INTERVIEW: AMCHA Director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin on Pitzer
In context of the turmoil on Pitzer College’s campus regarding the faculty’s vote in favor of suspending the Haifa study abroad program and subsequently its proposal in front of Pitzer College’s College Council, the Claremont Independent had the opportunity to interview the director and co-founder of AMCHA Initiative, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. AMCHA is a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-semitism at institutions of higher education in America. We were able to have the opportunity to ask her several questions regarding the current events and to get perspective on the recent events from a major figure in the fight against anti-semitism on college campuses.
CI: Since AMCHA educates and combats antisemitism at college campuses, I’d like to ask, how common are cases of anti semitism on college campuses?
TRB: The frequency of antisemitism really depends on where—some campuses have more than others, and there’s different types: we have anti-semitic discourse and acts of aggression against actual Jewish students. The former is more common.
CI: Is there variation among states, e.g. do California colleges have more cases of anti semitism?
TRB: There are differences with respect to the nature of the anti-semitism.
There are two sources of action and rhetoric. There is the far-right white supremacist type, the hatred that comes from that language—Neo-Nazi language on campuses—but we haven’t seen many actions towards students on campus. We have more anti-semitism in language and rhetoric. For example, what we saw in Pittsburg, we don’t see that type of violence on campus; we see more social media posts, flyers, propaganda, and graffiti.
Another source is the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist ideology which we consider anti-semitism. Attacks on the Jewish state and rhetorical attacks on supporters of the Israeli state—these are the most up close and in your face actions that affect Jewish students, especially when anti-Israel thought spills into expression against Jewish students or supporters of Israel. This source is more common than the far-right white supremacist type action.
CI: Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-semitism?
TRB: For me, those are the same.
I don’t define anti-Zionism as a mere criticism; it’s a movement in opposition to the Jewish state—Zionism is the existence of a Jewish state. Anti-Zionism is a corollary to dismantle, weaken, and undermine the Jewish state. That is the definition adopted by the State Department and other organizations. It includes the goal to destroy the Jewish state, and half of the world’s Jews live there, and for religious Jews it is a fundamental part of their religion. The land of Israel is inextricable from the religion; you cannot separate religion from the land. Destruction of Israel necessarily hurts Jews.
There is a disingenuous portrayal of Israel and major double standards, arguments used to make Israel bad are not used to criticize any other country. There is hypocrisy against Israel and the portrayal of Israel as the biggest evil on the planet. You can substitute Israel for Jews and it works because Israel is the Jewish state. Even assuming that you can separate the two, and both positions can be held, if students are hurt, why does it matter what motivates the people hurting others? If ideology causes one to inflict hurt, does it matter what the specifics are if someone is being hurt? Shouldn’t the thing that matter be that people are being hurt? We cannot disagree on whether a student deserves protection from harm
CI: Is the Pitzer faculty voting in favor of suspending the college’s Israel study abroad one of the more severe cases?
TRB: This event is the most extreme expression of academic boycott. No other faculty has taken such an act. It is different from students passing BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] amendments; trustees can overrule students. We’re talking about symbolic gesture on behalf of students versus actual impact and meaningful action done by the faculty.
In general, the faculty have quite a bit of say in academic matters; the faculty have a major voice on campus in making things happen. We’ve been talking for years about harm done by the academic boycott against Israel, and how it hurts those in the US, hurts their own students and colleagues; doing this is unconscionable and immoral.
The leader of the faculty amendment is a major BDS figure in the US. He is holding colleagues and students hostage to his political agenda; and they are shutting down the opportunity to study in the only democracy in the Middle East…It brings personal politics onto campus and hurts their own students—it’s despicable.
CI: We’ve read AMCHA’s statement— has AMCHA been in direct contact with President Oliver?
TRB: We sent a couple letters to President Oliver. His statement made him a moral leader. I haven’t seen a statement that clear from a university president.
Presidents across the country should follow his lead. He can exercise his moral leadership even when he cannot overturn the faculty vote. Oliver had a well-reasoned, well-spoken speech.
The point is that you have to do what you need to do, don’t force others to take action—he is exercising his free speech. He exercised it to make a statement that is beautiful. We would love to see him sign the statement we sent out to 250 college presidents.
What happened is wrong and should not happen on this campus. These specific actions, and many others, are consistent with the academic boycott. University of Michigan professors are refusing to write letters of recommendation, some are trying to shut down Israeli scholars that try to speak on campus; this behavior is morally unacceptable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.
CI: If the Pitzer College Council does vote next semester to end its study abroad program, what actions do you think AMCHA and other Jewish organizations around the world might take?
TRB: I don’t think they have the last word. A decision like that would have to have input from the President and trustees. If the administration agree to support that, personally I think people should vote with their feet and shouldn’t send their kids there. Students should transfer and go elsewhere.
The goal is to convince faculty to see their mistake. The next-best outcome is to have someone have the sense to stop it at their level. The faculty are using students as political fodder. It is moral narcissism that they cannot see how wrong this is, but we aren’t there yet. I believe in due process, and I am a huge advocate of free speech and academic freedom. But it isn’t academic freedom to impose views on others; that’s an abuse, and indoctrination.
CI: What can Pitzer, and other colleges, do to combat anti-semitism more?
TRB: We believe that it’s fine to agree to disagree about what is anti-semitism. But we need to equally protect students’ rights to express who they are, whether it is ethnic, religious, or political identity. If all students are protected equally, Jewish students would be protected. Bigoted actions that occur and are politically motivated are not seen in the same light as identical actions that are ethnically motivated; they can be the same act but the different reasons behind the act cause others to judge them differently. This creates polarization and resentment, bigoted actions done on behalf of a political ideology should be treated equally as bigoted actions done with any other motivations.
I’m not talking about special treatment, we need to fight actions that stop any student from expressing themselves—one standard should be equitably enforced. This is key for a healthy campus climate, where students are equally protected and know that they are equally protected.
No student should feel that they don’t have freedom of expression and speech, and to have that they need to be protected from behavior that erodes freedom.
Photo: AMCHA Initiative
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