Anti-Israel bias at colleges scrutinized

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, responding to allegations that an anti-Israel bias is rampant on college campuses, approved recommendations Monday aimed at ensuring that Jewish college students are protected from anti-Semitic harassment.

The recommendations grew out of a November hearing at which speakers cited examples of anti-Semitic incidents. One frequently cited involved a 2004 documentary that said Middle East Studies faculty at Columbia University were intimidating Jewish students who defended Israel. (A faculty committee investigated and found no evidence of anti-Semitism.) Last September, a non-profit group called “StandWithUs” showed a 45-minute documentary depicting examples of anti-Israel speakers on campuses.

The commission, an independent, bipartisan federal agency that does not have enforcement powers, also urged university leaders to “set a moral example by denouncing anti-Semitic and other hate speech,” and to ensure that Middle East studies departments protect the rights of all students. It recommended Monday that the Department of Education “vigorously” enforce the federal law that bars discrimination based on “race, color or national origin,” and that Congress clarify that “national origin” can refer to Jewish heritage.

“We should inform students of their right” to file a complaint if they believe they have been harassed, commissioner Jennifer Braceras said.

The Zionist Organization of America on behalf of students at the University of California at Irvine, including two who said they were assaulted because they were Jewish, filed a complaint in 2004 with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. That case is still open. Now, “you’ll see a number of suits filed,” says Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

Vanessa Zuabi, 21, a UC-Irvine senior and former vice president of the school’s Society of Arab Students, says the issue is complex. For example, she says, a structure built two years ago by her group was burned down. “Controversy has gone in all directions.”