EXCLUSIVE: Jewish Group Takes California State University Trustees to Task Over Anti-Israel Professor
AMCHA Initiative, a national organization fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses, is taking the Board of Trustees of California State University to task over a CSU-Northridge mathematics professor’s use of the school’s name and resources to promote the boycott of Israel.
In what could be a precedent-setting move, AMCHA is asking the university’s trustees, meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday at their annual summit, to respond to specific California legislation that bars university employees from using school resources, in this case email and web hosting, to support a boycott.
In an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner, AMCHA co-founder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin said the group asked the university to respond to the core question in the law, which states that only with the Trustees expressed permission can university resources be used to support a boycott.
On Tuesday, the school’s general counsel responded to their request without answering AMCHA’s simple question, has CSU-Northridge mathematics professor Klein been granted their permission or not? Rossman-Benjamin says she will directly pose the question to the Board of Trustees, which includes several Jews, during Wednesday’s public comment period of the annual meeting.
AMCHA’s insistence on an answer comes as anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitism on California university campuses grows at a fevered pitch. Last year, support from Jewish groups and human rights organizations led the California State Assembly to unanimously approve a resolution recognizing that “student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel” are a form of campus anti-Semitism, but the resolution is being ignored at CSU-Northridge, where Jewish mathematics professor David Klein has been using the school’s internet server to host his personal webpage, promoting the economic, academic, and cultural boycott of Israel.
The professor’s faculty website links to a separate page he created, titled “Boycott Israel Resource Page,” and also hosted on the www.csun.edu server, as the faculty adviser for the CSUN’s Students for Justice in Palestine and for the CSUN Greens, of which he notes that the “U.S. Green party has endorsed BDS and the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.”
The “Boycott Israel Resource Page” lists internet links to petitions against Israel, news and opinion articles in support of boycotts, and affirms many of the typical canards and blatant inaccuracies or hate speech, as defined by major human rights organizations, to vilify Israel.
One obvious example, highlighted in bold near the top of the site by Klein, and noted byRossman-Benjamin, claims that Israel, whose central bureau of statistics says has a population of 8 million inhabitants, including 6 million Jews and 1.6 million Arabs, or 20% per cent of its population, “is the most racist state in the world at this time.”
Klein links the statement to an article published by Israel’s Ynet news site that includes a quote about racism in Israeli society from an Arab member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, who voiced concern over the tone of public debate by some politicians. But, Rossman-Benjamin points out, the fact that Israel has a 20% Arab population, including Arabs elected to parliament, must make it less racist than other countries, where Jews, for example are excluded entirely, such as Saudi Arabia, with 27 million people, including 5.5 million non-citizen foreigners, where all but 3% of the population is Muslim, or Egypt, with 82 million people, 91% Muslims and 9% Christians.
“This man teaches math, not history or middle east studies, or with any expertise about the issue, so this is purely political, personal, and has no bearing on academic freedom; this is complete abuse,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “Political activism, or what we should call political indoctrination, should not, in any way, be part of the academy.”
“I disagree with his use [of the university’s resources] to harm Israel, my people, just as I would if his abuse was intended to harm [U.S. President] Barack Obama, for example; this is the same principle, it is wrong, and we believe unlawful,” she said.
“Everybody knows that we have freedom of speech in the United States, that we should want to say something to express ourselves. And we are free to use our own Gmail accounts, for example, or pay for an inexpensive, privately-registered website to express our views, but Klein has chosen to use the university name and resources to promote his political causes, and that is not permitted.”
“I disagree with the whole concept of using the university’s public resources for political or personal resources,” Rossman-Benjamin said, “It’s wrong.”
Last month, Klein used his university email address to solicit supporters to back political candidates who support his personal beliefs, and his hand was slapped, Rossman-Benjamin said.
In an August 10 email, Klein promoted a U.S. congressional candidate in California who supports the boycott of Israel to the listserv of the Campaign to End Israel Apartheid – Southern California, in a clear violation of the rules against doing so. After receiving a letter from AMCHA, CSU-Northridge President Dianne Harrison responded that the school investigated the matter and took “appropriate action,” as Klein, the school’s lawyer explained, was in “violation of CSUN policy 500-10 (‘Use of Computing Resources’) and 500-11 (‘Unauthorized Email’), as well as Government Code section 8314 and various court decisions holding that public resources may not be used for political campaign activity,” though the university wouldn’t detail its response or sanction any further action because of the professor’s right to privacy in his personnel life.
