Congressional Leadership on Campus Anti-Semitism

In response to information the Institute for Jewish & Community Research and other organizations provided at a recent Capitol Hill briefing, three dozen members of Congress wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this month to protect Jewish students from harassment. The congressional letter, endorsed by 36 members of Congress, admonished Duncan that “discrimination against Jewish students remains a significant and disturbing problem on some campuses.” More importantly, the letter embraced the Institute’s long-stated position that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights must use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prosecute campus anti-Semitism as it committed it would in 2004 policy guidance.

The congressmen based their letter on last month’s briefing for the Congressional Taskforce Against Anti-Semitism, which was organized by Rep. Ron Klein (D-FL). At that briefing, the Institute informed the Congressional Task Force of OCR’s recent failure to enforce OCR’s 2004 policy prohibiting anti-Semitic harassment at federally funded universities and in the public schools. This has been a significant problem in light of the series of recent incidents at many campuses. The Institute was joined at this briefing by representatives of three other organizations: the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of American, and Hillel. The briefing was well received by the standing-room-only congressional staff crowd, who had indicated at the time that they would express our shared concerns in a letter to Duncan.

The letter reminded Duncan of two 2004 policy statements, issued by this author, clarifying OCR’s intent to enforce Title VI in cases of discrimination against groups that exhibit both religious and ethnic or ancestral characteristics, such as Jews and Sikhs. Specifically, the congressmen quoted OCR’s 2004 pronouncement that “groups that face discrimination on the basis of their shared characteristics may not be denied the protection of our civil rights laws on the ground that they also share a common faith.” In an important declaration of support for our position, the congressmen announced: “We believe that enforcing Title VI to protect Jewish students who, in rare but highly significant situations, face harassment, intimidation or discrimination based on their ancestral or ethnic characteristics – including when it is manifested as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment that crosses the line into anti-Semitism – would help ensure that we’re preserving the integrity of our higher education system by affording the same protection to all ethnic and racial groups on our college campuses.”

The need for government action has unfortunately remained quite high. On California campuses, incidents at Irvine, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Jose have focused community attention and led to recent confrontations with university leadership. Earlier this month, for example, a dozen Jewish organizations, including the leadership of the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish movements, wrote to University of California President Mark Yudof to protest weak responses to resurgent anti-Semitism at UC. These groups admonished Yudof that Jewish students on his university’s campuses feel “an environment of harassment and intimidation.” Whether policymakers like Duncan and Yudof will respond appropriately remains to be seen. The key development this month, though, is that united efforts by the Jewish community are now being heard, and many members of Congress are now standing behind our effort to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses.