Equal Rights for Jewish Students

This month U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a major address in which he announced that his department would significantly step up enforcement of civil rights laws. Taking him at his word, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research last week joined a dozen other major Jewish organizations in urging Secretary Duncan to provide Jewish students with civil rights protections under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This joint letter is a significant event, because it reflects the emergence of a broad-based coalition of Jewish communal organizations pushing the Obama administration to reverse the position which it previously took on anti-Semitism in higher education – and to make good on the pledge which Secretary Duncan has just made.

The broad range of Jewish organizations signing this letter reflects the gravity of the current situation: American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Institute for Jewish and Community Research, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and Zionist Organization of America.

The letter addresses a very real problem. Over the last several years, significant anti-Semitic incidents have been documented in universities across North America. In 2006, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced that these incidents had become a “serious problem” which deserved greater attention. Just this semester, significant incidents have erupted on campuses around the world, as last month’s column described. Yet the federal government has been ill-equipped to deal with this problem. In 2004, the Office for Civil Rights announced a new policy establishing for the first time that it would pursue cases of anti-Jewish harassment or discrimination. As head of OCR at that time, I was unwilling to ignore the growing anti-Semitism problem at federally-funded universities. My 2004 policy announced that anti-Semitic harassment would be prosecuted to the extent that it entailed ethnic or racial discrimination. (Title VI does not prohibit religious discrimination.)

Unfortunately, my successors have not adhered to the 2004 policy, although it has not formally been retracted. During the second George W. Bush administration, OCR dismissed the notorious anti-Semitism case at the University of California at Irvine. While some of OCR’s reasons were technical (e.g., statute of limitation), it was clear from a close reading of the dismissal – especially in light of contemporaneous statements by then-Assistant Secretary of Education Stephanie Monroe – that OCR was not enforcing Title VI against anti-Semitic harassment. Sadly, the Obama administration has lately taken that same stance. In a letter to Congressman Brad Sherman, which was discovered by JTA reporter Eric Fingerhut (but which was not publicly reported until this month), Obama administration Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali indicated that the Obama administration would not pursue cases of harassment against Jewish students.

The new Jewish organizational letter urges Secretary Duncan to reverse OCR’s change in Title VI enforcement. “To Jewish students,” the letter explains, “the narrowed policy means that that they must endure a hostile educational environment because the law, while protecting other ethnic and racial groups, offers them no protection—even when intimidation or harassment is directed at them based on ethnic, as opposed to religious, identity.” In light of the recent resurgence of campus anti-Semitism, it is now especially important that the Obama administration make good on its promise for renewed civil rights enforcement in education. “The government’s message to campus perpetrators of anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination,” the letter adds, “is that they may continue to do what they are doing, because colleges and universities have no legal obligation to respond to their hateful conduct.” This cannot be allowed to stand.