After a six-year campaign, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will now be interpreted and enforced to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination. Title VI requires that federally funded schools ensure that their programs and activities are free from discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin.” If a school violates Title VI, it can lose its federal funding. In a letter dated October 26, 2010, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, announced that “anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI. While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, groups [such as Jews] that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith.”
The Education Department’s letter makes clear that disciplining the perpetrators of anti-Semitic bigotry may not be enough to rectify a hostile environment for Jewish students; other remedial steps could include “publicly labeling the incidents as anti-Semitic,” and educating teachers and students about the history and dangers of anti-Semitism and recognizing when anti-Semitism occurs. In addition, the Education Department’s letter clarifies that schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent its recurrence.”
In October 2004, the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint with OCR on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine. The complaint alleged that students had been subjected to years of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination that the university knew about but failed to redress. OCR decided that the ZOA’s complaint should be investigated, rendering it the first case of anti-Semitism that OCR ever agreed to investigate under Title VI. But shortly after the investigation began, new leadership came on board at OCR, which resulted in a change in the way that the agency interpreted Title VI. OCR decided that Jews were strictly a religious group and not also an ethnic that would be entitled to the protections of Title VI. As a result, after the case was pending at OCR for approximately three years (despite the fact that cases are typically resolved in six months), the agency dismissed the ZOA’s case against UC Irvine, primarily on the basis that OCR lacked jurisdiction over many of the allegations of the complaint.
The ZOA appealed OCR’s decision, and, after two and a half years, the appeal is still pending. Since the decision, which was issued in 2007, the ZOA has been working hard to ensure that Jewish students get the protections they need and deserve, and that have been afforded to other ethnic and racial groups since Title VI was enacted in 1964. The ZOA has worked closely with members of Congress, such as Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), alerting them to the problems that Jewish students have been facing and their need for legal protection. The ZOA was one of three witnesses to testify at a briefing on campus anti-Semitism, which was convened by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and which led to landmark conclusions that called on the Education Department to vigorously enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students. The ZOA also educated the public in op-eds, letters, ads petitions, and speeches at a variety of venues. In addition, the ZOA drafted a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging him to enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism at their schools. The letter to Secretary Duncan was ultimately signed by other Jewish groups. In June 2010, the ZOA was invited by U.S. Congressman Ron Klein, co-chair of the Congressional Task Force Against Anti-Semitism, to brief members of Congress and their staff on anti-Semitic harassment on U.S. college campuses, and the federal government’s role in addressing these incidents. The briefing led to letters from dozens of members of Congress to Secretary Duncan, urging the Education Department to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI.
Morton A. Klein, ZOA’s National President, and Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., Director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, praised Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Ali for adopting the much-needed policy protecting Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI, and also lauded the efforts of Congressman Sherman and Senator Specter in achieving this result: “After years of advocating that Jewish students be protected under Title VI, the ZOA is enormously gratified that the Department has put this protection in place. We were repeatedly told that this was a losing battle, but the ZOA never gave up. Now, when Jewish students are being harassed or intimidated, or facing a hostile anti-Semitic school environment, their schools will no longer be able to ignore the problem, or make token efforts to redress it. There will now be financial and other consequences under federal law if colleges and universities do not respond to end the anti-Semitic harassment and prevent it from recurring. Congressman Brad Sherman and Senator Arlen Specter immediately appreciated the scope of the problem when the ZOA brought it to them in 2007, and we thank them for all their efforts to make sure that Jewish students are protected from anti-Semitic hostility at their schools.
“The ZOA also thanks Kenneth L. Marcus, the Director of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research and a visiting professor at CUNY’s Baruch College, for working so hard with us to achieve this historic result. Like the ZOA, Mr. Marcus has made it his mission to ensure legal protections that Jewish students sorely need.
“For a long time, many Jewish groups did not join us in fighting for this goal and in fact stood in the way of achieving it. Finally, other Jewish groups joined with the ZOA in urging the Education Secretary to ensure that Jewish students are protected under Title VI, and we thank them for their help.
“Our children and grandchildren should never be confronted with anti-Semitic bigotry at their schools. But if they are, they now can rest assured that they have legal recourse. OCR is obligated to respond to the problem, and their schools are obligated to fix the hostile environment so that Jewish students can get their education in a safe environment that is conducive to learning.
“The ZOA will continue to advocate for students against anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel at schools and on college campuses, and to provide students with the tools they need to respond to the bigotry. We thank the many students who have courageously come forward over the past several years, at UC Irvine and elsewhere, and stood with the ZOA to proclaim that campus anti-Semitism is intolerable and unacceptable. They’ve helped us achieve this legal victory which will maximize their ability to learn and to achieve their full potential.”