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AMCHA Co-Founders Send Letter to California State Assembly Members about HR 35 and California Scholars for Academic Freedom

From: Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
October 17, 2012 
California State Assembly Members
University of California, California State University, and California Jewish Community Leaders

HR 35 and the California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Dear California State Assembly Members,

As faculty members at the University of California, who, for the last several years, have been documenting the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry on university campuses across the state, we would like to thank you for your courageous and important resolution condemning anti-Semitism on California campuses and offering substantive recommendations for combating it (House Resolution 35).

We also write to express our serious concern about an open letter sent to you by a group of 35 California university faculty calling themselves the California Scholars for Academic Freedom (CS4AF), who oppose HR 35 “in the strongest possible terms”  and ask you to publicly renounce and rescind it. These professors allege that HR 35 “poses a clear threat to academic freedom” by conflating “criticism of Israel or its policies with anti-Semitism.”   They argue that calling Israel a “racist” or “apartheid” state, accusing Israel of “crimes against humanity” and promoting “boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns” against Israel are all acts of legitimate political criticism and acceptable classroom discourse, despite the fact that these are all examples of anti-Semitism according to the definition of anti-Semitism established by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) and adopted by the European Union, Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S. State Department.  Moreover, in an astonishing perversion of logic and decency, these 35 professors claim: “HR-35 itself is fundamentally anti-semitic because it associates and conflates with Judaism an unending list of well-documented racist policies and crimes against humanity committed by the state of Israel…this resolution was written to serve the propaganda aims of the government of Israel at the expense of constitutionally protected rights of California residents.”

We believe that it is important for you to understand who the members of California Scholars for Academic Freedom are, not only because it will help you to see the disingenuousness of their claims, but also because their letter is an excellent example of the very problem of anti-Jewish bigotry confronting Jewish students on California campuses, which you so forthrightly address in HR 35.

Although CS4AF describes itself as a group of academics whose primary goal is to protect California scholars from violations of academic freedom, this is simply not the case. CS4AF was founded in 2008 by four California academics —  Sondra Hale (UCLA), Jess Ghannam (UCSF), Sherna Berger Gluck (CSU Long Beach) and Rabab Abdulhadi (SFSU) — all of whom were co-founders and organizers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  Not suprisingly, CS4AF’s website lists the “Academic and Cultural Boycott Campaign” as the top category of interest, making it clear that the primary concern of this organization is not the protection of academic freedom, but rather the protection of academics who wish to exploit the privilege of academic freedom in order to promote at their respective universities an academic boycott of Israel, which, ironically, has itself been declared a violation of academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors.

Given CS4AF’s direct association with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, it is also not surprising that in their letter to you the CS4AF signatories praise boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) campaigns against Israel and angrily deny that these campaigns are anti-Semitic.  This claim, too, could not be further from the truth.

Like virtually all anti-Israel BDS campaigns within the last several years, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) was established in response to the Palestinian political call to join the BDS movement against Israel.  That call was issued in 2005, and its purpose was to facilitate the elimination of the Jewish state. The first and primary signatory of the Palestinian BDS Call was the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, was founded by Yaser Arafat at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 for the purpose of “organizing a unified effort among major Palestinian factions to oppose Israel and coordinate terror attacks.” The Council includes among its constituent organizations Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and PFLP – General Command, all three of which are on the U.S. Department of State’s list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations and are committed to the elimination of the Jewish state through violent means.  Most of the founders of the BDS campaigns which were established in response to the Palestinian BDS Call, including many of the founders of USACBI, have publicly expressed their goal of using BDS as a non-violent means of weakening the Jewish state and aiding in its elimination. Some BDS campaign founders have even condoned terrorism against Israel and the murder of Jews.

Please understand that the vast majority of Jews worldwide, including many Jewish students, fear that the elimination of the Jewish state could lead to a second Holocaust and see efforts to harm or eliminate Israel as an assault against all Jews.

