Support the Right to Education Campaign’s West Coast tour
We are seeking your financial support for Palestinian students to travel to California as part of the Right to Education Tour. Palestinian students from Birzeit University will be visiting the United States, giving us a rare and important opportunity for Palestinians living under occupation to directly speak to university students in the United States (you can see articles about RTE here). We hope to raise $4,000 to help fund travel, lodging, and other costs for the students who will be visiting California.
With many thanks,
SJP-West Fundraising Committee
via Alex Kane, Mondoweiss
Prolonged federal investigations of Palestine solidarity activism on campuses are chilling students’ constitutional rights to organize and speak out, a coalition of civil rights groups has charged in letters to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The civil rights and advocacy groups are asking the federal government to take a number of steps to remedy what they say is the problem of investigations that are having a chilling effect on students’ speech.
The letters (read them here), sent to the DOE civil rights division in San Francisco and the DOE’s assistant secretary for civil rights, are a response to the spate of Title VI civil rights complaints that have been filed by Jewish students who advocate for Israel. These complaints allege that campuses have allowed an anti-Semitic environment to flourish, but they mostly concern Palestine solidarity activism. The Title VI complaints have sparked federal inquiries on a number of California campuses.
“The numerous complaints and continued threats of complaints…have resulted in universities increasing pressure on students advocating for Palestinian rights, often applying campus rules unequally and obstructing their activities to avoid accusations that the university is enabling an anti-Semitic environment by allowing students to express their views,” the groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Lawyers Guild and Jewish Voice for Peace say.
The detailed letters charge that the investigations are based on complaints that conflate political speech critical of Israel with anti-Semitism. The groups also state that the investigations have been prolonged–”well beyond the OCR’s internal benchmark of 180 days”–and have not allowed students most affected by these complaints to voice their concerns.
The civil rights groups’ statements request that the DOE take a number of steps to remedy the problems they bring up. Among the recommendations are that the DOE issue a letter stating that student political speech is protected under the First Amendment and that “advocacy for Palestinian human rights and criticism of Israeli government policies are not anti-Semitic.”
“The abuse of civil rights laws to silence political views tramples on the First Amendment, and is already causing a tangible, detrimental impact on Arab, Muslim, and other students who espouse particular views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said CCR Cooperating Counsel Liz Jackson in a statement.“That contravenes the spirit of Title VI and of our Constitution. And it wrongly conflates Jewish identity with uncritical support for Israel.”
The civil rights groups’ statements are a forceful rebuke to the DOE’s practice of opening up civil rights investigations based on the Israel-related complaints of Jewish students who charge that activities like mock checkpoints and Israel Apartheid Week are anti-Semitic. The letter recommends that the DOE “direct [civil rights] field offices not to investigate complaints where the facts alleged, even if true, constitute pure political speech or expressive activity.”
In 2010, after lobbying led by groups like the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, the DOE shifted policy to allow Title VI complaints to be filed from religious groups with shared ethnic characteristics. Title VI is the section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, color and national origin. The DOE’s 2010 decision opened the gates for the current complaints from Jewish pro-Israel students.
Despite the fact that no campus has been found to be in violation of Title VI as a result of any of these complaints, civil rights groups charge that they are still having an impact on activism and speech on campus.
Currently, there are three cases in California that are being investigated in response to a Title VI complaint being filed. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley campus is being investigated as a result of a complaint filed by students who were affiliated with Tikvah Students for Israel. The UC Berkeley investigation started out as a lawsuit in 2011, which was ended after the school and the students reached an agreement in which the university said it would consider changes to policy on campus protests. The judge in the original lawsuit stated that “a very substantial portion of the conduct to which [the complainants] object represents pure political speech and expressive conduct, in a public setting, regarding matters of public concern, which is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment.”
On the same day the agreement with UC Berkeley was reached, the same students filed a Title VI complaint with the San Francisco Division of the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleges that mock checkpoints and Israel Apartheid Week create “a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars … during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”
The prolonged nature of the civil rights investigations is causing “harm,” the letter from the CCR and others state. “The courts have long recognized that even government scrutiny – let alone full-blown investigations such as those at issue here – has a marked potential to chill speech and other expressive activities.”
