The Department of Education is adopting its first official definition of anti-Semitism as part of a reevaluation of how it investigations allegations of discrimination against Jews, the department’s new head of civil rights announced last month in a letter to a major Jewish group.
Assistant secretary of education Kenneth Marcus also wrote in his letter to the Zionist Organization of America, which was acquired by The New York Times and Politico, that in light of the new definition, he would be reopening an investigation into an alleged anti-Semitic incident at Rutgers University that the Obama administration had closed.
The Education Department does not have the authority to investigate claims of religious discrimination. But the new definition, which was created by the State Department in 2010 and has since been adopted by a slew of government bodies and international organizations, defines Judaism as an ethnicity as well as a religion, allowing anti-Semitism to be categorized by the Education Department as racial discrimination.
The definition also includes some criticism of Israel — “demonizing” it, applying double standards to it unlike other countries, or denying its right to exist.
Marcus, who previously ran the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a pro-Israel advocacy group, wrote in Politico last year that the Education Department was “ill-equipped to recognize anti-Semitism when it sees it” because it lacked a definition of anti-Semitism.
The move to adopt the new definition has been praised by the ZOA and other Jewish groups, many of which backed Marcus’ nomination earlier this year because of his legal advocacy to adopt the definition and thus define many campus anti-Israel groups as inherently anti-Semitic.
“Hate groups like Students for Justice in Palestine try to convince others that their attacks on Zionism and Israel are legitimate political discourse,” ZOA leaders Morton Klein and Susan Tuchman wrote in a statement. “But as the State Department definition of anti-Semitism recognizes, these attacks are often a mask for Jew-hatred, plain and simple.”
But civil liberties advocates and Palestinian advocacy organizations say the definition infringes on legitimate criticism of Israel.
“Marcus is sending a clear signal that attacking free speech for Palestinian rights is at the top of his agenda at OCR,” Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi said in a statement. “This is a perverse use of government resources. Especially at a time when white supremacist attacks are rampant on college campuses, we need to use the meager resources we have to protect – not attack - civil rights.”