Here are some things you should know about the 35 California faculty members who signed the open letter to you:

  • Almost all of the signatories have publicly supported some BDS efforts, and many have signed statements, written articles, or given talks calling for the elimination of the Jewish state.
  • More than half of the signatories have endorsed USACBI, and five are organizers and founders of that campaign: David Klein (CSU Northridge), Rabab Abdulhadi (SFSU), Manzar Foroohar (Cal Poly SLO), Jess Ghannam (UC San Francisco), and Edie Pistolesi (CSU Northridge).
  • 22 of the signatories also signed petitions to shut down the Israel Abroad Program at their respective universities: 9 of the signatories signed an open letter to CSU Chancellor Reed, calling Israel a “racist” and “apartheid” state and demanding that Chancellor Reed rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program, and 13 of the signatories signed a similar letter to UC President Yudof demanding that he rescind the UC Israel Abroad program.
  • 11 of the signatories signed an open letter to the organizers of the 2010 conference of the International Society of Iranian Studies in Los Angeles demanding that an Israeli scholar be ejected from the conference, in solidarity with the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
  • 8 of the signatories signed an open letter supporting a resolution of the UC Berkeley student government to divest funds from companies doing business with Israel.

It is important to point out that we fully support the First Amendment rights of faculty to express their political views in the public domain, even views that are blatantly anti-Semitic. Nor are we challenging the right of these CS4AF professors to engage in any of the activities described above.  However, we believe that when a professor hides behind the mantle of academic freedom in order to use his or her classroom or university/public resources to promote a political and personal hatred of the Jewish state and its supporters or to engage in activism against Israel, it is an appalling and egregious abuse of academic freedom that has extremely harmful effects on Jewish students and in many if not all cases is a violation of university policy, state and federal law and the public trust. 

Below we document the extent to which some of the CS4AF signatories have misused their university’s name and resources to promote their political hatred of the Jewish state and efforts to harm it:

A. Several of the CS4AF signatories have directed Middle East or Near East Studies programs or teach courses on the Middle East on their respective campuses and have used their university positions and considerable university, state and federal resources to promote a political agenda which demonizes Israel and its supporters and even encourages anti-Israel activism. For example:

  • Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi directs the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Program (AMED) in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.  She is also on the Organizing Committee of USACBI.  Since 2007, when Abdulhadi began directing the AMED program, she has used her position and university resources to mount and co-sponsor events that demonize and delegitimize Israel and call for its elimination.  For example, in November 2009, AMED co-sponsored a talk and panel discussion presented by the General Union of Palestine Students entitled “BDS: A Quest for Justice, Human Rights and Peace.” The keynote speaker of the event was Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and an outspoken advocate for the elimination of the Jewish state, which he has argued will be the ultimate outcome of a successful BDS campaign. In his talk, Barghouti compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and discussed the importance of implementing boycott and divestment campaigns against the Jewish state, saying: “our South African moment has arrived.”  Abdulhadi also spoke at the event, focusing her talk on creating a successful movement for a “free Palestine” and urging Palestinians who live in the U.S. to use their influence to change American political views on Israel. Dr. Kenneth Monteiro, Dean of the SFSU College of Ethnic Studies, gave the welcoming address at the event, which was co-sponsored by 18 other student and community-based organizations, most of them affiliated with the BDS movement.
  • Manzar Foroohar is a history professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who teaches classes on the Middle East. She is also on the Organizing Committee of USACBI, the Coordinating Committee of the Israel Divestment Campaign, endorsed a petition to have an Israeli scholar ejected from an academic conference in Los Angeles in solidarity with the academic boycott of Israel, and signed the petition calling Israel an “apartheid” and “racist” state and demanding that Chancellor Reed rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program. Since at least 2003, Professor Foroohar has used her faculty position, departmental name and university funds to bring a number of speakers to Cal Poly, all of them virulently anti-Israel, to lecture in her History classes and at events that are sponsored by the History Department and the College of Liberal Arts. For instance, in a series of lectures that Foroohar organized for her history class about the crisis of the Middle East and advertised to the public, all 7 speakers were prominent anti-Zionists who support the boycott of Israel and are in favor of the elimination of the Jewish state.  Several of Foroohar’s students have complained about their discomfort at the extreme anti-Israel bias of her lectures and assigned readings.  One student wrote: “She is extremely one-sided. I am a Jewish student, and I felt extremely uncomfortable during her discussions about the middle-east, as she presented all of the course material in ways that seemed to attack Israel.” Another student wrote: “She is also rabidly anti-Israel…Midway through the quarter, I could not take it any more and withdrew from the class.”
  • Suad Joseph is the founding director of the Middle East/South Asia Studies program (ME/SA) at UC Davis, which has received major funding from the U.S. Department of Education.  Joseph has also endorsed USACBI, signed a petition to have an Israeli scholar ejected from an academic conference in Los Angeles in solidarity with the academic boycott of Israel, signed an open letter challenging Israeli academics opposed to international boycott efforts, supported a resolution of the UC Berkeley student government to divest funds from companies doing business with Israel, and signed a petition to shut down the UC Israel Abroad program. Last year, under her chairmanship, ME/SA sponsored or endorsed at least three events which demonized the Jewish state, including a virulently anti-Israel film series  presented by the Davis Committee for Palestinian Rights, a local community organization that promotes the boycott of Israeli products and participates in the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign.  The current ME/SA director at UC Davis, Baki Tezcan, is also a CS4AF signatory.
  • Vida Samiian is Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and founder and director of the Middle East Studies program at CSU Fresno, which was originally funded by a $180,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education given to the College of Arts and Humanities.  Samiian has also endorsed USACBI, helped organize and promote the Israel Divestment Campaign’s efforts to demand that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System divest from Israel, endorsed a petition and picketed to have an Israeli scholar ejected from an academic conference in Los Angeles in solidarity with the academic boycott of Israel, and signed the petition calling Israel an “apartheid” and “racist” state and demanding that Chancellor Reed rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program.  Samiian has used both her administrative office — first as Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and then as Dean — and her faculty position and university funds to organize and promote events that presented only one, virulently anti-Israel perspective. For example, in November 2003 Samiian organized Palestine Day, a 7-hour event that included the screening of “Gaza Strip” and “Jenin, Jenin,” two virulently anti-Israel films, one of which falsely accuses Israel of massacring Palestinians, and featured five anti-Zionist speakers, all of whom support the boycott of Israel.  The speakers portrayed Israel as a brutal and illegitimate state, accusing it of “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” worse than in South Africa.  A keynote talk by Saleh Abdul Jawad accused Israel of crimes worse than genocide and called for the dismantling of the Jewish state and the trying of its leaders for Nazi-like war crimes. Since 2008, the Middle East Studies program which Samiian oversees has organized annual Middle East Studies conferences which have included talks and panels that seek to demonize and delegitimize Israel and encourage anti-Israel activism.  For example in the Third Annual Conference on Middle East Studies, held at CSU Fresno in October 2010, one panel devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contained two talks justifying and promoting the boycott of Israel.
  • Susan Slyomovics is director of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES).  She has also endorsed the campaign to force the two largest state pension funds to divest from Israel, signed an anti-Israel divestment petition at Harvard/MIT, sat on the advisory board of Faculty for Israel-Palestinian Peace, an organization which supports anti-Israel divestment initiatives including the divestment resolution considered by the UC Berkeley student senate, and signed a petition to shut down the UC Israel Abroad program.  CNES has been awarded millions of dollars by the U.S. Department of Education as a Title VI National Resource Center. Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires that all federally subsidized programs “reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views.”  However, over the last few years CNES has sponsored and funded more than two dozen talks, symposia, and films that have focused or touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost every one from an unabashedly anti-Israel perspective. In  addition, most of the guest speakers at these CNES events have been individuals who have gone on record calling for the boycott or sanction of Israel, or for the elimination of the Jewish state. For example, three weeks ago CNES co-sponsored and funded a panel discussion at the Levantine Center entitled “What Happens After Zionism?”. The panel consisted of three well-known anti-Zionists who support BDS and call for the elimination of the Jewish state: UCLA English professor Saree Makdisi, journalist Anthony Loewenstein, and Marcy Newman, author of a recently published book on how high school teachers can integrate anti-Israel activism, including BDS, into their curricula. The panel was moderated by UC Irvine History professor Mark LeVine, a signatory of the CS4AF letter who also supports BDS. The panelists and moderator not only denied the legitimacy of Zionism and called for the elimination of the Jewish state, they also promoted activism against Israel, particularly BDS, and encouraged audience members to sign an anti-Israel divestment petition that was handed out at the event.

