People sometimes ask me how I chose campus anti-Semitism as a field of research. In fact, the premise of the question is mistaken. It was anti-Semitism that found me, rather than the other way around. By this I do not mean that that old bigotry marred my own progress through the halls of higher learning during the 1980’s. I do recall a few ill-considered remarks, an awkward incident or two, and the silences when it was realized that my presence would prevent the telling of a favorite joke or two. In this there was nothing, however, to belie my belief that America’s steady post-war progress away from the longest hatred would continue unabated. Campus anti-Semitism came to me only later, off-campus, during a career as a Jewish professional and not as a professional Jew. It would, however, ultimately play a significant role in my work at federal civil rights agencies, Baruch College, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, in my new book on Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America – and at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.
In 2002, I joined the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the agency charged with combating discrimination in educational institutions. The year is notable because it saw several sordid campus incidents, including the now-infamous blood-libel flier and anti-Jewish riot (or near-riot) at San Francisco State. I did not choose to focus on anti-Semitism at OCR. Rather, I had chosen as my signature contribution two initiatives to address the misdiagnosis of minority children for special education services that are inappropriate to their conditions and deleterious to their development. While I had not chosen campus anti-Semitism, I could not ignore it either, since its reappearance had come on my watch.
The problem was that OCR’s long-standing practice, informally articulated and inconsistently applied, was to deny all claims of anti-Semitism without investigation. In fairness to the agency, this practice was not malicious. Oddly, OCR’s statutory authorizations included no congressional mandate to address religious discrimination. This lacuna separated OCR from agencies whose mandates encompass religious discrimination in other spheres. This omission – while it is one that Congress should fix – should not have been insurmountable. After all, anti-Semitic animus in the twenty-first century is seldom wholly religious. The old racial hatreds often lurk below. The legislative history, plain language and underlying purpose of the law clearly precluded official silence in the face of anti-Jewish college bias. I wrote this in policy guidance that I issued on behalf of OCR.
They did not stick. I knew that anti-Semitism policies could prove controversial at an agency which had long declined to address anti-Semitism. As it happens, my successors have not shared my convictions. Some of my anti-Semitism policies have been disregarded, while others have been interpreted with a narrowness which has rendered them meaningless. As a result, OCR has failed to prosecute anti-Semitism even in the most egregious cases.
Since leaving OCR, I have worked on correcting this disturbing failure. Directing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2004-2008, I spearheaded the Commission’s Campus Anti-Semitism report and public education campaign. The Commission’s report issued a stirring if unheeded call for OCR to effectively enforce civil rights law against anti-Semitism in higher education. After leaving the Commission, I continued to teach and write about this problem at CUNY’s Baruch College School of Public Affairs and at San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research. IJCR has provided a platform for me to expand my research and advocacy through its Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism. IJCR’s research, including landmark work by the late Gary Tobin, demonstrated the dangers of anti-Jewish animus at American colleges. The Institute’s continuing research demonstrates both the persistence of anti-Jewish incidents and the need for stronger resistance.
Most recently, Cambridge University Press published my analysis of campus anti-Semitism in Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America. This new book details the complex problem of contemporary campus anti-Semitism and argues that solutions can be found within existing civil rights law. As I argue in Jewish Identity, OCR plays a critical role in ensuring equal educational opportunity, and it cannot continue to ignore the problems which Jewish students face on too many campuses. Intellectually, the issues are challenging, because they turn on basic questions of Jewish identity: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be anti-Semitic? What are the boundaries between religion, race and peoplehood? In the end, however, the need for action is clear.
Turning federal policy around will require a concerted effort by many individuals and organizations. I knew this while I was still in government and reached out to groups that could most effectively change the climate on college campuses and in Washington. Early on, I reached out to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, because I was aware of SPME’s active, effective advocacy. At the Commission, we viewed SPME as an important part of any solution to the problem of campus anti-Semitism and we included them in the planning for our public education campaign. In fact, I was so impressed with SPME that I joined its board of directors last year and now chair its Legal Task Force. A few months ago, SPME and IJCR joined eleven major organizations in urging the Secretary of Education to correct OCR’s current policy failures regarding Jewish students. The Legal Task Force also issued an important statement on the misuse of principles of universal jurisdiction in international law. Most recently, the Legal Task Force has begun work on what I expect will be a major statement on the principles of academic freedom as they apply to the Middle East conflict. SPME has been a stalwart player in efforts to eliminate anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on college campuses and an excellent partner for IJCR. I am pleased that SPME is now internationally recognized for its excellent work.