And the Berkeley investigation has had an impact on students, the civil rights groups say. Specifically, the letter to the San Francisco Division of the DOE states:
A graduate student active with one of the groups targeted by the lawsuit against UC Berkeley (Students for Justice in Palestine) was told by his adviser that his public status as a Palestinian rights activist would hinder his career.
An Arab Muslim student stated that he declined to get involved with the second group targeted by the Berkeley lawsuit (the Muslim Student Association), for fear that it would jeopardize his chances of getting into graduate school.
Pro-Palestinian students frequently express anxiety about being falsely branded as antiSemites.
Several students declined to have their names appear on declarations to OCR regarding the UC Berkeley complaint, for fear that they would be improperly smeared as anti Semites or otherwise targeted.
Sign this petition urging UC President Mark Yudof to condemn UCSC Hebrew lecturer Tammi Benjamin’s Islamophobic claims that SJP and MSA participants are “anti-semitic” “foreign students” “with ties to terrorist organizations”
A video has surfaced, showing UC Santa Cruz Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman Benjamin making extremely offensive comments about the Muslim Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine groups at an off-campus event in June 2012. Benjamin describes their members as “foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world.” She makes openly racist and defamatory claims that MSA and SJP are connected to terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Benjamin also singles these student activists out from all others, saying, “These are not your ordinary student groups like College Republicans or Young Democrats. These are students who come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations”.
These comments reflect the worst stereotypes and slurs leveled at Arab and Muslim communities in the post-9/11 era. They have absolutely no place in a university environment and it is completely unacceptable for a University of California lecturer to be making them, especially about students. What is even worse is that these comments are part of a pattern, one that the University of California Office of the President has been complicit in promoting.
Tammi Benjamin leads an extreme pro-Israel group called the Amcha Initiative, which has launched a series of censorship attempts targeting UC and California State University academics and student groups, based on claims that academic critique of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. In 2011 they filed a complaint against UCLA professor David Shorter for linking to a page related to the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement on a class website, prompting an improper investigation that was eventually dismissed. In February 2012 the Amcha Initiativetried and failed to shut down Israeli historian Illan Pappe’s speaking tour at CSU campuses, falsely claiming that he was “anti-Semitic” and supportive of terror. Tammi Benjamin was also behind a federal complaint alleging that campus political and academic speech critical of Israel creates a hostile environment for Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz, resulting in an ongoing Department of Education investigation into the school. The ACLU recently condemned the federal investigation into UC Santa Cruz as “disturbing” and having “a chilling effect” on student organizing in a letter criticizing a similar investigation at UC Berkeley.
In March 2012, Tammi Benjamin and the Amcha Initiative sent a letter to UC President Mark Yudof with racist rhetoric tying student groups to terror, and misrepresenting an incident at UC Davis. The next day President Yudof responded with a system-wide email that adopted the Amcha Initiative’s false narrative, without any condemnation of their inflammatory language or baseless claims.
It is no wonder that Tammi Benjamin felt comfortable publicly claiming students were tied to terrorism last June, when the University has rewarded her organization for doing so in the past. These actions are damaging to Muslim and Arab students and their allies, and promote an environment where students are open targets for hate groups. The University of California and the Office of the President must take a clear stand against hate speech directed at marginalized communities, and distance itself from extremists like Tammi Benjamin and the Amcha Initiative that work to smear and silence student human rights campaigners.
We ask that University of California President Mark Yudof:
-Release a statement from the UC President’s Office condemning Tammi Benjamin’s hateful comments in the video and previous Amcha Initiative statements.
-End any UC cooperation and communication with extremist groups like the Amcha Initiative that target advocates for human rights.
-Formally retract any statements issued at the request of the Amcha Initiative, and take proactive steps to address the negative impact the UC’s past cooperation with the group has had on free speech and campus climate for Muslim and Arab students and groups like SJP and MSA.