B. More than half of the CS4AF signatories have no scholarly background in the Middle East, Israel or Zionism, but are rather in fields such as mathematics, art, communications, rhetoric, literature, Italian Studies and French.  Nevertheless, these signatories assert that the principle of academic freedom allows them to use their classrooms and university/state resources to promote their personal hatred of the Jewish state and efforts to harm it, and a number of them have done just that, including the following:

  • David Delgado Shorter is a professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA.  He has also endorsed USACBI, and supported a resolution of the UC Berkeley student government to divest funds from companies doing business with Israel. For at least two years, Shorter has been using his official UCLA class website for the purpose of promoting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.  Prominently displayed on the homepage of his class on “Tribal Worldviews,”  beneath icons labeled “Announcements” and “Discussion Forum,” is an icon labeled “Boycotting Israel,” which links to an article entitled “Educators can’t stay silent about Israel apartheid” calling for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel “in the context of a broader call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.” A subsequent page of Shorter’s class website, entitled “Resources II: Important Links,” contains links to several articles that seek to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state, as well as an entry labeled “US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel,” which links to the home page of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
  • Lisa Rofel is a professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, whose areas of expertise are China and feminist anthropology.  Rofel is also a member of the International Anti-Zionist Network, an organization which supports anti-Israel BDS campaigns and calls for the dismantling of the Jewish state, and she has endorsed USACBI and signed a petition to shut down the UC Israel Abroad program. In 2007, Rofel organized and received thousands of dollars of university funding for an academic conference at UCSC entitled “Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism.”  The five speakers at the conference were, like Rofel herself, all self-identified Jewish anti-Zionists with no scholarly expertise in the areas of Middle East studies, Israel or Zionism, who had previously engaged in political activism against Israel. Two of the speakers – CS4AF signatory Judith Butler (UC Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric) and David Theo Goldberg (UC Irvine, Department of Comparative Literature and Director of the UC Institute for Humanities Research) — are distinguished UC faculty. The five talks were replete with gross misrepresentations of the facts, selected half-truths and numerous unsubstantiated claims, such as: Zionism is racism; Israel is an apartheid state; Israel commits heinous crimes against humanity, including genocide and ethnic cleansing; Israel’s behavior is comparable to Nazi Germany; Jews exaggerate the Holocaust as a tool of Zionist propaganda; and Israel should be dismantled as a Jewish state. The final talk justified and promoted anti-Israel divestment campaigns as a way of hastening the elimination of the Jewish state. Eight UCSC departments and research units co-sponsored the conference, with each contributing at least $500 towards the event.
  • David Klein is a professor of Mathematics at CSU Northridge. He is also the primary author of the CS4AF letter to you, and was similarly responsible for writing and gathering signatures on the petition calling Israel an “apartheid” and “racist” state and demanding that Chancellor Reed rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program, which Klein posted on the CSUN website.  (More than 80 CSU faculty and administrators signed Klein’s petition, including several deans and CSUN Provost Harry Hellenbrand).  In a radio interview which Klein gave on KPFK, a public radio station in Southern California, he claimed that his petition to rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program “set a precedent for objecting to these programs, and therefore for supporting the world-wide BDS program, and the academic and cultural boycott of Israel component of it in particular.” Klein is also on the Organizing Committee of USACBI, and he supported a resolution of the UC Berkeley student government to divest funds from companies doing business with Israel. Over the last several years, with the consent and, at times, the collusion of CSUN administrators, Klein has used the name and resources of CSUN and his university employment to engage in anti-Israel advocacy and activism.  For example:
