At the University of California, Irvine, a Muslim student group is permitted every year to hold a week-long event on campus. Sometimes the event is titled “Israel Awareness Week,” sometimes “Zionist Awareness Week,” or sometimes “Anti-Zionist Week.” This past year the event was titled “Israel Apartheid Resurrected,” and the university allowed the group to extend the program for an extra week.
This event has nothing to do with educating the community about Israel or Zionism, said Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice (CLJ). Instead, she said, “it is a week-long opportunity to bash Jews.”
Tuchman, whose work for the CLJ led to landmark findings and recommendations protecting Jewish college students from bigotry on campus, addressed the Pittsburgh chapter of the ZOA at its annual meeting on Wednesday evening, June 27. She cited the annual UC Irvine event as just one example of the type of anti-Semitism facing Jewish college students in the 21st century.
“Campus anti-Semitism is a serious problem,” Tuchman said, “but the good news is there is a legal tool to address it.”
That legal tool is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thanks in part to the efforts of Tuchman, anti-Semitism can now be challenged under Title VI.
Typically, she said, campus anti-Semitism is expressed as hateful rhetoric against Israel and Zionism. The perpetrators claim they are just engaging in First Amendment-protected political discourse.
Tuchman stressed that she would “never suggest that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic. It’s not. It is perfectly appropriate to engage in heated debate about what’s going on in the Middle East.”
The problem, she said, is that “Israel is being singled out and vilified.” The offenders are not just speaking in distortions, she said, but often in “outright falsehoods.” It is this brand of speech that is equivalent to anti-Semitism.
This type of anti-Semitic rhetoric happens at all varieties of colleges and universities, from small private schools, to large state universities, to community colleges. And it happens in and out of the classroom.
At San Francisco State University, the Muslim Student Union was permitted to circulate a flier with a blood libel cartoon. The cartoon depicted a baby with the caption, “Palestinian Children Meat – Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License,” patently implying that Jews kill Palestinian children for ritualistic purposes.
At UC Irvine, which, according to Tuchman, has had frequent incidences of anti-Semitism, posters have been displayed on campus equating the Star of David to a swastika, or depicting the Star of David dripping with blood. During its recent “Israel Apartheid Resurrected Week,” a member of the Muslim group sponsoring the event was permitted to stand in the center of campus, and through amplified speakers, pronounce: “You [the Jews] are the new Nazis…. Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or victorious.”
University officials did nothing in response to this demonstration, nor in response to the destruction of a Holocaust memorial, which followed the speech.
In a letter to the chancellor a UC Irvine student wrote, “I am terrified for anyone to find out [that I am Jewish.]. Today I felt threatened that if students knew that I am Jewish and that I support a Jewish state, I would be attacked physically.”
The chancellor never responded to the student’s letter. Another administrator, however, did respond. He suggested that the student visit the counseling center on campus to help her work through her feelings.
Many schools take the official attitude that it’s not their problem, said Tuchman. Rather, the schools react as if “it’s the Jewish students who have the problem, and they need to learn how to deal with it.”
Tuchman also cited a few examples of the anti-Semitism students face within the classroom. A Jewish student at Columbia University was told by her professor in a Middle Eastern Studies class that she had no claim to the land of Israel because she had green eyes and therefore could not be a Semite.
Another professor, at UC Santa Cruz, left his health advocacy course to the charge of a guest lecturer one day. The guest lecturer presented slides purportedly showing Israeli soldiers brutalizing Palestinians. “How did this relate to the subject of the class?” asked Tuchman. “It didn’t.”
In another classroom, a professor refused to answer any questions posed by a student who was a former IDF soldier until the student told the class how many Palestinians he had killed.
Tuchman explained that Title VI provides a legal recourse with which to battle campus anti-Semitism. Title VI requires that recipients of federal funding must ensure that their programs are free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, or risk losing that funding. Historically, anti-Semitism did not fall within Title VI because it was viewed to be discrimination based on religion, which was not protected by the Act.
In the fall of 2004, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) clarified how it would interpret the law, and said that because Jews shared a common ethnicity, they would be protected under Title VI.
In October 2004, the ZOA filed a complaint with the OCR under Title VI on behalf of the Jewish students at UC Irvine. The complaint alleged that, despite the university’s awareness that its campus environment was hostile to Jewish students, the administration had done nothing to remedy the problem.
A few weeks later, the OCR agreed to investigate. Tuchman said that this was the first case of anti-Semitism to be investigated by the OCR. That investigation is still ongoing.
The good news, Tuchman said, is that the inclusion of Jews as a protected class under Title VI was recently endorsed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bi-partisan agency that investigates and studies discrimination, reporting its findings to Congress and the president. In 2006, the Commission recognized that anti-Semitism encompasses more than name calling and threats, and that sometimes it is expressed as “anti-Israelism” or anti-Zionism.
The Commission accordingly recommended that colleges and universities come out and condemn anti-Semitism, Tuchman explained. The Commission rejected the argument that universities could remain silent because of the perpetrators’ right to free speech; instead, the Commission said, the schools had a moral obligation to take a stand against anti-Semitic speech.
The Commission’s findings have sent “a powerful message to colleges and universities,” Tuchman said.
She advised college students experiencing anti-Semitism to file an appropriate complaint within the university system. If nothing productive comes from that, then they should pursue the legal remedies that are now available.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)