Three U.S. Senators Also
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) applauds the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Presidents Conference) for its forceful letter to Stephanie Monroe, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, stating that [w]e are troubled by your agencys recent decision to deny the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) to Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). According to the Presidents Conference, [t]his decision will affect Jewish students not only at UCI, but also at other colleges and universities across the United States. At a time when reports of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on college campuses is increasing, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), whose mission is to redress racial and ethnic discrimination, should be seeking to expand the protections of the law.
The Presidents Conferences letter of concern focused on OCRs decision in the case that the ZOA filed on behalf of Jewish students at UCI, alleging that UCI had violated Title VI by failing to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation. Title VI, which is enforced by OCR, requires that recipients of federal funding (like UCI and other public and most private universities) ensure that their programs and activities are free from racial and ethnic harassment, intimidation and discrimination or risk losing their federal funding. In the case that the ZOA filed, which triggered OCRs first-ever investigation into allegations of campus anti-Semitism under Title VI, several Jewish students came forward and furnished information to OCR about what they have faced at UCI harassment and intimidation to the point that some feared for their physical safety and at least two students actually left UCI because they could no longer endure the hostile campus environment. Students described their repeated efforts to get the UCI administration to respond to their fears and concerns, all of which were futile. Despite such reports from student after student, in November 2008 (more than three years after the ZOA filed its complaint), OCR concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the ZOAs allegations against UCI.
The Presidents Conference letter to OCR head Stephanie Monroe, dated February 8, 2008, was signed by its leadership, Chairperson June Walker and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. Ms. Walker and Mr. Hoenlein noted that campus anti-Semitism is of such concern that the United States Commission on Civil Rights focused on it, holding a hearing on campus anti-Semitism in November 2005. The letter notes that [b]ased on the evidence, the Commission determined that thee problem is serious and warrants further attention. According to the letter, the Commission recognized that anti-Semitism may be couched in attacks against Zionism and Israel that should be distinguished from legitimate discourse regarding foreign policy. Appropriately, the Commission also recognized that these anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attacks are just as reprehensible as anti-Semitic assaults, threat and vandalism.
The Presidents Conference cautioned that OCRs now-narrower policy for enforcing Title VI is sending a disturbing message to Jewish students who face anti-Semitism on their campuses, to the perpetrators of the hate and bigotry, and to colleges and universities. To Jewish students, the message is that they must endure a hostile educational environment because the law, while protecting other groups, offers them no recourse or protection. To the perpetrators of anti-Semitism, they may interpret OCRs message as an excuse to do what they are doing on their campuses, because colleges and universities have no obligation to respond to their conduct. And to colleges and universities seeking it, OCR has given them a green light not to respond to anti-Semitism even when it threatens and intimidates Jewish students, because they will not be held accountable.
The Presidents Conference urged OCR to follow the Civil Rights Commissions recommendation and return to its own policy as clarified in the fall of 2004, mak[ing] it clear that Jewish students are a protected group under Title VI, and that OCR will vigorously protect them from anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation. The Presidents Conference also urged OCR to reconsider the decision that OCR issued in the [ZOAs] case against UCI, since it is based on an overly restrictive reading of Title VI that we believe could have serious consequences.
This powerful letter buttresses the letter that three members of the United States Senates Committee of the Judiciary recently sent to Secretary Margaret Spellings of the U.S. Department of Education, demanding answers to their questions about how OCR handled the ZOAs complaint, and about whether OCR is interpreting Title VI to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation. In the Senators letter, dated February 27, 2008, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, together with Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), expressed their concern regarding anti-Semitic incidents aimed at Jewish students at several colleges and universities and the response to such incidents by the Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights (OCR). These Senators asked several pointed questions of Secretary Spellings to which they requested a prompt and timely response, including why it took OCR almost three years to issue a decision in the ZOAs case, why it took OCR almost two years into its investigation to interview UCI officials and conduct site visits to UCI, and why OCR did not interview all of the witnesses with relevant evidence.
Morton A. Klein, the ZOAs National President, and Susan Tuchman, Esq., the director of the ZOAs Center for Law and Justice, commended the leadership of the Presidents Conference for expressing these concerns to the head of OCR: We thank June Walker and Malcolm Hoenlein for speaking out on behalf of the Presidents Conference about how OCR is failing to protect Jewish students against the harassment and intimidation theyre facing on their campuses. In the ZOAs case against UCI, student after student described the harassment and outright fear they felt on campus, and that when they sought help from the UCI administration, they didnt get it. We were shocked that in light of the evidence, OCR refused to hold UCI accountable under Title VI. But that was plainly due to the agencys decision to give the law a narrow and restrictive interpretation; OCR seemingly ignored, distorted, and ignored the overwhelming evidence of harassment and intimidation, and UCIs failure to respond effectively to these problems. Approximately two and one-half months after the OCR decision, an independent task force made up of community members in Orange County, CA completed its own investigation of alleged anti-Semitism at UCI. This task force concluded that the problems on that campus are so extreme that Jewish students should consider enrolling elsewhere unless and until tangible changes are made. The task force found that anti-Semitism at UCI is real and well documented, that Jewish students have been harassed, and that hate speech has been unrelenting. It condemned UCI and its leadership for failing to address these problems. These are the conclusions that OCR should have reached, but failed to do so because of a deliberately narrow reading of Title VI.
We are pleased that the Presidents Conference has criticized OCR for narrowing the protections it affords to Jewish students under Title VI. The letter reinforces the serious concerns that U.S. Senators Arlen Specter, Jon Kyl and Sam Brownback of the Senate Judiciary Committee raised with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. At a time when campus anti-Semitism often expressed as Israel-bashing is such a serious problem, OCRs decision to retreat from an earlier interpretation of the law and actually narrow the protections to Jewish students is illogical and troubling. As the Presidents Conference has expressed, it could have serious consequences for Jewish students on campuses across the country. If anything, OCR should be broadening the protections afforded under Title VI as much as possible. We hope that OCR will heed the words of the Presidents Conference and return to the policy that it articulated in the fall of 2004, so that Jewish students, like other ethnic groups, will get the legal protections they need and are entitled to.