UC Santa Cruz students to administration: Break the institutional silence on lecturer’s hate speech

Students at the University of California at Santa Cruz have published an open letter urging the the UC administration to break its silence over a faculty member’s Islamophobia, racism, legal threats and harassment of students.

As The Electronic Intifada has recently reported, student activists with the Committee for Justice in Palestine have been slandered and harassed by a UC Santa Cruz lecturer. The lecturer, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the Zionist watchdog group the Amcha Initiative, has launched an intimidation campaign against students after they publicized and campaigned against racist and slanderous remarks she made against Palestine solidarity activists and Muslim students, which were caught on video.

In the last week, Rossman-Benjamin has initiated yet another round of attempts to smear and legally threaten the student activists by posting an open letter to the UC President, Mark Yudof, demanding that he investigate the students and take “appropriate disciplinary measures.”

“Repeated attempts to silence our activism”

Notably, outgoing UC President Mark Yudof, as was reported yesterday, will be attending next month’s Facing Tomorrow, a high-profile conference of Israeli military and political elites, where he will be discussing the “de-legitimization of Israel on the campus” along with top officials from hard-line Zionist organizations Bithright Israel and the Jewish Agency. It remains to be seen whether Yudof, who has historically aligned with Israel while students under his administrative purview fight to organize for Palestinian rights, will take action to protect them against Rossman-Benjamin’s threats.

The full letter from students at UC Santa Cruz, posted on 12 May, is below.

The Committee for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association at UC Santa Cruz call on the UCSC Administration, the UC Regents, and UC President Mark Yudof to affirm and rigorously defend our right to free speech as well as address a pervasive pattern of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian intimidation that continues to run unchecked throughout the UC system. Over the past few years Muslim and Palestinian rights groups, and our allies, have been subjected to repeated attempts to stigmatize and silence our activism, much of which has come from within our own institutions.

This year a video came to light showing UCSC Hebrew lecturer Tammi Benjamin making extremely offensive and defamatory claims about UC Students for Justice in Palestine and Muslim Students Association groups. She described our members as “foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world” and stated that “these are not your ordinary student groups like College Republicans or Young Democrats. These are students who come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations.”

These claims were not only false, but extremely harmful in a post-9/11 environment in which Muslims, Arabs, and anyone who could be perceived as such, have been subjected to harassment and violence, both from members of their own communities, and government agencies like the FBI and NYPD. In this context, even false claims that students are tied to terror can have serious and long-lasting effects on their lives, and run a very real risk of exposing them to hate crimes and unjust government surveillance.

The natural response of UCSC CJP and MSA students to Tammi Benjamin’s remarks was to organize a campaign that attempted to humanize our groups in the eyes of our community and called on the UC and UCSC admin to respond by distancing themselves from her offensive comments. Students used their own still and video images to challenge the ugly stereotypes Benjamin promoted about them, and urge their school to act. But rather than stand with these students in their time of need, UCSC administrators and UC President Yudof chose to remain silent. This silence sent a very clear message: the University of California does not think that these types of attacks on Muslim and pro-Palestinian students are worth addressing, even when they come from a UC instructor.

While the UC and UCSC administrators failed to act, the wider UC community sprang into action. Entirely of their own accord, student governments at UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Davis, and UC Santa Barbara passed resolutions condemning Tammi Benjamin’s comments and bravely addressing Islamophobia in their own communities in a way their universities had previously failed to. Additionally over 1,800 people have signed CJP’s petition urging UC President Yudof to condemn Tammi Benjamin’s remarks.

Given the UC’s institutional silence, it is no surprise that Tammi Benjamin, and her group the Amcha Initiative, felt emboldened to respond to this student mobilization with increasingly vitriolic and generalized attacks on campus organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association. Immediately after CJP and MSA launched our entirely nonviolent campaign, lecturer Benjamin sent a series of letters to UCSC administrators that targeted members of our groups and falsely claimed we were “terrorizing” her with our peaceful petition, videos, and posters.

On May 8th the Amcha Initiative released an “action alert” linked to a letter to UC President Yudof, in which Benjamin repeated her defamatory claims and called on the UC to investigate and even consider disbanding every single SJP and MSA affiliated group in the UC system. These demands represent an open call to criminalize Muslim and Palestinian rights organizing in a fashion that can only be described as bigoted and draconian. This clear assault on the first amendment rights of Muslim students and those who support equality for Palestinians runs entirely counter to the values of openness and tolerance espoused by the University of California and must be whole-heartedly condemned. We call on the the UCSC Administration, the UC Regents, and UC President Mark Yudof to do the following:

  • Condemn Tammi Benjamin’s original remarks as well as her attempts to engage in the wholesale censorship of the Muslim and pro-Palestinian communities
  • Affirm, in writing, the rights of Muslim and pro-Palestinian students to equal access to the same UC funds and resources afforded to other student groups
  • Ensure that matters of hate speech and hate crimes are given equal response regardless of the personal background, or political beliefs, of those targeted
  • Take steps to ensure that MSA and SJP students feel welcome and included on campus

UCSC administrators, the UC Regents, and UC President Yudof should note that there is absolutely no moral equivalence between the demands of Tammi Benjamin and the Amcha Initiative that students be censored and subjected to institutionalize discrimination, and the demands of these students that their university protect their rights. The University of California has taken an unfortunate position in the past of adopting the narrative of the Amcha Initiative over that of the student groups it targets. The UC now has an opportunity to side with those it serves and prove that Muslim students, and those who support Palestinian rights, hold an equal place in our institutions of higher learning. We hope you will make the right decision and anticipate your timely response.


The Committee for Justice in Palestine at UC Santa Cruz
The Muslim Students Association at UC Santa Cruz


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).