The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently reopened the civil rights case that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed against Rutgers University. The student-backed case followed from the university’s failure to address the harassment and discrimination that Jewish students endured, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination in federally funded programs.
OCR’s long-awaited decision signals that the agency is finally taking campus anti-Semitism seriously. That worries perpetrators of anti-Semitism — like the anti-Semitic, Israel-bashing hate group that calls itself “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP) — and, not surprisingly, they are condemning the decision.
Shockingly and disgracefully, some Jewish leaders and groups are joining in the criticism. They’re falsely claiming that OCR’s decision will undermine free speech. And they’re strongly discouraging Jewish students from exercising their rights under Title VI, instead of urging them to seek legal recourse when they need it, as African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and others freely do.
Title VI rights are precious and, for Jews, they are hard-won: It was only in 2010, after a six-year battle led by the ZOA, that OCR decided that Jews were entitled to the protections of Title VI, a law that had already been protecting other ethnic and racial groups for close to 50 years since its enactment in 1964.
Martin J. Raffel, a former official at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and a regular contributor to NJJN, is one of those Jewish leaders who tried to restrict Jewish students’ rights under Title VI when he was at the JCPA. Now he is wrongly criticizing OCR’s decision in the Rutgers case. In a recent column (“Rutgers case demonstrates anti-Semitism is in the eye of the beholder,” Nov. 1), Raffel even questioned whether Jewish students faced a hostile learning environment at Rutgers.
He doesn’t mention that a Jewish student was physically threatened simply for speaking out in support of Israel and against Palestinian Arab terrorism. Another student encouraged that he be beaten with a crowbar “to shut up people who shouldn’t speak.” A university official bullied and physically threatened the same Jewish student, referred to him on Facebook as “that racist Zionist pig,” and encouraged others to visit a Facebook hate page about him.
Raffel barely mentions that Jewish students were singled out and excluded from a campus event that was advertised as free and open to everyone. Violent threats against Jews, and anti-Jewish segregation and discrimination at Rutgers, should be as unacceptable to Raffel as they are to us.
OCR’s decision in the ZOA’s case is good news for Jewish students everywhere. The agency decided that in Title VI cases, when it assesses whether behavior is motivated by anti-Semitic bias, OCR will use the same definition of anti-Semitism that the State Department uses when it assesses anti-Semitic bias around the world.
This definition is widely used and accepted by 30 other countries, and for good reason: It’s an excellent definition, recognizing the many ways in which anti-Semitism is expressed today. The definition acknowledges that while of course not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, some expressions of anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism cross the line into anti-Semitism.
Raffel wrongly claims that using the State Department definition will impinge on free speech and the right to criticize Israel. In fact, OCR has not changed one iota the legal standards it must apply in deciding Title VI cases. When it enforces Title VI, OCR must continue to uphold the First Amendment. The only change is that now, OCR will have an important and much-needed tool for understanding what anti-Semitism is and how it is expressed today, so that OCR can more effectively address the problem.
Jews need Title VI, now more than ever. For as long as the FBI has maintained hate crime statistics, they have shown that most religious hate crimes are, by a wide margin, directed against Jews. Numerous studies show that anti-Semitism is surging, including in schools and on college campuses. Only weeks ago, 11 innocent Jews were massacred in their Pittsburgh synagogue — the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
With rising anti-Semitism such a real and frightening problem, it’s outrageous and wrong that Raffel would use his platform to encourage Jewish studentsnotto exercise their legal rights when they’re threatened or discriminated against and their physical and emotional safety is at stake. To our knowledge, Raffel hasn’t admonished any other ethnic or racial group not to use Title VI. Only his fellow Jews.
Raffel’s message endangers Jewish students. And it encourages Jew-haters who will undoubtedly use Raffel’s message to bolster their own claims that campus anti-Semitism isn’t truly a problem and that Jewish students’ Title VI rights should be restricted.
For too long, groups like SJP and its allies have been dismissing or minimizing the problem of campus anti-Semitism. They try to mask their Jew-hatred by viciously attacking the Jewish state instead, or attacking “Zionists” — which we know is code for Jews. They try to tell Jews what anti-Semitism is and isn’t, and when it’s okay for Jews to seek protection under Title VI. They object to Jews using Title VI altogether.
Shame on any Jewish leader for joining that chorus. All of us must make it clear to colleges and universities, and to our government, that all forms of anti-Semitism are repugnant and intolerable, including when Jew-hatred is camouflaged as criticism of Zionism or Israel. All of us must demand that every Jewish student be afforded the safe and welcoming learning environment that Title VI requires and that every student deserves.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., is the director of its Center for Law and Justice.
This article was published by New Jersey Jewish News and may be found here.