Change in Law Proposed To Stamp Out Anti-Semitism in Schools

WASHINGTON – The United States Commission on Civil Rights is calling on Congress to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly protect Jews against anti-Semitic harassment on America’s campuses.

The provision is one of a series of “findings and recommendations” adopted yesterday by the seven-member federal commission after a heated meeting held by teleconference and open to the public. The commission’s recommendations came after months of delay and negotiations with the federal Department of Education over what protections Jews are afforded under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and were adopted over the objections of the commission’s chairman, Gerald Reynolds.

“Congress should amend Title VI to make clear that discrimination on the basis of Jewish heritage constitutes prohibited national origin discrimination,” the adopted recommendations state.

The commission also determined that the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights “should protect college students from anti-Semitic and other discriminatory harassment by vigorously enforcing Title VI against recipients that deny equal educational opportunities to all students”; tasked the Education Department with conducting a public-education campaign to inform Jewish students of their “right … to be free from anti-Semitic harassment”, and urged the department to collect and report data on instances of anti-Semitic discrimination at post-secondary institutions.

The findings mark the end of a long battle initiated in November, when the commission held a hearing on the prevalence and nature of campus anti-Semitism, and the phenomenon of anti-Semitism masked as “anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist propaganda,” particularly in departments of Middle East studies.

“I find it rather appalling that we’ve taken this long to put out a document condemning anti-Semitism on college campuses,”commissioner Jennifer Braceras, a Massachusetts-based lawyer and writer, said during the teleconference.

Some commissioners had sought to denounce campus anti-Semitism in December, immediately after the hearing, but the process was bogged down by disagreement over whether OCR has the jurisdiction to investigate and crack down on incidents of anti-Semitic harassment.

The statutory language of Title VI grants OCR jurisdiction over discrimination based on race, color, or national origin at federally funded educational institutions. It does not include religious discrimination or harassment.

Yesterday’s debate appeared to hinge on whether anti-Semitism is an act directed against Jews as observers of a religion, or Jews as members of an ethnic group. The use of the word ‘ethnic’ in these discussions is itself loaded, as the word means – according to both the Webster’s Second Unabridged and the Oxford Dictionary – not Jewish or Christian. Misuse of the word has resulted in less strict dictionaries accepting other, more general usages relating to peoplehood, and it is apparently that latter, bowdlerized usage that the members of the commission were referring in their use of the word ‘ethnic.’

The findings and recommendations adopted were proposed by Ms. Braceras, and offered a broader view of the Education Department’s Title VI jurisdiction than the recommendations proposed by Mr. Reynolds, who sought to strictly limit investigations of anti-Semitic discrimination to cases based on “race, color, or national origin,” excluding religious harassment.

“Religious harassment of a Jew is inseparable from ethnic harassment of a Jew,” Ms. Braceras said yesterday, during an exchange in which commissioners shouted over one another and pleaded to be heard. “I don’t know of any Jews that would make that distinction.”

“That position has not been accepted by the agency that is charged with enforcing Title VI,” Mr. Reynolds responded, referring to the Department of Education.

In 2004, the Education Department had clarified its discrimination policies to include in its jurisdiction discrimination against Jews as an ethnic group. As the Sun reported last week, commission staff members have expressed concern that the Education Department is backing away from the 2004 policy.

“There is a concerted effort to collapse the concept of the religion of Judaism and national origin,” Mr. Reynolds, who is also the assistant general counsel at Kansas City Power and Light Company, said. “There are advocates who are pushing that collapse … I can’t support the collapse of those two concepts.”

Mr. Reynolds declined after the meeting to identify the “advocates” or to elaborate on the “concerted effort.”

Mr. Reynolds was joined in his opposition by another commissioner, Peter Kirsanow, who argued that the commission could not adopt Ms. Braceras’s proposed findings until it held a separate hearing into the matter of whether Jews were both religious observers and members of an ethnic group.

“I’ve got to be honest here,” Ms. Braceras retorted. “This is basic to me.”

After pronouncing that “we’re never going to come to terms on this,” members of the commission voted 4 to 1 in favor of Ms. Braceras’s proposal. Mr. Reynolds was the lone dissenter, and Mr. Kirsanow had disconnected from the conference call before the vote.

After the call, Mr. Reynolds told the Sun that he thought the commission’s decision had been “dangerous.”