Do Jewish students deserve the same federal civil rights protections as African Americans, women and the disabled in the nation’s schools and universities? The official answer now is in the affirmative, and in principle, that seems only just and fair. After years of lobbying, Jewish groups led by the Zionist Organization of America managed to persuade the Obama administration to extend Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to cover members of religious groups on the basis of shared ethnic characteristics. This change effectively allows Jews to file for Title VI protection from anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination, or the sort of anti-Zionism that only thinly masks anti-Semitic intent.
How and when and under what circumstances those protections are sought is a matter of some debate — which is, in our opinion, a good thing. Any request for federal intervention has to be weighed against the message that is sent to individual students and to the broader community. Are Jews really a discriminated-against minority on the college campus of today? How can individuals be protected while the right to free speech maintained? Must the federal government be called to settle specific disputes? Can this remedy cause more harm than good?
To ask these questions is not to pretend that Jewish students never confront hostile environments in educational institutions. Just this month, an Israeli flag displayed by the campus Hillel at the University of California, Riverside, was defaced, the word “terrorists” scrawled across it. (U.C. President Mark G. Yudof quickly condemned the vandalism; campus police are investigating.)
But this sort of reprehensible activity is the unusual exception, not the rule. When considering the application of Title VI, we first must acknowledge that the vast majority of campuses today are not rife with anti-Semites and Israel-haters. The much-feared boycott, divestment and sanction movement has not scored a single, solid achievement. Vigorous debate over Israel, over anything, is as ubiquitious a feature of college life as all-nighters and frat parties.
So let’s first tone down the fear.
Then put Title VI into context. A recent survey by the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff found that, in the year and a half since Title VI’s purview was extended, at least 10 anti-Semitism cases have been filed with either the Department of Education or in court. So far, in only one of these cases has the complainant been favored: a high school case in which Israel played no role.