By: Morton A. Klein
April 27, 2011

Why Undermine An Important New Legal Tool To Help Jewish Students? ZOA Responds To Statement By AJ Committee’s Kenneth Stern And AAUP’s Cary Nelson

From:  Morton A. Klein, National President, Zionist Organization of America, and


            Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., Director, ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice


 


 


Dear Mr. Stern and Mr. Nelson:


We were troubled to read your statement on campus anti-Semitism that was posted last week on the Web site of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  You made the crucial point that bigotry must be dealt with seriously, because it harms its victims, and can cause students to become afraid to be themselves and say what they think.  But then you went on to criticize and undermine legitimate legal efforts that have been undertaken to combat the bigotry and remedy the serious harm to Jewish students, and you did so by distorting and misrepresenting what these efforts are seeking to achieve.


 


As you noted, last October, the U.S. Department of Education issued a policy letter clarifying that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which requires that federally funded schools ensure that their programs and activities are free from racial and ethnic discrimination – would now be interpreted and enforced to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation.  In other words, when Jewish students are being subjected to a hostile anti-Semitic campus environment that causes them harm – such as making them afraid for their physical safety, afraid to wear anything that shows they’re Jewish and support the State of Israel, or afraid to take certain classes that viciously and unfairly attack Israel – and their colleges and universities know about the problem but fail to address it, Jewish students will now have the same legal tool to eliminate the hostile environment that’s been available to other ethnic and racial groups, including Hispanics and African Americans, for more than 40 years. 


 


Why you would criticize the availability of this important new legal tool is a mystery and indeed, makes no sense.  You argue that a few individual anti-Israel remarks don’t create a hostile environment actionable under Title VI.  But no one has suggested otherwise.  The anti-Semitic hostility at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Rutgers University – the three schools you refer to – goes well beyond a speech here and there that some might find offensive or politically incorrect.  At all three schools, the anti-Semitic hostility has been severe, persistent and pervasive, with serious harmful effects, including making students afraid for their physical safety and afraid to show and say that they’re Jewish and support Israel, which is exactly what Title VI is supposed to address.


 


You also claim that Title VI is wrongly being used to try to censor or silence speech that is critical of Israel.  That claim is false.  None of the efforts to correct the problems at the three schools is seeking to censor or suppress anyone’s speech.


 


The case against UC Berkeley involves the unprovoked physical assault of a Jewish student.  She was at a pro-Israel rally holding a sign that said “Israel Wants Peace,” when she was rammed from behind with a full shopping cart.  Her complaint – in which Title VI plays a relatively small part – alleges that her assailant had a history of incitement and intimidation against Jewish students, which the university knew about but failed to address.


 


Likewise, the case against UC Santa Cruz has nothing to do with censoring or suppressing criticism of Israel.  That case alleges that professors and academic departments at UC Santa Cruz are not only sponsoring and funding anti-Israel events and programs that cross the line into anti-Semitism, but also are actively discouraging students from learning about other perspectives that are not anti-Israel.  One professor went so far as to tear down flyers announcing an event about Palestinian children being trained as suicide bombers.  Although this professor’s vandalism violated university rules, the Santa Cruz administration saw nothing wrong with her conduct.  The hostile environment at Santa Cruz has harmed students in exactly the way that you both agree must be treated with the utmost seriousness:  Jewish students’ academic freedom has been violated, and students are afraid to be who they are and say what they believe in.  One student left a class in tears after she presented her research paper on the topic of Zionism; she was condemned by other students and called a Nazi, and yet her professor stayed silent throughout the entire verbal attack, failing to protect her right to express her views.


 


At Rutgers, the problems are far more serious than you’ve portrayed them, involving more than just a university event at which pro-Israel Jewish students were charged for admission, while others were allowed to attend for free.  Jewish students at Rutgers report being too intimidated to take Middle East studies courses because they are so unfairly biased against Israel. When they do take courses, they’re afraid to speak up and say that they support Israel.  Jewish students have been threatened with violence and have been made to feel unsafe.  One Jewish student was actually verbally attacked and intimidated on Facebook by a university official who posted a message calling the student “that racist Zionist pig!!!!!!!!” and encouraging other Facebook users to find the Jewish student’s hate page, presumably so that they could post their own hateful messages about him.


 


When the ZOA documented in a letter to Rutgers’ president the problems that Jewish students are facing, we proposed several steps that Rutgers should take to eliminate the hostile anti-Semitic environment.  Not one involved censoring or silencing anti-Israel speech.  We have asked that university leaders exercise their own free speech rights and publicly condemn speech and conduct that cross the line into anti-Semitism.  Indeed, we quoted the strong language from the AAUP, which has emphasized the “special duty” that college administrators have, “not only to set an outstanding example of tolerance, but also to challenge boldly and condemn immediately serious breaches of civility.”  The AAUP says that college administrators “should make unmistakably clear the harm that uncivil or intolerant speech inflicts.”


