi said the university will cooperate with the federal investigation.
"[W]e are confident that the agency will determine that the allegations are unfounded," Rossi said in a 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 UCSC probe. "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."
The graffiti found Tuesday was the second instance of a threatening message found on the UCSC campus this year.
In December, graffiti found in a bathroom of the Social Sciences 2 building warned of violence on Jan. 18, but after the campus ramped up security, that day came and went with no incident.
The latest message, written with black marker on the inside of a Porter College men's bathroom stall, read: "Blood will be shed @ UCSC 4/20/11" and was accompanied by more than one swastika. A blog by students championing ethnic studies at UCSC pointed out that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889.
Additionally, graffiti in blue ink discovered last week in the Science and Engineering Library contained a racist depiction of an Asian person.
CONFLICT ON CAMPUSES
UCSC is not the only UC campus where tensions between pro-Israel supporters and those who object to Israeli policies toward Palestine have led to claims of anti-Semitism and an atmosphere of intimidation.
A former UC 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, claimed the confrontation was just one episode in a chain 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.
At UC Irvine, the campus chapter of the 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 UCSC.
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.