Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz in California — and the co-founder of a Zionist group which attempts to use legal harassment to silence and intimidate the Palestine solidarity movement — is bullying and threatening students involved in Palestine solidarity organizing.
She has also threatened to file a legal complaint against the university, and claims that students have violated campus policy by initiating a campaign urging the university to take action to condemn her.
According to students targeted by Rossman-Benjamin, these latest attacks and threats have been allowed to flourish because University of California’s top officials refuse to publicly condemn racist remarks she made.
As The Electronic Intifada has reported, Rossman-Benjamin made racist, slanderous comments against students involved in Palestine solidarity activism on campus and the Muslim Student Association in a video that surfaced earlier this year. In the video, she alleges that such students “have ties to terrorist organizations” and that “many of them are foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world.”
Rossman-Benjamin is the co-founder of the Amcha Initiative, which has a history of legal threats against students and faculty who criticize Israeli policy. The Amcha Initiative has filed civil rights law (Title VI) complaints at the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging that Jewish students face discrimination and harassment due to Palestine solidarity organizing and the holding of events critical of Israeli policy on campus. Rossman-Benjamin and Amcha filed a Title VI complaint against UC Santa Cruz several years ago, which is still pending.
Students mobilize against hate speech
Students at UC Santa Cruz with the Committee for Justice in Palestine began circulating a petition calling on the office of the university president to condemn Rossman-Benjamin’s hate speech. To date, more than 1,700 persons have signed the petition, but the University of California’s president, Mark Yudof, has so far refused to comment.
Along with the petition to the University of California president, the student group has been collecting signatures on an open letter to UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal and Dean of Students Alma Sifuentes, demanding that they condemn the lecturer’s Islamophobic and slanderous comments.
In March, the University of California at Berkeley’s student senate passed a resolution condemning Rossman-Benjamin’s hate speech and urged the UC administration “to condemn these inflammatory, hateful and racist assumptions by [UC Santa Cruz] lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin against Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian students, and Palestinian rights activists.” The resolution also urges other campuses “to pass similar bills in their respective student governments.”
Rebecca Pierce, a student at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the Committee for Justice in Palestine, helped launch a video campaign in which students give personal testimonials on their reaction to Rossman-Benjamin’s hate speech and the UC administration’s inaction. More than a dozen testimonials can be viewed on the group’s YouTube account.
Rossman-Benjamin is now, in turn, claiming “retaliation,” “defamation” and “terrorization” because of these petitions, and is threatening legal action against the UC Santa Cruz administration for the Committee for Justice in Palestine’s campaign.
A recent exchange of emails between Rossman-Benjamin and UC Santa Cruz officials were found by members of the Committee for Justice in Palestine after being posted on two Bay Area Zionist blogs and a now-deleted post on the Amcha website. In the emails Rossman-Benjamin alleges that student conduct policies were violated by the Committee for Justice in Palestine’s public campaign urging the UC administration to condemn her comments, and by students categorizing her remarks as racist and Islamophobic. She then attempts to threaten the students and the administration with further legal complaints.
In the emails, Rossman-Benjamin further claims that the students are “engaging in harassment,” and have “communicated a serious expression with intent to terrorize [me], or have acted in reckless disregard of the risk [of doing so].”
She also threatens to file another Title VI lawsuit with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
One email also notes The Electronic Intifada’s reporting on this issue, calling it “defamatory.”
With the threat of further legal action by Amcha and Rossman-Benjamin hovering overhead, student Rebecca Pierce emphasized that the basis of the campaign is directly quoting Rossman-Benjamin’s hate speech in the video, and sharing how students are perceiving her actions.
This campaign “is perfectly acceptable, ethical, and legal forms of speech protected by the First Amendment,” Pierce told The Electronic Intifada. “I think that any claim that we’re defaming anyone is coming out of left field and is not based in any sort of truth about our campaign or about our organization.”
Prejudice and Islamophobia
However, Pierce — who has been a Hebrew language student of Rossman-Benjamin’s — told The Electronic Intifada that because the University of California’s top administration has not taken any steps to condemn the lecturer’s hate speech, students feel upset and unheard, on top of being bullied.
“I think it’s been hard to watch this whole thing unfold for a lot of reasons,” Pierce said. “Seeing the comments that were made about [the Committee for Justice in Palestine] and [the Muslim Student Association] in the first place, it was shocking and it was hard for me personally as someone who’s in those groups and has had a relationship with the person making those comments.”
Pierce added that it is up to the school to make sure that such prejudicial and Islamophobic views “aren’t allowed to be taken as the views of the university. And right now, no one’s contradicting that idea.”
Even though top University of California administration officials haven’t taken action to condemn Rossman-Benjamin’s hate speech, students with the Committee for Justice in Palestine say they don’t feel that UC Santa Cruz is indicating that the students “are in any kind of [administrative] trouble at all,” at least for now.
Liz Jackson of the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Initiative, a project of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada that “the real significance of this new bullying and intimidation attempt is to breathe new life into the Title VI complaint. It’s an attempt to put forth any evidence that there’s a hostile environment for Jewish students, and [Rossman-Benjamin] can’t prove it — so she’s trying to manufacture new evidence.”
Jackson added, “so basically anyone who tries to defends themselves against accusations that they’re ‘terrorists’ is contributing to a hostile climate. It’s absurd.”
She explained that the Santa Cruz students who are defending themselves and standing up for their rights to be critical of Israeli policy “are doing the right thing to not allow themselves to be bullied and smeared. And even though [Rossman-Benjamin] has stepped up her efforts to bully and smear, and the further intimidation [that has occurred] after they tried to defend themselves, the students are doing the right thing and should keep going. Don’t let any legal bullying stop you.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca Pierce says that the Committee for Justice in Palestine is continuing their campaign and are doing a lot of “face-to-face interactions” with students. So far, she said, they have had an overwhelmingly positive response — noting that some Zionist and Israel-aligned students have said they really disagree with Rossman-Benjamin’s remarks against CJP and the Muslim Student Association.
“We do feel that our community in general is standing with us,” Pierce remarked. “We’d just like something on an official level from the people who are supposed to be representing us. But at this point, we feel that the community is really coming together on this.”