When I arrived in America, in New York, in 1955, it was particularly comfortable being openly Jewish. Public schools were closed on Jewish holidays, and the Jewish milieu was evident. I came to Massachusetts in 1960 to attend MIT. It was my first encounter with a varied American population, and yet the Jewish current was there. I knew that City College of New York. NYU and other schools were predominantly Jewish, so it was a very comfortable feeling that MIT was almost 30 percent Jewish in those years.
I was totally unprepared for what I heard at a meeting to establish a Zionist Organization of America New England branch in Boston, being headed by Rabbi Jonina Pritzker. I heard that not only were Jews no longer a strong force in many colleges and universities, but they were literally not safe. I asked Susan B. Tuchman, director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, to share her story of ZOA’s battle to defend the rights of Jewish students who are facing discrimination, harassment and anti- Semitism.
Fighting campus anti-Semitism was not on my plate of projects when I became the director of the ZOA Center for Law and Justice 15 years ago. There were many other projects to tackle, including fighting for American victims of Arab terrorism and upholding the right of Americans born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their birthplace on their passports.
Working at ZOA headquarters in Manhattan, I read about the harassment and intimidation that Jewish students were facing on a college campus across the country, at the University of California, Irvine. Surprised that anti- Semitism could even be a problem on any modern day American college campus, I reached out to the leader of UC Irvine’s pro-Israel student group. She spoke openly about her campus experience as a Jew and a Zionist and led me to other students, who led me to more.
Their accounts were horrifying. Jewish students had been physically threatened and physically assaulted. A rock was thrown at one student wearing a T-shirt that read, “Everyone loves a Jewish boy.” A Holocaust memorial constructed by Jewish students was repeatedly vandalized. Signs posted on campus compared Israeli leaders to Nazis and defaced the Star of David with a swastika. A huge sign on the main walkway read, “Israelis love to kill innocent children.”
The group largely responsible for creating a hostile campus environment for Jews was then called the Muslim Student Union. MSU’s programs – with names like Zionism: America’s Disease; Israel: The 4th Reich; and A World Without Israel – were vicious. MSU’s speakers referred to Jews as Nazis, compared Jews to Satan, and distinguished between “good Jews” and “bad Jews” – the bad ones being supporters of Israel. The speakers spoke in the center of the campus, and their speech was amplified, so their hate and bigotry were impossible to avoid. The environment was so toxic that at least two Jewish students left and transferred elsewhere.
The Irvine students that I had the privilege to work with did everything possible to remedy the problems they were facing. They went to outside organizations for help. They went to the administration, repeatedly. They even went to MSU, urging that discussions about Israel not resort to hurtful words or symbols. Nothing worked.
Hearing their painful stories, ZOA suggested a different approach – a civil rights action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This federal law requires federally funded schools like UC Irvine ensure their programs and activities are free from racial and ethnic discrimination. Historically, the federal agency that enforces Title VI – the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights – was not interpreting this law to protect Jewish students. By its terms, Title VI does not cover religious discrimination. OCR viewed Jews strictly as a religious group outside Title VI’s protections.
Jews, however, are not just a religious group; we share a homeland, a language, a culture and traditions that make us an ethnic group, too. ZOA believed if ever there was a case that would compel OCR to enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students, the case against Irvine was it.
In an 11-page complaint backed by Jewish students, ZOA detailed the years of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination that Jewish students had endured, which the administration mostly ignored. ZOA’s legal action against UC Irvine was groundbreaking – the first case of campus anti-Semitism that OCR ever agreed to investigate under Title VI. OCR’s process was lengthy and torturous, and in the end, OCR dismissed the case. But thanks in large part to the Irvine students who had the courage to come forward and support the ZOA’s Title VI action, OCR finally issued a policy that made it clear Jews would be protected under Title VI, in the same way that other ethnic and racial groups had been protected for almost 50 years, since the law was enacted. One of the proudest moments of my professional life was contacting “my” students at Irvine to tell them what their courage and determination had helped accomplish for Jewish students everywhere.
OCR’s Title VI policy is excellent on paper, but vigorous enforcement of the law to protect Jewish students has been a challenge. That is because much of the anti-Semitism that students face involves Zionism and Israel. OCR lacked the tools to understand when anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment is a mask for anti-Semitism.
For years, ZOA urged OCR to use a definition of anti-Semitism that the U.S. State Department uses when it assesses anti-Semitism around the world. The definition is excellent. It recognizes that of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But when Israel is demonized (e.g., compared to Nazi Germany), when Israel is held to an impossible double standard that no other country is held to, or when Israel is delegitimized (e.g., denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination), these are ways involving Israel that anti-Semitism is expressed today. They are just as hurtful to Jews as any other form of anti- Semitism.
Once again, the bravery and fortitude of Jewish students led OCR to adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. ZOA had filed a Title VI action against New Jersey’s Rutgers University after the university failed to respond effectively to Jewish students who were physically threatened, harassed and discriminated against. Like the case against Irvine, the Rutgers case languished at the agency for years before OCR closed it.
Last summer, OCR finally decided ZOA’s appeal and reopened the case. In its decision, OCR declared that from now on, when it assesses anti-Semitic bias in Title VI cases, it would use the State Department’s definition of anti- Semitism. This should result in better legal protections for Jewish students across the U.S., a victory that could not have been achieved without those Rutgers students who had the guts to come forward to support the ZOA’s Title VI action.
Anti-Semitism on American college campuses remains a serious problem. Frighteningly, the problem has seeped down into our secondary and even elementary schools.
ZOA will continue to stand up for Jewish students and help them fight these grave problems. In addition to our Center for Law and Justice, ZOA has a regional office in the Boston area, regional offices around the country and campus professionals who work directly with college students on hundreds of U.S. campuses, to protect their right to be proud Jews and Zionists. We are a resource of information, education, advocacy and support.
We also need the support and commitment of our community. Jewish and pro-Israel students have the right to a safe and welcoming learning environment. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure school officials safeguard that right.
Dr. David Sheena is president emeritus of Beth Abraham, the Sephardic Congregation of New England in Brookline.
Susan Tuchman is a former longtime resident of Brookline and was a partner in the law firm of Hinckley Allen, in its Boston office.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Advocate.