By: Morton A. Klein
March 19, 2010

ZOA Urges U.S. Education Department To Protect Jewish Students From Harassment Under Federal Law

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), together with 12 other Jewish organizations, sent a letter on March 16, 2010, to Arne Duncan, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, urging him to ensure that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) protects Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VI requires that federal funding recipients –which would include all public and most private colleges and universities – ensure that their programs and activities are free from discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin.”  (To read the letter, click here.)


 


The letter to Secretary Duncan, initially drafted by the ZOA, notes that Jewish students had previously been protected under Title VI.  When OCR clarified its policy for enforcing the law in the fall of 2004, it announced that it would assert jurisdiction over claims alleging the harassment of Jewish students, consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent that had interpreted civil rights statutes analogous to Title VI.  Concluding that Title VI’s broad protections against racial and ethnic discrimination should encompass anti-Jewish incidents, OCR declared that it “cannot turn its back on victims of anti-Semitism on the grounds that Jewish heritage may include both religious and ethnic characteristics.” 


 


In the letter, the ZOA and the other co-signers informed Secretary Duncan that anti-Semitism remains a problem on U.S. campuses and that, at times, it is manifested by anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment that crosses the line into anti-Semitism.  When such speech and conduct threatens, harasses or intimidates Jewish students to the point that their ability to participate in and benefit from their college experience is impaired, then colleges and universities should be legally obligated to remedy the problem.  The letter refers to the statement by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which noted in a 2006 report on campus anti-Semitism that “[a]nti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism.”


 


The letter urges Secretary Duncan to clarify that OCR “has clear authority to investigate and remedy instances of harassment and intimidation against Jewish students.”  It also asks the Secretary to “issue a directive that OCR will vigorously enforce the law to ensure that Jewish students are protected against such anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination.”


 


Members of the U.S. Senate and House have already expressed their concern to Secretary Duncan about whether OCR is enforcing Title VI to protect Jewish students.  In February 2010, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), a Member of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, asked Secretary Duncan to “verify that the OCR interprets Title VI to protect to [sic] Jewish students from anti-Semitic discrimination,” and to “confirm that the OCR actively enforces the provisions of Title VI against colleges and universities that allow anti-Semitic discrimination.”  In a handwritten note, Senator Specter added, “I hope we can agree the statute [Title VI] covers Jewish students without additional legislation.”


 


Likewise, in May 2009, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) wrote to Secretary Duncan, urging him “to conclude that Title VI protects students against anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation, and discrimination,” based on federal court decisions interpreting civil rights laws and on prior policy statements by OCR.  Congressman Sherman referred to the ZOA’s Title VI action on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine, alleging that the university had failed to rectify years of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination.  Congressman Sherman expressed to Secretary Duncan that OCR’s conclusion in the case – that it lacked jurisdiction over many of the allegations of the ZOA’s complaint – “is inconsistent with its prior policy statements.”    


   


The 12 other organizations that joined the ZOA in signing the letter are the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International; Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Scholars for  Peace in the Middle East, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.


 


The ZOA’s National President, Morton A. Klein, and the Director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., said, “We have been concerned about the lack of legal protection for Jewish students ever since the Office for Civil Rights dismissed the ZOA’s Title VI action on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine.  When we filed that landmark complaint in 2004, OCR had clarified that Title VI would protect Jewish students.  Soon after it began investigating the ZOA’s complaint, OCR came under new leadership and retreated from this much-needed policy.  The agency began to view Jews as strictly a religious group, and not also an ethnic or national origin group entitled to the protections of Title VI.  Despite the substantial evidence that we submitted of years of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation at UCI that the university failed to rectify, OCR dismissed the ZOA’s complaint.  It is clear from the decision that OCR was not interpreting Title VI as protecting Jewish students.


 


“We are pleased that 12 other Jewish groups joined us in this effort to ensure that the Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights restore protection under Title VI for Jewish students.  The letter to Secretary Duncan sends a strong message that many Jewish groups are concerned about the anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing unfortunately plaguing campuses around the country, and about the harmful impact this is having on Jewish students.  These students need the same legal recourse available to other ethnic and racial minorities who face harassment, intimidation or discrimination on their campuses.  Title VI should be there to protect them.”