The old “gentlemen’s agreement” worked sub rosa to discriminate against Jews and preserve the homogeneity of neighborhoods or work places. General indifference permitted this. The new “gentlemen’s agreement” works similarly on many campuses to preserve the homogeneity of leftist and pro-Palestinian thought, again permitted by indifferent administrators. As many of the campus left – particularly those who are mostly critical of the West -- have adopted pro-Palestinian sympathies or agreement, their union has placed Jews on campus in the position of having to fight back.
The greatest tool that those on campus opposed to Israel have used is Americans and academics’ deep attachment to free speech. Although there are some legal restrictions to free speech, the anti-Israelites claim its armor in all cases, regardless of proper restrictions, and most academics either agree, stay silent, or are afraid to suffer career consequences. The companion tool of anti-Israelites is claiming academic freedom to shield any proper inspection of seriously biased coursework or professors’ conduct in the classroom. Lastly, any minority on campus perceived by liberals as downtrodden is given loud vocal support by administrators and faculty. Persistent verbal and physical attacks on Jews as purveyors of Middle East and US oppression are largely ignored or even actively supported.
By now, this is old hat to you. What may be surprising are the successes that pro-Israel groups are having on campuses. Two born in California stand out for their lasting national impacts, including emulation by others. There are lessons to be learned from their experience and useful guides to others.
Stand With Us
There are affluent Jewish Federations in most major US cities and Hillels on many campuses. But, ten years ago, Roz Rothstein was shocked at the misreporting of the Second Intifada, including support for it on college campuses. She was aghast at the relative ineffectiveness of major Jewish organizations to deal with it. She determined to fill the near vacuum in activism, and started Stand With Us in Los Angeles.
Desperate students at many campuses in the US reached out to Stand With Us to help them defend Israel. Again, Rothstein stepped into the breach. She found that students “are often caught off guard and unprepared for new anti-Israel ambushes” by trained, well-organized, well-funded local chapters of pro-Palestinian organizations, often working in alliance with far leftist groups and faculty on campus.
Stand With Us provides training for high school and college students in the issues and organizational skills to be effective and mobilize others, create constructive alliances with other campus students and groups, and carry that experience into the adult Jewish community after graduation. Stand With Us sponsors events and provides a plethora of literature, posters and handouts for students to distribute. (You just have to navigate around the Stand With Us website to be overwhelmed with the breadth of its activities and offerings, mostly all free to users, for campuses and for local communities.)
Local students with Stand With Us support, have defeated divestment resolutions at major campuses and have confronted “apartheid walls” with information walls. Pro-Palestinian speakers are countered with respected speakers. The vehemence of pro-Palestinian activists and street-theater is countered with calm students presenting facts that respect the intelligence of students. The one-sidedness of pro-Palestinian activists is countered with demands for upholding the free speech, academic freedom, and personal safety that are fundamental to academia.Stand With Us has grown to offices in over a dozen US cities, England, France and Israel, with a current budget of over $4-million and a staff of over sixty. Stand With Us has a long way to go to catch up with the pervasiveness of the pro-Palestinian groups on campuses, but with more benefactors and activists joining up and new alliances being formed with both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, it's getting there.
In 2007, a member of the faculty at University of California, Santa Cruz, was “alarmed by the rising incidence of anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism in classrooms and at departmentally-sponsored events at UC Santa Cruz.” She, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, and a few other faculty sent a letter to the UCSC administrators and key faculty detailing abuses of academic freedom affecting Jewish students and others supportive of Israel. They asked for an investigation and the addressing of violations. There was no action taken by these responsible for defending academic freedom for all.
Meanwhile, largely through the efforts of Ken Marcus at the US Department of Education, in 2004 Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was made to include discrimination or hostile atmosphere against Jewish students, affirmed by the US Commission on Civil Rights. The consequences could include loss of federal funding to the college. (Marcus discusses the legal course and justification in an article in William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal.
In 2009, Rossman-Benjamin filed a Title VI complaint against UCSC, detailing her many failed attempts to have UCSC administration enforce their federal and UC legal responsibilities. In March 2010, a letter from a coalition of 13 national and international organizations -- including International Hillel, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Orthodox Union -- was sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, urging him to ensure that Jewish students were protected under Title VI from antisemitic harassment that impinged their safety and ability to be educated. Their letter was followed a few months later by a similar letter to Secretary Duncan which reinforced the organizations’ concerns, this one signed by 38 U.S. congressmen. That October, the DOE issued a statement saying that its Office of Civil Rights would enforce Title VI applicable to discrimination and hostile atmosphere against Jewish students.
In 2010 pro-Palestinian campus groups and allies launched a major delegitimization campaign named Boycott, Divest, and Sanction to delegitimize Israel. Incidents of harassment and violence against Jewish students increased. Rossman-Benjamin assembled a coalition of 12 major Jewish groups to write to University of California President Mark Yudof, asking that he promulgate guidelines to prevent such behavior when beyond the laws.
But President Yudof, himself an observant Jew, kicked the can down the road, forming a UC Advisory Council “to identify some of the best practices in place in communities and institutions that can be adapted to both implement and then measure climate for tolerance at the University of California for the long term.”
In March 2011, the US Office of Civil Rights finally opened an investigation into Rossman-Benjamin’s Title VI complaint. There’s also a pending legal complaint against UC Berkeley for allowing harassment of Jewish students, and a weak court sentence was levied against UC Irvine and UC Riverside students who illegally disrupted Israel Ambassador Oren’s speech at UC Irvine. Legal challenges to colleges in other states for allowing across-the-line infringements on laws and academic freedom are in process or development.
In May 2011, Rossman-Benjamin and another UCLA faculty member launched AMCHA, which in Hebrew connotes “grassroots”. Its first effort was a letter signed by 5200 Jewish academics, students, parents of students, UC benefactors, clergy, and others in California to UC President Yudof asking him to address the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry on campuses forcefully and immediately. President Yudof’s reply to the letter unfortunately appears restrained by UC's liberal atmosphere, and held to the promised benefits of the Advisory Council.
On October 31, AMCHA followed up with details on many incidents of harassment, violence and lawbreaking by pro-Palestinian students, often aided by faculty support and administrative inaction. The follow-up concluded with four sensible points of action for UC:
1.Establish a knowledgeable Working Group to focus on “investigating the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry on UC campuses”.
2. Adopt an official definition of antisemitism based on the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and US State Department’s Working Definitions as a necessary tool to evaluation.
3. “Set a policy in which the administration systematically identifies and condemns antisemitic incidents on campus as vigorously as they do other kinds of bigotry, such as racism”.
4. “Institute educational programs on antisemitism for faculty, staff, and students that identify manifestations and provide guidelines for behavior, consistent with best practices for addressing other forms of discrimination, e.g. sexual harassment.”
Rossman-Benjamin is not optimistic that President Yudoff will take any of these actions, however.
In addition to her interactions with Yudoff, in September Rossman-Benjamin helped launch the Investigative Taskforce on Campus Antisemitism to send research teams to campuses across the country to investigate and report on antisemitic incidents across the country.
It only takes one or a few determined people to start a successful local or national activist organization. These two organizations should be applauded for their efforts, and we hope for their continued growth and success.