The Muslim Students Association of the University of California at Santa Cruz (MSA-UCSC) describes itself as an organization “dedicated to spreading truth and awareness about the real, peaceable message of Islam, dissolving stereotypes, overcoming oppression, and strengthening the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Toward these ends, MSA-UCSC hosts numerous apparently innocuous social and educational events – open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike – during the course of each academic year. In 2010-11, for instance, these affairs included a pumpkin carving, a Ramadan dinner, a Martin Luther King Day social, a morning prayer service at the beach, a game night, a pizza-and-dessert social, a hike, an ice-cream social, an Interactive Interfaith Panel, and an “Islam Awareness Week.”
But some MSA-UCSC gatherings are highly charged with political and anti-Semitic themes. In March 2006, for example, the organization collaborated with the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to organize “Palestine Awareness Week” (PAW). The most noteworthy guest speaker during PAW was Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, a notorious anti-Semite who derided “bad Jews” and “Zionists” for harboring a “racist ideology … rooted in white supremacy, in imperialism and colonialism.” Moreover, Malik-Ali identified Great Britain, the United States, and “the apartheid state of Israel” as members of an international “axis of evil.”
Two years later, MSA-UCSC’s Palestine Awareness Week featured speeches by California State University political science professor As’ad Abu Khalil (a self-identified anti-Zionist) and cartoonist Khalil Bendib, an anti-Semite known for portraying Israelis as modern-day Nazis, promoting blood libel accusations and Jewish conspiracy theories, and trivializing the Holocaust).
Such presentations have helped create what many Jewish students at UCSC – which ranks among the top American campuses in terms of Jewish student enrollment – perceive to be an environment that is hostile to them. To bring attention to this problem, UCSC lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin in June 2009 filed a complaint alleging that the university had taken inadequate measures to eliminate the harassment and intimidation of Jewish students on campus. According to the complaint, some campus events went “beyond legitimate criticism of Israel” and used rhetoric that “demonizes Israel, compares Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls for dismantling of the Jewish state and holds Israel to an impossible double standard.” After two years of deliberation, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a major investigation into Rossman-Benjamin’s charges regarding anti-Semitism at UCSC.