But Disappointed that Hillel Failed to
Throw its Support Behind Ongoing Federal Investigation
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) commends the Hillel Foundation of Orange County (Hillel) for finally publicly acknowledging that Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) are facing anti-Semitism on campus that must be addressed. In October 2004, the ZOA filed a complaint on behalf of Jewish students at UCI under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI requires that recipients of federal funding, like UCI, ensure that their programs are free from racial and ethnic harassment, intimidation and discrimination. If a recipient is found to have violated Title VI, it can lose its federal funding.
Based on student input and support, the ZOA’s complaint alleges that Jewish students have faced a long pattern of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination at UCI, and that UCI has violated its obligation under Title VI to correct the problem. After reviewing the complaint, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the agency responsible for enforcing Title VI, decided that an investigation into UCI’s conduct was warranted. The investigation is ongoing, with interviews being conducted by the Office for Civil Rights as recently as last week.
At the time that the complaint was filed, Hillel did not publicly support it. Jeffrey Rips, Hillel’s Executive Director, publicly minimized the magnitude of the problem that Jewish students were facing, saying in news articles in March 2005, that the UCI campus is “not a terrible place, and while the administration could be doing more, it is trying harder this year.” In public, Mr. Rips also questioned the accuracy of the ZOA’s complaint, stating that a number of the allegations were unconfirmed or never reported to university officials. At the same time, the Anti-Defamation league (ADL) publicly made similar disparaging comments, calling the ZOA an “outside group” and maligning the ZOA’s peaceful and legitimate legal effort as “coming in with all guns blazing.” Ignoring the many civil rights advances that were made in this country through litigation, the ADL claimed, “Changes occur not through lawsuits but by education on campus and by working toward better communications.” These responses were surprising and disappointing, considering that the complaint was based on the experiences of Hillel’s own constituents, Jewish students themselves, who had already shared their concerns with Hillel and the ADL, and had sought help from these groups before the ZOA’s legal effort was instituted.
Recently, Hillel finally publicly recognized that a serious problem of anti-Semitism exists on the UCI campus, and that corrective action should be taken. On February 13, 2007, Hillel announced the formation of a Task Force to study and investigate alleged incidents of racism and anti-Semitism at UCI. According to a Hillel press release, the Task Force, comprised of academic, professional and religious leaders in the Orange County community, was formed “as the result of the growing number of reported anti-Semitic incidents occurring on campus in recent years,” including, most recently, the disruption by UCI’s Muslim Student Union of a campus presentation by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, Ph.D. This kind of reaction to pro-Israel speakers at UCI is nothing new. When the ZOA’s National President, Morton A. Klein, was invited to speak on campus, Jewish students pleaded with him to speak at an off-campus facility for fear that they might be subjected to harassment and intimidation if Mr. Klein spoke on campus.
Hillel’s press release states that the Task Force intends “to issue a thorough and objective report, with findings and recommendations made to the community and UCI administration by year’s end.” In an article in the Los Angeles Times on February 15, 2007, Hillel finally acknowledged the enormity of the problem of anti-Semitism at UCI; according to Mr. Rips, “Jewish students have raised concerns about the hostile environment at UCI. They are legitimately afraid for their safety.”
ZOA National President Morton A. Klein commented, “We are extremely disappointed that in its press release, Hillel didn’t commit its Task Force to making every effort to ensure that the U.S. government’s investigation is accurately and speedily decided. After all, this is the investigation that has the potential to compel the administration to make real changes that can truly benefit Jewish students.”
Klein added, “Hillel’s public recognition that Jewish students are facing unacceptable hostility and intimidation on the UCI campus is long overdue. Before the formation of this Task Force, Hillel’s public statements minimizing the problem undermined Jewish students’ fears and concerns, and lessened the possibility that UCI would take the steps necessary to change the campus environment for the better. In fact, Hillel’s public statements emboldened the university administration not to change. For instance, in the summer of 2006, when members of the community raised concerns about the anti-Semitic hostility with the university, UCI used Hillel’s own statements in order to suggest that the problem was minimal. UCI’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs noted in a letter to concerned community members that he agreed with a recent comment by Hillel that ‘of the 150 school days, only 5 days this year were marked by conflict between a small number of Jewish and Muslim students.’ Even if this estimate were accurate, one hateful anti-Semitic incident each month should have been completely unacceptable to both Hillel and the UCI administration. In fact, the estimate wasn’t accurate; Jewish students were able to quickly establish that Hillel and the administration were wrong, and that the hostility far exceeded five days. But the impact of Hillel’s actions could not be undone: The administration could safely minimize the problem that Jewish students were facing by relying on Hillel’s own assessment of the situation on campus. Now, with Hillel finally admitting the seriousness and scope of the problem, the Office for Civil Rights should be even more motivated to take every necessary step to ensure that the administration complies with Title VI.”
Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., the Director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, said, “It would have been helpful to the many students who backed the ZOA’s legal effort if Hillel had supported them from the get-go and publicly acknowledged that they were being unacceptably harassed and intimidated. Now the students who courageously came forward in the federal government’s investigation can feel some sense of vindication, since Hillel has finally validated that what they’ve been complaining about is unacceptable, and that something needs to be done to right the wrongs.
“Hillel’s Task Force, however well-intentioned, cannot accomplish what the Office for Civil Rights can. The Office for Civil Rights can compel the administration to comply with the law or otherwise risk significant legal penalties. The Task Force doesn’t possess that kind of strength or authority. But the very fact that Hillel has created such a Task Force underscores how serious the problems on the UCI campus are, and how inadequately they’ve been addressed by the university.”