    • Despite the fact that he is a Mathematics professor, in 2007 David Klein initiated a campaign to have CSUN hire Norman Finkelstein, a well-known, virulently anti-Israel political scientist, who had just been denied tenure at DePaul University.  Provost Harold Hellenbrand, whose academic background is in literature, collaborated with Klein to advocate for Finkelstein’s hire. According to Klein’s posting about the Finkelstein affair on the University server, Hellenbrand invited Finkelstein to give a series of lectures at CSUN over a five-day visit, in order to “kindle greater interest among faculty and lead to an appointment.” Ironically, after several thousand dollars of university funds had been spent to bring Finkelstein to CSUN in order to kindle interest in hiring him, the Political Science Department “seemed to want to have nothing to do with him,” and Finkelstein was not ultimately hired.
    • David Klein was also unable to solicit the support of his colleagues to co-sponsor a talk in February 2012 by Ilan Pappe, an anti-Zionist Israeli Jew who has called for the dismantling of the Jewish state and is a leader in the BDS movement. Nevertheless, Klein organized and promoted Pappe’s talk at CSUN with approximately $4,000 authorized by then CSUN Interim President Harry Hellenbrand, including university funding for a lunch with Pappe and several guests not affiliated with the university, who are well-known anti-Israel activists associated with the Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink, two organizations that promote BDS.
    • For more than three years David Klein has used the CSUN web server to host his web page promoting the economic, academic, and cultural boycott of Israel and containing a litany of false, inflammatory statements and photographs intended to incite hatred against the Jewish state and its supporters.  Many of Klein’’s statements on his Boycott Israel webpage “meet the U. S. Department of State’’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, including the statement that “Israel is the most racist country in the world.”  In addition, the pictures of mutilated dead babies that appear on the page, with the clear implication that Israeli soldiers have murdered them, is a classic example of the medieval anti-Semitic “blood libel”, i.e. that Jews kill non-Jewish children for evil purposes.  Klein has also included on his CSUN website links to two defamatory articles about one of us (Tammi Rossman-Benjamin), in which Rossman-Benjamin is accused of being a fascist, a Nazi-sympathizer, and a “junk academic.”
    • A former CSUN student who hosts her own blog has written that David Klein encouraged her to engage in anti-Israel activism on the CSUN campus in the following ways: by urging her “to go after the Student Exchange building, since they send an awful lot of CSUN students to Israel as part of their program”; by encouraging her to vandalize “a giant display inside of Sierra Hall advertising the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip”; and by suggesting that she send his [Klein’s] article about Norman Finkelstein to the student who ran the pro-Israel group on campus, “just for shits and giggles.”

When Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state are in a class or attend a university-sponsored talk or conference where their professors and other scholars unabashedly promote their hatred of Israel and call for harming or dismantling it, these students feel personally targeted and threatened.  Furthermore, when administrators ignore university policy and state law prohibiting the use of the university’s name and resources for political purposes and turn a blind eye to professors who abuse the privilege of academic freedom to engage in political advocacy and activism against the Jewish state, or even on occasion engage in such behavior themselves, Jewish students rightly perceive their college or university to be anti-Semitic.

Once again, we applaud you for acknowledging and condemning anti-Semitism on California campuses, and for recommending that university administrators ensure that no public resources are used to promote anti-Semitic activity.  We believe that HR 35 could not be more timely or important.

You will be receiving a copy of this letter by U.S. mail.


Leila Beckwith
Professor Emeritus, University of California at Los Angeles
Co-founder the AMCHA Initiative

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Lecturer, University of California at Santa Cruz
Co-founder the AMCHA Initiative

UC Regents
UC President Mark Yudof
UC Chancellors
UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion
UC Interim Diversity Coordinator Jesse Bernal
CSU Board of Trustees
CSU Chancellor Charles Reed
CSU Presidents
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
California Jewish community leaders


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