 


You believe that university leaders should speak out against anti-Semitism but “not in every instance,” because the university’s role is “not to be a quality control on campus debate.”  We completely disagree.  University leaders should speak out every single time an act of bigotry occurs on the campus, whether the bigotry is directed against Jews, African Americans or anyone else.  University leaders should publicly and forcefully denounce the bigotry and the individuals or groups promoting it, by name, and explain why the bigotry is offensive, hurtful and against the values of the university.  We know from our experience in working with Jewish students who’ve been victims of anti-Semitic bigotry on campus that the bigotry is hurtful and harmful, but what is equally if not more hurtful is the university’s silence in response to the bigotry.  The silence suggests that bigotry against Jews is tolerable and acceptable and isn’t worth commenting on.  Bigotry against Jews (or any other target) is never tolerable or acceptable, and university leaders have the moral duty to make that clear to the victims of the bigotry, the perpetrators of the bigotry, and the rest of the university community.     


 


Your letter neglected to mention the Title VI action that the ZOA brought on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine, where Jewish students faced years of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination.  The Irvine case is important because it shows why Title VI protections for Jewish students are so crucial. 


 


Jewish students at Irvine were physically threatened and assaulted.  One Jewish student was shouted at to “Go back to Russia,” and “burn in hell” and he was called a “f_ _king Jew.”  Another Jewish student wearing a pin depicting the American and Israeli flags was surrounded by a group of students who cursed at him and threatened to kill him.  Signs were posted on the Irvine campus depicting the Star of David and equating it with the swastika or dripping with blood.  A huge sign was posted on the main walkway that couldn’t be missed, which said, “Israelis Love to Kill Innocent Children.”  Speakers demonized Jews and Israel on a regular basis, and they spewed their hate from the center of the campus, their speech amplified, so that their anti-Semitic bigotry was impossible to avoid.  Jewish students reported fearing for their physical safety.  Some were afraid to wear anything that showed that they’re Jewish and pro-Israel.  Some feared affiliating with Jewish or pro-Israel programs and activities.  Their studies were affected.  Some viewed the campus as so hostile that they simply stayed away.  At least two students transferred from Irvine and went to study elsewhere, because they couldn’t endure the anti-Semitic hostility any longer. 


 


Jewish students complained to university officials about the hostility they were being subjected to.  But for the most part, officials did nothing or made token efforts to address the problem.   When one student appealed to the then-Chancellor of the university, urging the university to protect her physical safety, the Chancellor never even bothered to respond to her plea.  Another administrator who did respond actually suggested that the Jewish student visit the counseling center – as if she was the one with the problem!


 


Despite overwhelming evidence of a hostile environment at Irvine that the university failed to sufficiently address, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights dismissed the ZOA’s case.  It was later revealed that the dismissal was based on the fact that the Department of Education was not at that time interpreting Title VI to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation.  In short, Jewish students were being denied the legal recourse that was a given for other ethnic and racial groups that face harassment, intimidation or discrimination.  At the expense of Jewish students and their physical and emotional well-being, UC Irvine wasn’t held accountable under the law for failing to provide them with a campus environment that’s safe, free from bigotry, and conducive to learning.


 


Now, with the Department of Education s’ new Title VI policy protecting Jewish students, the shameful result reached in the Irvine case hopefully won’t ever be repeated.  It is simply unfathomable that you would argue against this important new legal protection, which would then leave Jewish students vulnerable to enduring an Irvine-like situation again.     


 


Mr. Stern’s reluctance to apply Title VI to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation is particularly difficult to understand.  In fact, it’s shocking.  His organization, the American Jewish Committee, says that it “plays a leading role in the global effort to combat anti-Semitism.  Securing Jewish communities worldwide and fighting racism and discrimination are critical to our mission.”  In light of what the American Jewish Committee says it stands for, how can its own director of anti-Semitism and extremism justify trying to take away or diminish an important new legal weapon for combating anti-Semitic bigotry?


 


The American Jewish Committee was one of 13 Jewish groups to sign a letter last year to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, decrying the anti-Semitism that Jewish students are facing on their campuses, and urging the Department of Education to interpret and enforce Title VI to protect them.  Last summer, the American Jewish Committee also participated with the ZOA in a congressional briefing on campus anti-Semitism and the federal government’s role in addressing the problem, which led to letters from dozens of members of Congress to Secretary Duncan, expressing concern about the problem of anti-Semitism on American college campuses, and the need for Title VI to be interpreted and enforced to protect Jewish students.  We value the American Jewish Committee’s collaboration with us in ensuring that Jewish students receive the same legal protections that have been afforded to other ethnic and racial groups.  But Mr. Stern’s statement undermines and damages the important achievements we’ve made, and casts serious doubt on the American Jewish Committee’s commitment to ensuring civil rights protections for Jewish students. 


 


It must surely be demoralizing to those Jewish students who’ve had the courage to come forward and demand a campus environment that’s safe, welcoming and conducive to learning, to learn that an organization like the American Jewish Committee, which is supposed to be standing up for them and against anti-Semitism, is instead minimizing the problems they’re facing and criticizing legitimate efforts to protect and enforce their civil rights.  Indeed, Mr. Stern’s criticism of using Title VI could very well discourage Jewish students who’ve been victimized from coming forward.  Dangerously, students may be falsely led to believe that they simply must endure anti-Semitic hostility on their campuses – that it’s their problem, not their university’s.


 


The Department of Education has now made it clear that under Title VI, publicly-funded schools have the legal obligation to address campus anti-Semitism.  All of us should be praising this new policy for an obvious reason:  Jewish students, like all students, should be entitled to a campus environment that’s welcoming, not hostile, that’s physically and emotionally safe, and that’s conducive to learning.  Efforts to protect and enforce these rights should be supported, not criticized, undermined or misrepresented for being something that they simply are not.