Using federal law to fight Israel bashing and anti-Semitism on campus

By Susan B. Tuchman

We are facing a crisis on our college campuses: Anti-Semitism and vicious anti-Israel sentiment are flourishing, and many Jewish students are feeling harassed and intimidated. The crisis must be addressed, and there are legal tools we can use.

The anti-Semitism is not limited to slurs, threats and physical attacks on students and property — although these still occur. For example, Jewish students were subjected to anti-Semitic comments, physical intimidation and assault at the University of Indiana, Bloomington in 2004 and 2005. In 2003, swastikas were spray-painted on the Hillel and Jewish fraternity buildings at Rutgers University. In 2003, swastikas were spray-painted on the walls of UC-Berkeley lecture halls, with the words, “Die, Juden” [Die, Jews].

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Campus anti-Semitism also includes condemnation of Israel that goes far beyond fair and legitimate criticism. There are many countries whose conduct should be condemned – for example, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which support terrorism and deny basic civil liberties to their citizens. But on campus, it is Israel – the only democracy in the Middle East – that is being singled out for condemnation. Campaigns that call for universities to divest from their holdings in Israel are common at many schools. A group called the Palestine Solidarity Movement sponsors an anti-Israel conference on a different campus each year, most recently at Duke University in October 2004.

Such activities are conveying alarmingly inaccurate information about Jews and the State of Israel. Israel is depicted as a ruthless occupier and oppressor. Although Israel has taken huge risks and made major concessions in the pursuit of peace, these efforts are typically overlooked. There is virtually no acknowledgment of the unrelenting terrorism that Israel has faced, or of the many attempts to destroy it. Israeli leaders are compared to Nazis, Jewish symbols are demeaned, and the Holocaust is denied or twisted into an inappropriate symbol of Israeli oppression. Zionism – the expression of the Jewish people’s yearning for their historic homeland – is characterized as racism. This is absurd, considering that Israelis are comprised of every color of the rainbow, and they all possess freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and full access to the courts.

The effects of the hate are serious. At UC-Irvine, for example, the environment feels so hostile that some students have been afraid to wear anything that might identify them as Jewish or as supporters of Israel. Some have been reluctant to affiliate with Jewish activities. Some take circuitous routes or avoid certain areas of the campus altogether, so that they can avoid the barrage of hatred toward Jews and Israel. Some have had trouble focusing on their studies. And some students have even feared for their physical safety. At least two students left the university because of the hostility there.

Jewish students have even been made afraid to exercise their own constitutional rights to free expression, fearing negative consequences if they sponsor programs on campus that support Israel. In November 2004, when ZOA President Morton A. Klein was invited to speak at UC-Irvine, his presentation was moved off campus, because Jewish students were afraid of inciting demonstrations and fueling campus hostility. In May 2005, at the University of Chicago, vandals scrawled swastikas and ripped down posters advertising a talk by Professor Michael Oren, and burned a hole through a picture of his head on the flyer.

College administrations have for the most part silently tolerated the hate expressed toward Jews and Israel, purportedly to protect the rights to free speech and open debate. But these rights come with responsibility. Speech that is hateful, degrading and demeaning should be recognized and condemned for exactly what it is: hateful, degrading and demeaning. Schools cannot accept hateful speech, at the expense of Jewish students’ safety and well-being.

In fact, schools have a legal obligation to ensure that Jewish students are protected from harassment, intimidation and discrimination, under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. If a school violates the law, it risks losing its federal funding. Although Title VI was historically interpreted as not covering anti-Semitism, the U.S. Department of Education changed its policy in September 2004, and determined that Jewish students are an ethnic group entitled to protection under the law.

In October 2004, the ZOA decided to use Title VI to protect Jewish students at UC-Irvine, after other efforts to address the hostility on campus had failed. The ZOA filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Education Department, which is charged with enforcing Title VI. After reviewing the complaint, OCR determined that an investigation was warranted, which is underway. This is the first Title VI complaint of campus anti-Semitism that OCR has agreed to investigate, which will hopefully force UC-Irvine to correct the hostile environment for Jewish students. The case should also be a wake-up call to other schools that they cannot ignore anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing.

Jewish students need to know their legal rights, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights may help them. In November, the Commission held its first-ever briefing on campus anti-Semitism, and the ZOA was among three panelists to furnish information about this serious problem. The Commission is considering issuing a publication to inform students of their rights under Title VI. Jewish students need to know that they have recourse under the law. They need not, and should not, tolerate a campus environment that renders them afraid to be Jews or supporters of Israel.

Susan B. Tuchman testified at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ briefing on the issue of campus anti-Semitism, on November 18, 2005. Before becoming the director of the ZOA’s law center, Ms. Tuchman was a partner in the litigation department of Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, a law firm with offices in Boston, MA, Providence, RI, and Concord, NH, where she handled constitutional and civil rights cases in addition to her commercial practice.