JCPA sticks its nose into harassment controversy

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

The Jewish Daily Forward reports that

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs [JCPA], American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues, will vote at its upcoming board meeting on a resolution that, in its current draft, cautions Jewish groups to guard against suppressing free speech and to invoke civil rights laws only after exhausting other measures.

“Lawsuits and threats of legal action should not be used to censor anti-Israel events, statements, and speakers in order to ‘protect’ Jewish students,” the draft resolution warns, “but rather for cases which evidence a systematic climate of fear and intimidation coupled with a failure of the university administration to respond with reasonable corrective measures.”

The draft’s nuanced construction reflects serious concern over the possibility that some Jewish groups and individuals may be inappropriately exploiting recent changes in the government’s interpretation of federal civil rights laws, according to communal officials involved in the issue. They cite in particular Title VI of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects individuals from discrimination based on race, color or national origin in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. [my emphasis]

I am wondering why we need this resolution. The proposition boldfaced above is self-evident. Of course it is critical to distinguish between protected speech and antisemitic harassment. In order to prevail in such a lawsuit, a complaint would have to meet the requirements of Title VI.

For example, a complaint filed by Prof. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin in 2009, now being investigated by US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights [OCR], claims that

Professors, academic departments and residential colleges at [The University of California, Santa Cruz] promote and encourage anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behavior, much of which is based on either misleading information or outright falsehoods. In addition, rhetoric heard in UCSC classrooms and at numerous events sponsored and funded by academic and administrative units on campus goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israel.  The rhetoric – which demonizes Israel, compares contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls  for the dismantling of the Jewish State, and holds Israel to an impossible double standard – crosses the line into anti-Semitism according to the standards employed by our own government. …

The impact of the academic and university-sponsored Israel-bashing on students has been enormous.  There are students who have felt emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated, to the point that they are reluctant or afraid to express a view that is not anti-Israel.  …

Since at least 2001, faculty members and students have brought these and similar problems to the attention of numerous UCSC administrators and faculty.  To date, the administration and faculty have largely ignored the problems.  In some cases, administrators and faculty have publicly denied that there are problems and even repudiated those who have had the courage to raise them. [my emphasis]

The complaint documents in detail Rossman-Benjamin’s contention that 1) a pervasive atmosphere hostile to Jewish students exists, 2) it is harmful to the students, and 3) the university has not taken appropriate action. This is exactly what is required by Title VI as it is now interpreted.

According to the Forward article, the resolution was prompted by a dispute over whether Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint was legitimate (see AAUP letter here and Rossman-Benjamin’s response here). It’s clear that the arguments against it will focus on the issue of limitation of free speech vs. the ‘pervasive atmosphere,’ etc. that is created not only by the preponderance of anti-Israel speech, but the behavior of the speakers, faculty, other students and administration.

Note that accusations of ‘censorship’ and limitations on speech were also the arguments used by the Muslim students who were recently convicted of disrupting a speech by Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. And in Oakland, California, protests against an exhibition, at a private museum, of drawings supposedly made by Gaza children depicting abuse by Israeli soldiers were attacked as ‘censorship’.

I can only understand the JCPA resolution as an attempt to sandbag Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint. I can imagine that if hearings are held, it will be used as evidence that “even the Jewish community” doesn’t support it.

If Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is shot down, it will be a green light for continued harassment of Jewish students on all UC campuses. If JCPA approves this resolution at its board meeting on October 24, it will be handing ammunition to those who want to kill it.

Incidentally, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin will be speaking in Fresno on October 23.


What is the JCPA and who decided that it is “American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues?” (The following is adapted from my two previous posts on the subject in January and March of this year):

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA, not to be confused with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) calls itself “the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community.” It is affiliated with the JFNA, formerly the UJC and before that the UJA, the umbrella organization of the Jewish Federations in the US and Canada.

Confused yet? What’s important to know is that the Jewish Federations raise large sums of money. Some of it is spent for charitable purposes in local communities (despite what Helen Thomas thinks, there are poor Jews) and some of it goes to support the Jewish Agency in Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, which helps Jews in difficult situations around the world.

These agencies in part paid for the rescue of Jews in Europe after WWII, Jews from Arab countries, Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc.

Today I’m afraid that there is beginning to be a loss of focus: JFNA has some highly paid corporate officers, and the agencies that it supports are also less than efficient (the Jewish Agency is famous as a home for tired Israeli politicians).

What about the JCPA, which gets most of its funds from JFNA?

The CEO (since 2005) and President (since 2009) of JCPA is Rabbi Steve Gutow. A Reconstructionist Rabbi, Gutow is also “founding Executive Director” (although he does not hold the position now) of the National Jewish Democratic Council, whose mission is frankly partisan.

I’ve been a member of the board of our local Jewish Federation for some time, have served as its treasurer for the last four years, and I had heard very little about the JCPA until recently, when I received several press releases (for example, this one). I didn’t find them particularly helpful, and I asked myself who appointed JCPA to speak for the Jewish community — and why we were paying them to do so. Certainly my organization wasn’t consulted!

Here’s an example of why this may not be a good idea. JCPA has created an “Israel Action Network” intended to combat attacks on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which has been allocated $6 million for three years from the Jewish Federations. Its director, Martin Raffel, has become embroiled in a controversy about which “Zionists of the Left” belong in the “big tent” and should be considered “allies.”

What about those ‘Zionists’ of the Left called J Street? Raffel wants to include them, because — while they do support boycotting some parts of Israel, they are opposed to boycotting all of it:

But what to think about Zionists on the political left who have demonstrated consistent concern for Israel’s security, support Israel’s inalienable right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, and consider Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people — but have decided to express their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government by refraining from participating in events taking place in the West Bank or purchasing goods produced there? I vigorously would argue that such actions are counter-productive in advancing the cause of peace based on two states that they espouse, a goal that we share. But this is not sufficient cause to place them outside the tent.

– Statement of Martin Raffel in JCPA press release

Of course I strongly disagree. An attack on Jewish presence beyond the Green Line is an attack on the legitimacy of Israel as expressed by the League of Nations Mandate. It is a rejection of UNSC resolution 242, which calls for “secure and recognized boundaries,” which are clearly not the 1949 armistice lines. It is an attempt to punish law-abiding Israeli citizens and to support the racist Arab position about who may live where. It is more than just counter-productive, it’s anti-Zionist.

Not only did Raffel accept J Street into his tent, he decided that a right-leaning Zionist group called “Z Street” belonged outside with the camels, probably because it is unabashedly opposed to withdrawing from the territories.

Here in the US we don’t have a Chief Rabbinate, and there are Jews of all political persuasions. It requires a certain amount of arrogance to call yourself “the representative voice of the organized Jewish community” or “American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues” as the Forward’s reporter was told.

Unfortunately, the outside world might believe that you really do speak for American Jews and act accordingly.

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One Response to “JCPA sticks its nose into harassment controversy”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I have been receiving the mostly inane messages of JCPA and wondering how they can be a group that represents Jewish and especially Israeli interests.
    How did we get to this situation , one in which the Jewish people is represented by those who do not know how to properly stand for its interests?