What happens when the US government takes cases of anti-Semitic discrimination seriously?
You would think that even President Trump’s critics would be cheering the announcement that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will look into evidence about anti-Jewish activity at Rutgers University. The charges stem from a series of incidents dating back to 2011, in which groups dedicated to demonizing Israel and Jews engaged in threats and discriminatory conduct without the university lifting a finger to stop it or hold those responsible accountable.
But the reaction speaks volumes about the way partisan loyalties and hostility to Israel have altered the discussion about anti-Semitism. Instead of applauding, critics are accusing the administration of trying to suppress free speech. Worse, The New York Times coverage not only mischaracterized the issues at stake but was also a thinly veiled hit piece on Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus.
According to the Times, the Department of Education is seeking to inject the federal government into disputes about Israel because Marcus is “a longtime opponent of Palestinian rights.” The result would, they say, chill free speech about the Middle East. Israel’s foes see the investigation as in line with other Trump policies, such as moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and cutting off US aid to Palestinian institutions that support terrorism and oppose peace.
But the Rutgers probe has nothing to do with the peace process. Rather, it’s the product of a recognition that attacks on Jews can’t be justified by attempts to label them as mere criticism of Israel or support for the Palestinians.
What happened at Rutgers stemmed from an anti-Israel event held on the campus in 2011. Its purpose was to gin up support for the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement against Israel. BDS is itself a form of anti-Semitism since its goal is to target the one Jewish state on the planet for destruction and to deny rights to Jews that are not denied to others.
The premise of the event, created by a group calling itself “Never Again for Anyone,” was a classic anti-Semitic trope in which Israel was libelously portrayed as a Nazi state. And, as a smoking gun e-mail revealed, organizers also sought to charge admission to students they believed were Jewish to attend while not charging others.
But rather than taking action to curb such behavior or look into threats made by organizers against Jewish students, Rutgers did nothing. And when the Zionist Organization of America submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Education, the Obama administration dismissed it and refused to consider an appeal.
Marcus has reversed that indefensible action. Those who opposed his nomination because of his record combating anti-Semitism are now saying they were right. In particular, critics like the Times take issue with his correct recognition that Jewish identity is not only a matter of religion but also an ethnic identity and that those who use demonization of Israel as a way to target Jews are practicing anti-Semitism — and violating federal civil-rights laws.
This investigation doesn’t prevent anyone from criticizing Israel. But it does mean the federal government won’t give a pass to those who allow federally funded college campuses to foment anti-Semitism and create a hostile atmosphere for Jews.
Opposing such activity at Rutgers or elsewhere — Marcus previously sounded the alarm about similar anti-Semitic activity at the University of California, Irvine, that led to violence — doesn’t mean he opposes “Palestinian rights.” To the contrary, Marcus wants the department to exercise its responsibility to defend the rights of any student targeted because of their ethnicity under the Civil Rights Act that bans such discrimination.
Colleges that tolerate such illegal conduct and the activities of anti-Jewish hate groups — as some have under the guise of facilitating a debate about Israel — need to be held accountable. That’s a responsibility that Obama appointees ducked but Marcus is upholding. No matter what you think about Trump, this effort deserves support rather than partisan carping that legitimizes anti-Semitic incitement.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review.