Published in the
LA Jewish Journal
If you’re a Jewish college student, you no longer have to tolerate anti-Semitism or Israel-bashing on your campus. You are protected under our federal civil rights laws. These were the landmark conclusions of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent federal agency that analyzes information about discrimination and reports its findings and recommendations to the president and Congress.
In November 2005, the commission held its first-ever hearing on the issue of campus anti-Semitism. One topic was the Zionist Organization of America’s precedent-setting civil rights complaint on behalf of Jewish students at UC Irvine, who have faced a pattern of anti-Jewish hostility that university administrators have known about but have failed to adequately address. Based on the hearing, the commission recently issued historic findings and recommendations that both Jews and non-Jews can applaud.
According to the commission, the problem of campus anti-Semitism is “serious.” In addition to name-calling, threats, assaults and the vandalism of property, hatred toward Jews is being expressed on campus in subtler ways. Zionism — the expression of Jewish rights and attachment to the historic homeland of Israel — is being unfairly mischaracterized as racism. Israel is being demonized and illegitimately compared to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, and its leaders are being compared to Hitler.
At UC Irvine, annual campus events (titled, “Anti-Zionist Week” and the misnomer “Israel Awareness Week”) have been regular opportunities to attack Jews, Zionists and those who support Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state. Signs have equated the Star of David with the swastika and depicted it dripping with blood. Speakers have portrayed Jews as overly powerful and conspiratorial; one referred to “the Jewish lobby” as a “den of spies.”
At San Francisco State University, fliers depicted a baby with the caption, “Palestinian Children Meat — Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License.” The commission rightly condemned all this conduct as anti-Semitism, finding that “[a]nti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism.”
The commission also recognized that Jewish students face harassment inside the classroom. Many academic departments present a one-sided, anti-Israel view of the Middle East conflict, squelching legitimate debate about Israel. According to a Jewish student at Columbia University, her professor said that she had no claim to the Land of Israel because she had green eyes and therefore could not be a Semite. In response to such incidents, the commission recommended that academic departments “maintain academic standards, respect intellectual diversity and ensure that the rights of all students are fully protected.”
According to the commission, “severe, persistent or pervasive” anti-Semitism on campus may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI requires that colleges and universities ensure that their programs and activities are free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on “race, color or national origin.” Otherwise, they risk losing their federal funding. The commission recognized that Jews are protected under Title VI because they are an ethnic group sharing a common ancestry and heritage.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education ensures that colleges and universities comply with Title VI. The commission recommended that OCR vigorously enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism.
The commission also urged university leaders to denounce anti-Semitic and other hate speech. Some have already done so: When a cartoon mocking the Holocaust was published in a Rutgers student newspaper, the university president publicly recognized that although the publication was constitutionally protected, it was hurtful to the community and inconsistent with the university’s values. He urged the students involved to take responsibility for their actions and succeeded in getting them to apologize for the hurt they caused to the community.
Not all university leaders have exercised the same moral leadership. Some have remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic speech and conduct, justifying their silence by saying that offensive behavior is constitutionally protected. Of course, we must all stand up for free speech and vigorous debate — especially on a college campus, where the exchange of ideas should be encouraged. But hateful, degrading and demeaning speech is hateful, degrading and demeaning, no matter where it occurs.
We can’t lose our common sense about what is hateful and harmful, just because it is expressed on a college campus. If college officials remain silent, they help perpetuate the bigotry. And their silence contributes to making the targets of the hate feel even more marginalized and unwelcome.
What should you do if you are experiencing anti-Semitism on your campus, to the point that the environment feels hostile or intimidating?
First, you should try to resolve the problem internally by working with university officials to create an atmosphere that is tolerant and respectful. While colleges and universities must uphold the right of free speech, they have a legal obligation to provide you with an educational environment that is free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination. If working with university officials fails and the hostile environment persists, then you can and should file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (www.ed.gov/ocr).
More information is forthcoming. The commission has recommended that OCR conduct a public education campaign, and it will be distributing its own materials to inform students of their rights. Hillel directors should be getting the message out to college administrators and to their Jewish constituents. The Zionist Organization of America will be undertaking its own nationwide effort to inform Jewish students and college administrators that anti-Semitism is illegal and that students have legal tools to fight it.
Whatever your campus experience, if you are a Jewish student, it’s important to know that the Civil Rights Commission has staked out its position firmly supporting your right to be free from campus anti-Semitism. You have the right to obtain your education in an atmosphere that is conducive to learning and that does not intimidate or harass you because you are Jewish or support Israel.
Susan B. Tuchman, is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, and testified at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ hearing on campus anti-Semitism on Nov 18, 2005. Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.