AJC Gets It Right on Campus Anti-Semitism, At Last

David Harris Stood Behind Moves to Protect Jewish Students

By Kenneth L. Marcus

Published August 23, 2011, issue of September 02, 2011.
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In early August, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, finally renounced his organization’s highly controversial joint statement on campus anti-Semitism.

The initial statement, which AJC anti-Semitism expert Kenneth Stern had published four months before, with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, had generated considerable criticism within the Jewish community. Interestingly, the AJC reversal coincided with disturbing revelations in the University of California, Berkeley campus anti-Semitism case. 

The context for the AJC statement can be found in California. Jessica Felber had gotten national attention earlier this year when she filed a federal lawsuit alleging an anti-Semitic attack at the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus. In her federal complaint, the recent graduate detailed how a Palestinian activist assaulted her on campus by ramming her from behind with a loaded shopping cart. In mid-August, Felber revealed to the court that this assault was part of an ugly pattern on that campus. In another incident, a campus protester stopped a lecture to berate Felber for the Hebrew lettering on her sweatshirt, yelling that she must be a “terrorist supporter.” In a third, the head of Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine allegedly spat at her.

Felber is not alone; a second Berkeley student, Brian Maissy, has now joined her lawsuit. Maissy submitted a declaration describing the “terrifying” atmosphere on the Berkeley campus during “Apartheid Week,” when protesters toting realistic-looking guns taunt passing students, demanding to know, “Are you Jewish?” Even more disturbing, Mel Gordon, a senior member of the Berkeley faculty, is now supporting Felber’s lawsuit with written testimony that he had been, “savagely beaten and spat upon” by the Students for Justice in Palestine. Gordon described “serious injuries” that he received from blows to the stomach.

Until recently, Felber had faced an unexpected adversary in her battle to hold Berkeley accountable: the American Jewish Committee. The AJC-AAUP statement had charged that some Jewish activists “are making the situation worse by distorting the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and what has been called the ‘working definition of anti-Semitism.’”

After mentioning Felber’s case and similar complaints at the university’s Santa Cruz campus and Rutgers University, the AJC-AAUP letter added that “many” of the “recent allegations” of campus anti-Semitism “simply seek to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers.” Worse, the AJC-AAUP letter condemned some of the allegations in these cases as not “unwarranted under Title VI,” but also “dangerous.”

The AJC-AAUP statement has been widely lambasted within the Jewish community. Felber’s supporters criticized the statement’s censorship allegations as unfounded, its Title VI interpretation as questionable and its public aspersions as unnecessary. Many commentators, including this author, publicly urged the AJC to retract the statement. The writer Jonathan Tobin bemoaned on Commentary’s Contentions blog that “the letter that Kenneth Stern signed with Cary Nelson stakes out a position that makes it unlikely that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act will ever be applied to protect Jews from anti-Semitism on college campuses.” David Horowitz, the conservative thinker, blasted Stern and Nelson for misrepresenting the campus situation in their “haste to blame the Jewish victims.” Just about the only supporters of the AJC-AAUP statement were anti-Israel sources, such as The Electronic Intifada, which relied on the Stern-Nelson letter when railing against efforts to eliminate anti-Semitism on college campuses.

In an unusual move, Harris e-mailed Tammi Rossman-Benjamin (the lecturer who filed the Santa Cruz complaint), renouncing his organization’s letter as “ill-advised.” Striking an apologetic note, Harris said that the AJC “regret[s] the decision to have released it.” By way of explanation, Harris added that “AJC’s internal system of checks and balances did not function well in this case.” Other AJC officials have confirmed that the AJC-AUUP statement is now considered renounced by the organization. Harris’s candid acknowledgement of his organization’s error provides a commendable resolution to what had been an unfortunate blemish on the record of his organization and its widely respected anti-Semitism expert.

The AJC’s sudden reversal also heals a rift that the AJC-AAUP statement had created within the Jewish community. This is important, because Jewish communal representatives continue to work with Obama administration officials on figuring out how the federal government can best resolve hostile environment cases at federally funded universities. Last October, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued an important guidance letter affirming that it would pursue anti-Semitism cases in the same way that it handles discrimination against other groups.

The question now is whether the agency will properly enforce its new policy when it comes to complicated cases involving both anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. With any luck, the AJC’s reversal may facilitate a unified Jewish communal response to the resurgence of anti-Semitic incidents that have been seen around the country, and especially in California, over the past decade.

Kenneth Marcus is executive vice president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research and a former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is also the author of “Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America” (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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