The JCPA’s Controversial Proposed Resolution

It is with mixed emotions that I addressed the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) on Sunday afternoon. This important umbrella organization, which bills itself as the “national public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community,” had assembled to discuss combating anti-Semitism in higher education. Given the influence of JCPA’s constituent organizations (ADL, AJC, B’nai Brith, etc.), this organization is well-placed to shine a much-needed spotlight on the topic. Nevertheless, I was distressed by the substance of JCPA’s draft resolution and uncomfortable with the need to criticize my host’s project.

It is now one year since the Obama administration committed to enforcing the 2004 policy guidance in which I had announced that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights would protect Jewish college students from harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Encouragingly, JCPA had joined IJCR and several other national organizations in urging last year’s policy clarification. At the time, there was nearly universal support within the organized Jewish community for this measure. One year later, it had become unclear whether JCPA would stay on board to push for full and effective enforcement of the landmark 2010 policy guidance.

The JCPA’s draft resolution, which I had to criticize in its initial form, misstated applicable legal standards, suggested a more stringent standard for Jewish students than other groups, and appeared more focused on criticizing Jewish students and their advocates than on combating anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli bigotry. In some respects, the JCPA resolution reiterates the unfortunate letter on the same subject issued earlier this year by the AJC’s Kenneth Stern and the AAUP’s Cary Nelson. That letter, which had to be repudiated by the AJC’s chief, David Harris, had also been overly critical of Title VI enforcement. Such efforts are misguided, because they understate the problem of campus anti-Semitism, overstate the risk that Jewish advocates will abuse the First Amendment, ignore the extent to which pro-Israel speech is stifled on campus, unnecessarily divide the Jewish community, and appear to create double standards for Jewish students.

Two weeks ago, a copy of the JCPA’s problematic draft resolution was leaked to The Forward. In an October 14 article, journalist Naomi Zeveloff wrote that “simmering divisions within the Jewish community are expected to come to a head this month over efforts to use federal civil rights laws to sanction some forms of alleged anti-Israel activity on campus.” Zeveloff’s report was based on the leaked draft, which emphasized divisions between Jewish organizations about how Title VI could best be enforced. The JCPA draft indicated that the community was split between those who seek aggressive enforcement and those who are cautious about protecting the First Amendment and the doctrine of academic freedom. This characterization, I feel, is both misleading and unhelpful. Most in the organized Jewish community seek both firm, consistent application of the civil rights laws and also rigorous, even-handed protection of the freedom of speech. To suggest otherwise is to give a free pass to those university administrators who prefer to do nothing if even the Jewish community is divided over the issue.

Although I was pleased by JCPA’s attention to the issue of campus anti-Semitism, I had to criticize the draft resolution both for its substance and for its potentially divisive ramifications. Others have been similarly critical. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, for example, urged that JCPA’s resolution be “withdrawn or defeated.” SPME wrote that “when the discussion on the campus about Israel devolves into hate speech and hate speech devolves into harassment and intimidation then a line has been crossed which sometimes must be addressed by the government.” The Zionist Organization of America’s Susan Tuchman wrote that the resolution “would send an alarming and demoralizing message to Jewish students: that they, unlike other victims of harassment and intimidation, should hesitate before seeking to enforce their legal right to a school environment that is physically and emotionally safe and conducive to learning, or else risk criticism and a lack of support from their own Jewish communal leaders.”

To its credit, JCPA substantially revised its resolution in response to these and other criticisms and wisely postponed a final vote until its Detroit plenum. JCPA staff worked furiously overnight on Sunday to delete the most offensive provisions and to include new language which blunted the impact of the most difficult passages. For this, JCPA’s Rabbi Steve Gutow and his staff should be greatly commended. The current resolution also contains some helpful new language on the need for university leadership to counter virulent anti-Israel activity as well as an important reference to the so-called EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism.

There remains, however, substantial work remaining if the resolution is to become a strong statement of support for Jewish student rights instead of a source of criticism or obstruction. For example, the current much-improved draft continues to exaggerate the differences that exist between Jewish organizations, to include unnecessarily divisive language, and to create new obstacles for Jewish students and their allies. During the period between now and the Detroit plenum there is plenty of time for these problems to be eliminated. If JCPA’s lay leadership and professional staff can bring the same focused attention to improving the draft in advance of the plenum that they brought to revising it at this week’s meeting, the final project may well become an important and useful statement of how best to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism rather than an impediment to such efforts.