Waving the Zionist flag at Santa Cruz

On the third floor of the Baskin Engineering building at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is going over points of Hebrew grammar.

Her 25 students in first-level Hebrew — a panoply of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites — call out the gender associations of Hebrew words as Rossman-Benjamin reads aloud. Some words, like “father” and “brother,” are easier to remember; they are grammatically masculine. Others, like “door” and “window,” just have to be memorized.

“It’s pretty random,” Rossman-Benjamin told her charges. “The way to know is its form, how it looks.”

For the past 10 years, Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew-language lecturer at the school, has been following that same directive with single-minded determination, spending much of her time outside the classroom on a very different task: tracking incidents of anti-Israel activity at this coastal campus.

Perhaps, seen in isolation, the incidents she has tracked might be considered legitimate, albeit harsh, criticisms of the Jewish state. But Rossman-Benjamin says that when looked at together, statements by faculty and others in an array of campus events often display anti-Zionism, demonization of Israel and Israeli leaders, comparisons to Nazi Germany and questioning of the Jewish state’s very legitimacy. Rossman-Benjamin says they take the form of something more insidious: a sustained, inaccurate and hateful assault on a core aspect of Jewish identity.

Such rhetoric has been prevalent on California campuses for years, raising concerns from Irvine to Berkeley, ranging from the well-being of Jewish students to the integrity of academic discourse on the Middle East. At Santa Cruz, as on these other campuses, a combination of activist student groups and left-leaning academic departments has subjected Israel to withering censure — harsher treatment, critics say, than is meted out to any other nation.

While so far no claims of anti-Jewish violence or harassment have arisen at Santa Cruz, as have been alleged at other schools, Rossman-Benjamin contends that the consequence of this rhetoric has seeped beyond the confines of debate, submerging Jewish students in an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation no other campus group is forced to endure.

“Here, the problem has to do with faculty and administration who misuse their classrooms and university-sponsored events in order to promote their personal political agendas,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “My complaint isn’t about anti-Semitism. My complaint is about a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

Since 2001, Rossman-Benjamin’s repeated appeals to the university have been met with silence or dismissal. So in 2009, she lodged a landmark complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the atmosphere on campus is so hostile that Jewish students suffer discrimination as a result.

In 2010, the San Francisco office of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights informed her that it had opened an investigation of UC Santa Cruz.

And the result of all this is that Rossman-Benjamin, 55, has become a pariah on campus.

Not a single member of the UC Santa Cruz faculty has endorsed her read on the situation — save for her husband, Ilan Benjamin, who chairs the chemistry department. Several have accused her of intimidation and of infringing on their academic freedom.

Even in the Jewish world, she has proven divisive. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national organization, is expected to vote at its upcoming meeting on a draft resolution that cautions against using legal means to censor anti-Israel events under the guise of protecting Jewish students. But Rossman-Benjamin is not only unbowed, she is as committed as ever.

“The great sociologist Max Weber made a famous distinction between an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility, between leaders who search for modest, pragmatic solutions that will work, and those who start from conviction and worry about the constraints and consequences later,” said Bruce Thompson, a historian and fellow member of the Jewish Studies faculty at UC Santa Cruz. “Tammi is obviously a person who starts from conscience.”

Friends describe Rossman-Benjamin as driven, a woman of deep conviction and high principle, unafraid to defy opponents and go it alone when she believes that a larger purpose is at stake. Since arriving in Santa Cruz in 1989, she has founded a synagogue (when the existing one no longer suited her), tried unsuccessfully to start a Jewish day school (despite opposition from some quarters of the local community), and publicly confronted the rabbinate of the Conservative movement over its lack of commitment to traditional biblical understanding.

Inevitably, she has stepped on some toes.

“There are people in town who really don’t like Tammi, many of them at the university,” said Angela Eisenpress, a friend of Rossman-Benjamin, who worked with her on the day school project.