“No person shall, without the permission of the Trustees of the California State University, use this name [California State University], or any abbreviation of it or any name of which these words are a part …to display, advertise, or announce this name publicly at, or in connection with, any…promotional activity of any kind which has for its purpose or any part of its purpose the support, endorsement, advancement…of…boycott.”
In a letter sent on Tuesday and reviewed by The Algemeiner, G. Andrew Jones, Interim General Counsel of California State University, responded sympathetically to AMCHA, but ignored the group’s question, as related California Education Code 89005.5 — did Professor Klein have the university permission to do so, or not?
“As President Harrison said in her statement, she personally does not agree with Dr. Klein’s positions and, particularly, the manner in which he has chosen to present them. She also stated that she does not believe that his approach promotes or advances constructive dialogue. I personally concur with both of those sentiments. However, while we do not endorse or support Dr. Klein’s views, the University’s review, conducted in consultation with the Office of General Counsel, determined that the content of the website does not violate California law and is constitutionally protected speech. We have also consulted with the Anti-Defamation League which agreed that the website’s contents were not anti-Semitic. Finally, the California Attorney General’s office also reviewed the website in response to an external complaint it had received and determined there was no evidence to support a finding of misuse of the CSU name or state resources.”
While the general counsel said he felt the response clarified the university’s position, Rossman-Benjamin said she would push the issue at the Wednesday annual meeting.
“The general counsel entirely ignored the specific question over the law we asked the trustees to respond to,” she said. “I don’t know how this site would not be considered anti-Semitic by the ADL, or any other group, but our question remains to be answered. If they gave him permission to use the site, then the university should be held accountable, and it should answer to the Jewish community, which would find this intolerable, an outrage, and would use our consumer powers to keep kids away from their school,” she said, noting that AMCHA has received email copies of more than 100 angry letters from its supporters, encouraging the university’s trustees to come out against Klein.
“Or, if the university did not give him permission, then Klein used the university name in connection with the support of a boycott, in violation of the California Education Code 89005.5 law, and could be guilty of a misdemeanor, at least — either way, the university should answer us, one way or the other,” Rossman-Benjamin said.
She said their goal is to hold the university accountable for its actions, or inaction, and noted that of its past three presidents, two were Jewish, and one, provost and interim president Harry Hellenbrand, actually came out in support of Klein, putting his name to a petition condemning Israel, writing a letter to the school’s faculty (on university email), condemning those who objected to his website, and inviting well-known anti-Israel authors, including Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappe, to speak to students on campus.
Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew lecturer at University of California-Santa Cruz, said Klein, who did not respond to The Algemeiner’s telephone or email messages asking for comment, has attacked her personally in the blogosphere, though they have never met. What drew her involvement into the fray was an event at her own campus, in 2007, where she first encountered academic anti-Semitism that she says is fueling the vilification of Israel on a global level.
“There was a conference, now just six years ago, which is an amazingly short time, when five academics, including two real superstars of their fields, were invited to campus for a lecture called, ‘An Alternative History In and Beyond Zionism,'” she said.
“This was not a fringe event, but co-sponsored by eight faculty departments, and I listened to the most racist and Nazi claims I had ever heard in my life, with seminars on ‘How to Wage a Successful Divestment Campaign on Your Campus’ and lectures calling for the elimination of the Jewish state. And nobody batted an eye.”
“Within a few years, that conference has replicated itself dozens of times, and things that were once considered completely outrageous, and really beyond the pale, are now acceptable,” she said.
“We founded AMCHA, which means ‘your people’ in Hebrew, as university teachers who understand the source of the problem is coming from the academy, and the key to resolving it is to understand who holds the power on campus, the top administrators. We know how to pinpoint who we address to get things done, the leaders, the regents, the trustees, though they have every reason not to listen, we’re applying public pressure from the Jewish community, the parents who send children to study at these schools, alumni who donate to the schools, taxpayers who fund the schools, to force them to act.”
“They need to feel the pressure, and as a community we’ve been very remiss at expressing the outrage,” she said. “We’re reticent, and, by and large, our major Jewish organizations are not leading the charge, they just simply are not. There’s a real failure of leadership, a vacuum, and we stepped forward to help, to identify, and pinpoint and focus on these problems facing Jews, here in California, and around the world.”
Rossman-Benjamin called on all Jews to visit Klein’s website, judge it for themselves, and “use their voices to bring about change.”