Aristotle, Alarmism and the Fight Against Campus Anti-Semitism

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Wisdom is often found at the Aristotelian mean. In the debate over campus anti-Semitism, alarmists are too often pitted against quietists. The former see danger behind every corner, while the latter don’t see it until it is too late. In fact, the Jewish community can only succeed if it takes more measured and less polarizing positions on what is happening in American higher education.

To listen to the alarmists, one would think that anti-Semitism is everywhere in post-secondary education. In fact, survey data shows that university professors view Jewish students more favorably than any other major religious group. The institutional anti-Semitism of the mid-twentieth century – which ranged from restrictions on student admissions to dormitory segregation to bans on Jewish faculty hiring – has long since been dismantled. There has never been a better time to be a Jewish college student than now and there has never been a better place for a Jewish student to study than in America.

To listen to the quietists, one would think that anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found in American higher education. In fact, survey data shows that forty percent of Jewish American university students have experienced or witnessed some form of anti-Semitism on their campuses. Depending on how the data is interpreted, the number may be even higher. Disturbing incidents have been reported on so many campuses that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – which this author previously headed – announced in 2006 that campus anti-Semitism is a “serious problem which warrants further attention.” The long, steady progress which our society made in the battle against anti-Semitism in the post-war period has come to a halt, and the situation is now starting to get worse.

Over the last several months, the organized Jewish community has conducted an interesting and important debate over how best to respond. Too often alarmists and quietists speak (or yell) at cross-purposes. Neither camp seems to appreciate that the other has seized upon an important kernel of truth. At its worse, the debate can descend into hurtful bickering. At its best, however, it can lead to consensus around a more reasonable position: Things are still very good for most college students, but the Jewish community would be foolish to ignore the times and places where campus environments are deteriorating.

recent op-ed in these pages argues the Jewish community should not focus exclusively on anti-Semitism in higher education. This is hard to deny, since there are so many other important issues for the community to address, including other challenges on and off campus. But it is also off-base to the extent that it suggests that the community has indeed embraced such a singular focus.

In fact, Jewish organizations have filed fewer than half a dozen Title VI campus anti-Semitism cases since this author drafted the U.S. Education Department’s Title VI policy in 2004. During that period, well over 40,000 complaints have been filed with ED’s Office for Civil Rights on other topics. So the Jewish community’s legal efforts to combat campus anti-Semitism have been negligible in absolute terms or by comparison. During the last year, these efforts have picked up somewhat. (For example, earlier this year, this author established a new organization to combat campus anti-Semitism.) But the Jewish community’s collective response to this issue can hardly be confused with a laser-like focus. Moreover, much of the Jewish community’s recent debate over Title VI has addressed whether we have collectively been too aggressive (not too reticent) in the meager work that we have done to date.

The wisest course on campus anti-Semitism is neither to be unduly fearful (alienating potential friends and spoiling opportunities for collaboration) nor to be unduly sanguine (failing to protect those students who face hostile or dangerous environments). This should not be the Jewish community’s exclusive focus, but it should be a greater focus of Jewish communal attention that it has been in the past. Moreover, our focus should be on reasonable, effective response, rather than alarmism or quietism.

Kenneth L. Marcus is President and General Counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and author of Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press 2010). He formerly served as Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


Aristotle, Alarmism and the Fight Against Campus Anti-Semitism

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Kenneth L. Marcus

Kenneth L. Marcus is Founder and Chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and author of The Definition of Anti-Semitism (Oxford University Press: 2015) and Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press: 2010).  On the occasion of his recent transition from public service, the Jewish News Syndicate commented that, “In two short years, Marcus did as much, if not more, to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses as anyone in government has ever done.”

Marcus founded the Brandeis Center in 2011 to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in American higher education.  At that time, the Jewish Daily Forward described him as one of “the new faces of Jewish power,” predicting that “if Marcus has any say in it, we may witness a new era of Jewish advocacy.”

During his public service career, Marcus has also served as Staff Director at the United States Commission on Civil Rights and was delegated the authority of Assistant U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.  Shortly before his departure from the Civil Rights Commission, the Wall Street Journal observed that “the Commission has rarely been better managed,” and that it “deserves a medal for good governance.” Marcus previously held the Lillie and Nathan Ackerman Chair in Equality and Justice in America at the City University of New York’s Bernard M. Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

Before entering public service, Mr. Marcus was a litigation partner in two major law firms, where he conducted complex commercial and constitutional litigation. He has published widely in academic journals as well as in more popular venues such as Newsweek, USA Today, Politico, The Hill, The Jerusalem Post, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and The Christian Science Monitor.  Mr. Marcus is a graduate of Williams College, magna cum laude, and the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Read all stories by Kenneth L. Marcus