Rossman-Benjamin was born and raised in a Conservative family outside Philadelphia. She studied literature at McGill University and earned a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Concordia University. At 25, she arrived in Israel on what was supposed to be a trip around the world teaching English; she wound up staying for three years.

It was 1982 and the Lebanon war was raging, but Rossman-Benjamin said she doesn’t recall being particularly affected by the hostilities, or by the massacres that fall of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps. She spent time at Kibbutz Hazorea, then moved to Jerusalem to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Ilan was pursuing his doctorate. They married in 1983.

Ilan went on to complete postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, and Rossman-Benjamin enrolled there in a graduate course in psychology. Ilan’s second postdoctoral position brought them to San Diego, where the couple’s twin sons were born. In 1989, Ilan was appointed to the faculty at UC Santa Cruz and they moved again, 450 miles to the north.

At the time, there was a single synagogue in town, Temple Beth El. Rossman-Benjamin became an active member, serving on the board and preparing students for b’nai mitzvah. But as her sons got older, she began to worry for their Jewish education.

“I was growing, too, as a Jew,” she said. “And when you have kids, the things that you can settle for you don’t want your kids to settle for.”

Working with Eisenpress and others, they sought funding to start a school at Temple Beth El. When they fell short of the numbers necessary to make the school a reality, Rossman-Benjamin turned her attention to starting a synagogue instead. In 1994, 15 families founded Congregation Kol Tefillah, a Conservative-affiliated congregation that meets in an office building. Rossman-Benjamin headed the religious school, and Ilan served as president for eight years. Each Saturday, the couple walks two and a half miles to attend services.

“She ignores the naysayers,” said Eli Eisenpress, Angela’s husband and a member of Kol Tefillah. “She doesn’t have any particular interest in being popular in all segments of the community or finding other people who support her ideas before she goes ahead.”

That kind of commitment, rather than a particular political identification, is what Rossman-Benjamin says animates her campaign on campus. Israel is central to her religious identity. Vicious attacks on its right to exist are not just abstract academic discussions for her; they are tantamount to attacks on her Jewishness.

“I don’t separate my Zionism from my Judaism,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “What it means to be a Jew is to have a love and a connection for Israel. It’s a part of my identity.”

In 2001, Rossman-Benjamin began noting the frequency of campus events hostile to Israel. A flier for one such event depicted a jet with a Star of David dropping bombs on civilians. Eight university departments were listed as co-sponsors, and Rossman-Benjamin complained to them all. No one responded.

Eventually, she and Ilan appealed to the academic senate. A committee report on the matter, released in 2008, concluded that Middle East-related events on campus did not constitute threats to the academic integrity of the university. Several professors reported to the committee that Rossman-Benjamin’s activities were having a chilling effect on their activities.

None of those professors responded to requests for comment for this story.

Undeterred, in 2009, Rossman-Benjamin appealed to the federal government. Capitalizing on a policy change that afforded Jews protection under Title VI, a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin, Rossman-Benjamin submitted a 29-page letter to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) detailing years of anti-Israel activity at UC Santa Cruz.

“The anti-Israel discourse and behavior in classrooms and at departmentally and college-sponsored events at UCSC is tantamount to institutional discrimination against Jewish students, which has resulted in their intellectual and emotional harassment and intimidation, and has adversely affected their educational experience at the university,” the letter said.

The OCR has said nothing publicly about the complaint. It is unclear whether and how the claims are being investigated or when a conclusion might be reached. But Rossman-Benjamin said that even if her claims are found wanting, the exercise will still have been worth it.

“For as long as it’s open, it really brings a certain kind of scrutiny to the situation and the problem,” she said. “Even if the end result is not as I would have wanted it to be, it will still have been a very worthwhile thing.”

Rossman-Benjamin knows her continued activism will not win her any friends. But she feels she cannot desist.

“I feel like I’m the strongest one, as an individual, to make the case that I make,” she said. “I’m not doing this with an organizational agenda. I’m not doing this even from a position of strength. I’m doing this with everything to lose.”