Tammi Rossman-Benjamin stood before the board of trustees, the highest governing authority of the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, and in her allotted two minutes stated her case against a professor who levels consistently hostile charges against Israel on his university Web site.
Standing behind the 25 trustees on Sept. 25 in Long Beach were the legal, academic and administrative resources of the largest four-year college system in the United States. Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was backed only by Leila Beckwith, a professor emerita and child psychologist at UCLA.
The two women pretty much represent the total leadership and staff of the Amcha Initiative (AI), whose purpose, according to its Web site, lies in “investigating, documenting, educating about and combatting anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.” They founded the organization in 2011 and qualified it as a nonprofit the following year.
If the odds — and resources — hardly favor the two academicians, they make up for it in passion, persistence and hard work. As a result they have forced CSU to fight a lengthy defensive battle against AI’s charges.
The trigger for these confrontations is David Klein, a mathematics professor at the CSU Northridge campus (CSUN), as well as publisher of the “Boycott Israel Resource Page” on the university Web server. Besides linking boycott enthusiasts of all stripes, Klein’s Web site labels Israel “the most racist state in the world at this time,” and accuses the “apartheid state” of ethnic cleansing and mass murder.
Underlying much of the emotions, arguments and lengthy briefs is a question that has challenged legal scholars, pundits and Jewish defense organizations for years: When are attacks on Israeli policies and actions legitimate expressions of constitutional and academic free speech, and when do they serve as cover for outright anti-Semitism?
“I have been wrestling with such questions for 35 years in Jewish life,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “Not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean that none is.”
When Klein calls Israel the world’s most racist state, that is so obviously untrue as to smack of anti-Semitism, Stern said.
The seeds of AI — not related to the Israeli organization that aids Holocaust survivors, Amcha (Hebrew for “Your People”) — sprouted when Beckwith spent a sabbatical year on the Santa Cruz campus and met Benjamin. Both felt that university administrators, the federal government and the Jewish community at-large were ignoring the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel agitation on California university campuses, and they decided to do something about it.
“I lived through [the era of] World War II and the birth of Israel, and I am not going to let the Jewish state be demonized and delegitimized,” Beckwith said. “I knew it was only a step from condemning Israel to condemning Jews.”
Rossman-Benjamin, the mother of two college-age children, noted, “As a teacher of Hebrew, I’ve had students come to me crying about being harassed or that one of their professors was an Israel-basher. This is scary stuff, and nobody bats an eye about it.”
Initially, AI took on UC’s then-President Mark Yudof, who is Jewish, charging that his and various campus administrations failed to act against harassment of Jewish student and anti-Semitic incidents.
For the past two years, AI’s main focus has been on Klein, who through his Web site and capacity as adviser to two student groups has become the chief campus advocate of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Amid a steady exchange of letters, memos and legal opinions, AI has accused CSU of allowing Klein to violate various sections of the California Education Code by misusing the university’s server to promote boycotts, while also endorsing the candidacy of a pro-boycott congressional candidate running against the “extreme Zionists” Brad Sherman and Howard Berman last year.
Over the course of the last two years, AI’s appeals have been consistently denied by authorities, starting with California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, whose staff determined that Klein had not misused CSUN’s name and resources. Last month, on Sept. 23, CSU’s interim general counsel, G. Andrew Jones, wrote Rossman-Benjamin that, while both he and CSUN President Dianne Harrison disagreed with Klein’s views, the contents of his Web site do not violate California law and count as “constitutionally protected speech.”
Jones told the Journal that Klein’s Web site did not imply that CSU endorsed his pronouncements and that substantial private misuse of state resources, which is illegal, is hard to pin down.
“If you are a state worker and use the phone to call your mother, is that misuse of state resources?” Jones asked rhetorically.
In his e-mail to AI, Jones also mentioned, “We have consulted with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which agreed that [Klein’s] Web site’s contents were not anti-Semitic.” Later, he clarified that “although the university based its conclusion on the ADL briefing, the ADL did not issue an official opinion regarding Professor Klein’s statements.”
Those quotes connect indirectly to Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint that while she has received some backing from the Zionist Organization of America and the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, most mainstream Jewish organizations had not given any support to her efforts.
Amanda Susskind, director of ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region, said the meeting between local ADL lay and professional leaders and their counterparts at CSUN did not focus on the Klein case but was rather a general courtesy briefing for incoming president Harrison on ADL’s concerns and services on college campuses.
“Certainly, if there are any incidents on campus, whether labeled anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, ADL will jump in,” she said in a phone interview.
For his part, Jones said he understood that part of the meeting was set aside to focus on the Klein case. Neither Susskind nor Jones was present at the meeting.
The Journal attempted to speak to Klein, but as on a previous occasion, he hung up the phone when the reporter identified himself.
Klein’s own religious leanings are uncertain. According to a 2011 interview in the Los Angeles Daily News, “The 23-year CSUN professor declined to discuss his own religious background.”
Jody Myers, coordinator of CSUN’s Jewish studies interdisciplinary program, counseled against making too much of Klein’s influence.
“He has a certain following among the faculty, not much among students, but I’m sure he loves all the attention,” she said.
“Jewish life on campus is very good,” Myers added, noting that much more worrisome than any “Boycott Israel” activity was the cutback in community funding for the local Hillel, which has deeply cut into its outreach to Jewish students.
Like all public and private institutions, CSU would rather do without persistent critics, and some established Jewish defense organizations might feel that dealing with campus anti-Semitism is a job for professionals. On balance, however, what Beckwith and Rossman-Benjamin have accomplished is pretty impressive.
Working without any staff, they conduct their campaigns almost entirely via e-mail. They put the number of supporters — people who have contacted them, signed the AI petitions and sent money — at 5,000, and they have received donations of between $150,000 and $200,000 during the last year.
Despite any legal setback, they even hope to expand their operations from California to the rest of the country.
As the AJC’s Stern noted, “These two ladies are not a bad thing — certainly better than total apathy.”