NEW YORK – In what experts are calling a “strong signal to American higher education,” the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation into claims of anti- Semitism at the University of California Santa Cruz, examining claims of a hostile environment for Jewish students on the Santa Cruz campus.

UC-Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin filed a complaint in June 2009 claiming that the university was failing to address a hostile environment for Jewish students.The complaint alleges that Jewish students suffer frequent “hostile and demonizing criticism” as Jewish students.

Rossman-Benjamin, who has also published a paper entitled “Anti-Zionism and the Abuse of Academic Freedom: A Case Study at the University of California, Santa Cruz,” claims that anti-Semitic dialogues and mentalities have been present and pervasive on that school’s campus since 2001. She claims that faculty members routinely insert anti-Zionist rhetoric into departmentally-sponsored events. She also references an academic conference entitled “Alternative Histories within and beyond Zionism,” held in 2007, where multiple speakers claimed that Zionism was an illegitimate ideology, and argued in favor of eliminating Israel.

“The unscholarly, political and anti-Semitic nature of the conference raises questions about whether events of this kind are a legitimate exercise of academic freedom or an abuse of it,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote in her paper.

Although the recently revised University of California rules do not specify the limits of academic freedom, they do presume that faculty and administrative agencies will define those limits and impose sanctions on faculty who violate them.

“However, despite a system of shared governance in which faculty are responsible for ensuring the scholarly integrity of academic programming and administrators for making sure all programming accords with university regulations, abuses of academic freedom have been allowed to flourish at UCSC.”

Former OCR chief Kenneth L. Marcus, now head of The Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, calls this case “extremely significant.”

Among the important elements of the case, according to Marcus, is its timing: The investigation is opening as Israel Apartheid events, sponsored by BDS movements, are being held around the world.

A recently-filed federal lawsuit alleges similar problems at the University of California Berkeley.

For OCR to open this case – only the second major systemic anti-Semitism case it has ever done – after a year and a half of investigation, Marcus said, implies that the case is “anything but normal.”

Investigators will likely consult with witnesses, officials at the school, administrators, faculty and students.

There is no process for a hearing unless and until OCR determines that there has been discrimination in violation of law; and even then, there would be no hearing unless Santa Cruz refused to enter into a voluntary resolution agreement.

“I certainly expect it will be a lengthy and deliberate process,” Marcus said.

A voluntary resolution agreement, Marcus acknowledged, would be anything but voluntary, as it would be put in place in the event of a finding of discrimination, to ensure that the discrimination was rectified and eradicated.

In the event that OCR deemed such an agreement necessary and it was not reached, Marcus said, all federal funding for the school would be revoked.

“There’s really only one remedy if a school is to be found in violation, and that would be complete cessation of all federal funding – which would be absolutely debilitating; and for that reason, universities never push it that far,” Marcus said.

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