ZOA Brings Civil-rights Education to Campus

By Rebecca Spence

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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In an effort to publicize recent findings by a federal civil-rights commission that anti-Zionism on college campuses is tantamount to antisemitism, a pro-Israel advocacy group is launching a nationwide public-education campaign to inform Jewish students of their rights. This fall, the Zionist Organization of America will dispatch representatives to university campuses across America — from the Ivy League campuses of the East Coast to the state universities of Southern California — to educate Jewish students and college administrators about their rights and obligations under a new set of guidelines issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In April, the commission released a terse, two-page report, which concluded that Jewish students are protected under Title VI, a federal anti-discrimination statute that bars discrimination on the basis of national origin.

“The findings were, in our view, historic because they recognized that Jewish students have the right to be protected from harassment under federal civil-rights laws and that colleges and universities have an obligation to protect them,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.

The commission’s findings come at a time when anti-Israel bias on American campuses has emerged as a hotly contested issue. In recent years Jewish students have alleged that they felt intimidated by professors and fellow students when expressing pro-Israel views in the classroom. Some Jewish student activists have contended that inaction on the part of university administrations has helped to foment a climate of fear. The civil-rights commission’s report reflects an attempt at the government level to weigh in on the controversy.

“The commission’s concern is that Middle East studies departments are providing highly ideological, one-sided views of Israel and the Middle East and that this feeds into the anti-Israeli sentiments on campuses,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In turn, said Marcus, anti-Israel bias fuels antisemitism — an assertion that is spelled out in the commission’s findings. “Antisemitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism,” the report states. According to Marcus, antisemitic incidents on university campuses go underreported because the government has no effective mechanism for tracking them. While the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI track hate crimes, Marcus said, the education department’s internal statistics are insufficient. As a remedy, the commission’s report recommends that the U.S. Congress direct the education department to break down hate crimes by ethnic groups and expand its categories to include the most common incidents of antisemitism, which include vandalism, intimidation and simple assault. “What’s unfortunate is that the federal government doesn’t really have a clear sense of how frequently these situations are happening,” said Marcus.

Campuses on which the issue has been most pronounced include Columbia University, San Francisco State University and the University of California, Irvine. The ZOA filed an initial complaint against U.C. Irvine in 2004 charging a widespread pattern of antisemitism on the Orange County campus. That complaint spawned an ongoing investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and also brought the issue to the attention of the federal civil-rights commission, which convened a hearing. The ZOA’s Tuchman was among a group of activists who testified.

In order to ensure that both students and administrators are aware of the commission’s findings, the ZOA plans to distribute educational pamphlets “that will be easy to read, easy to understand, and potentially a resource for college administrations so people are aware what their obligations are,” said Tuchman. The ZOA, she said, has yet to finalize a list of campuses to visit, but representatives will be sent to those schools where tensions have flared, including Columbia and U.C. Irvine.

While the report recommends that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights “should conduct a public-education campaign” to inform students of their rights, Tuchman explained that the ZOA is not duplicating efforts. “It’s a huge enough issue,” she said, “that certainly there’s a need to have as many involved as possible.”

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