Federal Civil Rights Policy Expanded To Protect Jewish College Students

By Joy Resmovits

Published November 03, 2010, issue of November 12, 2010.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights ruled that Jewish students will once again be included among groups protected from ethnic- or race-based harassment on campus under the Civil Rights Act.

The October 26 decision, which restores a protection first given and then withdrawn from religious groups during the George W. Bush administration, means that Jewish students will be afforded the same federal protection as blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups when it comes to harassment in schools that receive government funding. In her letter on school bullying, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali ruled that “anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI” of the federal civil rights law.

“Now we can come to administrators and university leaders after an episode where a student is discriminated against on the basis of anti-Semitism and say that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protects students,” said Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, a major advocate of the measure.

Although the Civil Rights Act does not cover discrimination based on religious beliefs, “groups [such as Jews] that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” will receive the same protection as other groups. The policy was enacted in 2004, when Kenneth Marcus, who is Jewish, headed the OCR. His successor, Stephanie Monroe, narrowed the interpretation.

The push to strengthen OCR’s anti-harassment policy came as Jewish organizations have increasingly alleged episodes of anti-Semitism on college campuses. The University of California, Irvine, has become emblematic of the trend, as its Muslim Student Union gained attention — and was eventually suspended — for, among other actions, disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, with calls that he was a “killer.” The Muslim group’s anti-Israel protests fueled a 2004 complaint that ZOA filed with the Education Department claiming Irvine’s administration had stood by as its environment became hostile for Jews. (After an investigation, the OCR found that most alleged acts of harassment were not based on shared ethnic origins, and that the university had dealt with other instances appropriately. The ZOA’s appeal is pending.)

Klein said his group regularly fields calls from students who say they are cursed and spat at for wearing shirts promoting Israel. The ZOA and 12 other Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Orthodox Union, wrote a letter in April arguing that OCR’s policy failed to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment.

But not everyone agreed with the Department of Education’s decision, and some fear the guidelines may conflict with free speech rights. “The purpose of Title VI was originally to protect African Americans on university campuses at a time when they were discriminated against,” said David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. “The Jews are a group with power. I find it to be a very bizarre tactic.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com.



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