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Protecting Jewish Students From Anti-Semitic Harassment

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Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that colleges and universities redress racial and ethnic discrimination or risk losing their federal funding. Thus, if African American or Hispanic students are harassed on campus, they can complain to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which is mandated to enforce Title VI and ensure that their schools fix the problem.

But Title VI does not clearly protect Jewish students, as we found out after the Zionist Organization of America filed a Title VI complaint with OCR on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

To correct this problem, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) have introduced legislation that would require that Jewish students be protected from harassment and intimidation on their campuses. The legislation would add protection from religious discrimination to Title VI, which presently prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin.”

The Specter-Sherman bill will fill a legal loophole that right now effectively permits colleges and universities to ignore when Jewish students are harassed or discriminated against. Lawmakers should enact this bill quickly, so that Jewish students are assured a campus environment that is safe and conducive to learning, which all students deserve. Advertisement

The need for this amendment is highlighted by many troubling incidents of campus anti-Semitism. For example, at UC Berkeley last March, a Jewish student was holding a sign at a pro-Israel campus rally that read “Israel Wants Peace.” She was rammed from behind with a filled shopping cart. The attack was unprovoked and the victim required medical attention.

At UCI, a Holocaust memorial was destroyed, and swastikas have defaced campus property. Posters have depicted women in traditional Muslim garb saying, “God bless Hitler.” A Jewish student was told to “go back to Russia where you came from.” Jewish students have been threatened and physically assaulted. The campus regularly hosts one- to two-week-long events that demonize Israel and Jews. At the May 2009 event, a speaker compared Jews to Satan. Last May, this speaker referred to Jews as “the new Nazis.”

In October 2004, the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint with OCR on behalf of Jewish students at UCI. The complaint detailed years of increasing anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination, and charged that the university had either ignored the problems or made token efforts to address them.

At the time the complaint was filed, OCR had clarified its policy for enforcing Title VI, concluding that the law applied to religious groups that also share ethnic characteristics, such as Jews. Based on this policy clarification, OCR proceeded with the ZOA’s case, rendering it the first case of anti-Semitism that OCR ever agreed to investigate under Title VI.

Soon after the investigation started, the leadership at OCR changed, resulting in a change in the agency’s Title VI policy. OCR reverted back to denying Title VI protection to Jewish students, perceiving Jews simply as a religious group and not also an ethnic group that would be protected from “racial” and “national origin” discrimination under the law.

As a result, even though OCR had overwhelming evidence that Jewish students were facing severe and persistent anti-Semitism at UCI, and that the university hadn’t responded adequately to the problem, OCR dismissed the ZOA’s complaint, concluding that many of the allegations fell outside the agency’s jurisdiction. Our appeal of that decision has been pending since April 2008.

Even now, with new leadership at OCR under President Obama, the policy of denying Jews the same protections as other minority groups has not changed.

The injustice of the UCI decision inspired the ZOA to advocate for a change in the law. We communicated with many members of Congress, educating them about the problems that Jewish students are facing on their campuses and about the law’s failure to afford them the same protections as other ethnic and racial groups. At our annual Advocacy Mission to Washington last April, these problems were a centerpiece of our lobbying efforts with lawmakers.

When Congressman Ron Klein (D-FL), co-chair of the Congressional Taskforce Against Anti-Semitism, convened a briefing last June on campus anti-Semitism and the federal government’s role in redressing it, the ZOA briefed congressional members and their staffs. The briefing led to letters from 38 members of Congress to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging the Education Department to enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students.

We’ve also led the effort to educate the public – through letters, articles, speeches, press releases, ads and petitions – about campus anti-Semitism and Jewish students’ right to legal protection.

Senator Specter and Congressman Sherman have taken a leadership role in ensuring that Jewish students are protected. We have worked closely with them on the issue, including helping to craft the language in the bill that was just introduced.

All of us should urge our representatives in Congress to support this bill so that an unjust gap in the law will finally be filled, and Jewish students will no longer have to tolerate anti-Semitic harassment on their campuses.

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America; Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., is director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.

About the Author: Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

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