Should the federal government intervene when an American university permits its campus to become unsafe for Jews? When the prevailing atmosphere on campus is hatred against Israel and all things associated with the Jewish people?
After a long and involved debate, the Obama administration finally did the right thing last October and stated definitively that such conduct is impermissible at institutions that receive federal funding. While that ruling, which was prompted by an epidemic of anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish students at the University of California at Irvine, ought to have been welcomed by both academia and the organized Jewish world, it has now been challenged by the American Association of University Professors. In a newsletter on the AAUP website, Cary Nelson (the association’s president) and Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee contend that recent events on American university campuses—at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Rutgers in addition to Irvine—do not rise to the level of a “working definition” of anti-Semitism. Calls for redress by Jewish students and professors are nothing more, they conclude, than an unscrupulous effort to “censor anti-Israel remarks.”
But Nelson and Stern are wrong both about the situation on campus. And they are wrong about the motivations of those whose activism led the U.S. Department of Education to issue its ruling.
Last September, one month before the ruling was issued, COMMENTARY published Kenneth L. Marcus’s essay “A Blind Eye to Anti-Semitism,” a thoughtful examination of the sordid goings on at the Cal-Irvine and the halting steps taken toward combating the epidemic of anti-Semitic acts that had taken place there. The former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Marcus detailed not only the unhappy story of how the university had failed to protect Jewish students, but also set forth the legal rationale for the federal government ’s intervention. He pointed out that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded universities and public schools. Although it has been argued that laws banning racism do not apply to Jews (who are not a race but a people), Marcus rejoined persuasively that, in addition to being a religion, Judaism is a group identity that involves more than adherence to a faith.
Contrary to Nelson and Stern, what is happening on campus isn’t merely the free exchange of ideas about Israeli policies. As Marcus wrote:
There, on the campus of the University of California at Irvine, Jewish students were physically and verbally harassed, threatened, shoved, stalked, and targeted by rock-throwing groups and individuals. Jewish property was defaced with swastikas, and a Holocaust memorial was vandalized. Signs were posted on campus showing a Star of David dripping with blood. Jews were chastised for arrogance by public speakers whose appearance at the institution was subsidized by the university. They were called “dirty Jew” and “fucking Jew,” told to “go back to Russia” and “burn in hell,” and heard other students and visitors to the campus urge one another to “slaughter the Jews.” One Jewish student who wore a pin bearing the flags of the United States and Israel was told to “take off that pin or we’ll beat your ass.” Another was told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind” and “Jews should be finished off in the ovens.”
The result of these incidents was that Jewish students rightly feared the consequences of speaking up in opposition to this spirit of intolerance. While it may be held that the university should have been able to handle this problem without federal intervention, the truth is that the school did nothing. Cal-Irvine officials reacted to complaints with indifference or without urgency. The Jewish community was left with little choice but to resort to legal complaints seeking to compel the government to enforce the law against discrimination. It is very much to the credit of the Zionist Organization of America that it championed this cause.
Although Nelson and Stern wrongly treat the students complaints as if they were trivial, they also claim that the resort to the law harms the cause of fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Government intervention shifts the discussion, they believe, from opposing bigotry to protecting free speech.
Anti-Semites will howl that they are being repressed if they are prevented from spreading hatred for Jews on university campuses. No question about it. But those who preach hatred for African-Americans could make the same argument. Even to ask whether Nelson or Stern would be okay with the Ku Klux Klan’s holding officially sanctioned forums at federally-funded schools, however, is to answer the question.
Nelson and Stern go on to compare the warnings about campus anti-Semitism to the debate over immigration laws. But the comparison is just as specious. There is, after all, a clear distinction between advocating enforcement of existing laws against illegal immigration and broadcasting anti-Hispanic hate, even if the distinction is often erased in the heat of debate. No one is calling for Israel’s critics to be barred from campus. Harassing Jews in classrooms and public spaces as well as holding authorized campus events whose purpose is to promote the delegitimization of the Jewish people, however, crosses the line from unpleasant speech to an illegal promotion of violence.
The atmosphere of hatred created at Cal-Irvine in 2003 and 2004 and now being duplicated at other American universities stands as a watershed event in the history of the movement to defame Zionism and the Jews. At a time when this pernicious movement tries to flood into America through the classroom door, it is more important than ever that decent people speak out against the rising tide of international anti-Semitism. When universities fail to restrain the haters, it is up to the government to treat Jew-hatred no differently than it would bigotry against any other minority group. No matter what the AAUP says.