Jewish Students Deserve Legal Protection

JCPA Should Reject Moves To Limit Access to Civil Rights Remedy

By Susan B. Tuchman

Published October 20, 2011.
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Soon, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which says that it serves as “the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community,” will be voting on a draft resolution on countering campus anti-Israel activity. The draft resolution follows from a policy issued last year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. OCR clarified that Jewish students will now be protected from anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation under Title VI. This law requires that federally funded schools ensure that their programs and activities are free from racial and ethnic discrimination. African Americans and Hispanics, for example, have been protected under Title VI for almost 50 years, since the law was enacted in 1964. But historically, OCR has denied Jews the protections of Title VI, because the law does not cover religious discrimination and Jews were viewed strictly as a religious group. OCR’s new policy, which the ZOA fought for in a six-year campaign, recognizes that Jews and certain other religious groups are also ethnic groups and should not be denied the protections of Title VI. The JCPA was one of 13 major Jewish organizations that advocated for this policy change. But now that the policy is in place, the JCPA’s draft resolution is strangely critical of it and actually seeks to limit the right of Jewish students to use it. The draft resolution is unwarranted and unfair and should be rejected.

For one thing, it imposes unreasonably harsh standards on when Jewish students should use Title VI to rectify a hostile anti-Semitic school environment, stricter than the standards that the U.S. government’s OCR applies when it enforces the law. Another problem is that the JCPA’s draft resolution states that “Title VI is being abused.” This is a disturbing and, we believe, false claim, and the Resolution provides absolutely no evidence to support it. To the ZOA’s knowledge, four Title VI complaints have been filed with OCR alleging an anti-Semitic hostile environment for Jewish students. OCR has not dismissed a single one of these cases on the grounds that it was frivolously brought or an abuse of the law. As to one of the cases, OCR is still evaluating whether it has jurisdiction over the many claims that were made. As to the other three complaints, the agency has decided that they merited investigation.

In addition to the four Title VI cases filed with OCR, the ZOA used the new Title VI policy effectively to compel a high school in northern Maine to address a hostile anti-Semitic environment that a 15-year-old Jewish student had endured for more than one year. Until school administrators were apprised of their obligations under the new Title VI policy, they had for the most part ignored the many months of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation that this Jewish student had suffered. Based on the new Title VI policy, the school took the necessary steps to rectify the anti-Semitic environment that was harming the Jewish student physically, emotionally and academically, and to ensure that the hostile environment does not recur. Where then is the so-called “abuse” of Title VI?

It is disheartening and indeed shocking that this draft resolution is under consideration and that civil rights protections for Jewish students would even be debated in the Jewish community. OCR’s new Title VI policy is not affording special treatment to Jews. Rather, the policy finally gives Jewish students the same civil rights protections that have been available to other ethnic and racial groups since Title VI was enacted in 1964. All of us who work with Jewish students appreciate how important these civil rights protections are. At the ZOA, we are contacted on a regular basis by Jewish students, their families, and faculty about anti-Semitism and vicious anti-Israel sentiment at schools across the country. This state of affairs should be unacceptable to all of us in the Jewish community. The JCPA should be applauding the new Title VI protections for Jewish students, instead of disparaging them.

If the JCPA adopts the draft resolution, it would send an alarming and demoralizing message to Jewish students: that they, unlike other victims of harassment and intimidation, should hesitate before seeking to enforce their legal right to a school environment that is physically and emotionally safe and conducive to learning, or else risk criticism and a lack of support from their own Jewish communal leaders. And it would send a dangerous and destructive message to OCR: that the agency made the wrong decision in issuing the Title VI policy protecting Jewish students, because even the Jewish community is not united behind it. At the least, the Resolution could encourage government officials to take Title VI complaints by Jewish students less seriously, because Jewish communal leaders themselves are so wary of this legal remedy.

Susan B. Tuchman is Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice.

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