After a six-year Zionist Organization of America campaign, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced an important policy benefiting Jewish students in elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools. In a letter issued on October 26, OCR declared that it will enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect Jewish students from harassment, intimidation and discrimination at federally funded schools.
This is a breakthrough. Until this announcement, OCR wouldn’t enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students, leaving them without the same civil rights protections that have been afforded to other ethnic and racial groups since Title VI’s enactment in 1964.
It was OCR’s policy denying Jews the protection of Title VI that largely accounted for the agency’s decision to dismiss the complaint the ZOA filed in 2004 on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California at Irvine. UCI students had been subjected to years of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation, described in detail in the ZOA’s 11-page complaint to OCR.
Campus programs – with titles such as “A World Without Israel” and “Israel: The Fourth Reich” – routinely demonized Jews and Israel. Campus speakers condoned and even advocated terrorism against Israeli Jews. One frequently-invited speaker compared Jews to Satan, called them baby-killers and referred to them as “the new Nazis.” The verbal bigotry escalated into violence. Students were physically threatened and assaulted. A Holocaust memorial was destroyed, and swastikas defaced campus property.
UCI students repeatedly complained to administrators about feeling harassed and intimidated. Some were afraid to wear a Star of David or a pro-Israel T-shirt. Some even feared for their physical safety. At least two students left UCI and went to study elsewhere, because they couldn’t endure the anti- Semitic hostility anymore. Yet the administration either ignored students’ concerns or made superficial efforts to address them.
ZOA’s complaint sought to compel the administration to finally rectify the unrelenting campus anti- Semitism. OCR agreed to investigate the case – a landmark development. But after three years of OCR dragging its feet, the agency eventually dismissed the ZOA’s case. An article in September’s Commentary magazine confirmed that the agency’s dismissal was due primarily to its determination not to protect Jewish students under Title VI. The article also revealed that OCR investigators had actually concluded that the “ZOA was right that Irvine students faced levels of discrimination that were so severe, pervasive or objectively offensive as to limit their educational opportunities.”
IN CLARIFYING that it will now protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI, OCR has made several crucial points. First, while disciplining the perpetrators of the harassment is important, OCR says that it’s not enough. A school must take other remedial steps, such as counseling the perpetrators about their hurtful conduct, reaffirming the school’s antidiscrimination policy, publicizing how students may report harassment, training teachers to recognize and address anti- Semitic incidents and creating age-appropriate programs to educate students about the history and dangers of anti-Semitism.
In addition, OCR recommends that schools publicly label specific incidents as anti-Semitic. This is critical. We know firsthand from students that a school’s failure to publicly identify and condemn an incident as anti-Semitic is almost as hurtful as the incident itself. Intentionally or not, silence or beating around the bush about an anti- Semitic incident sends the message to the school community that anti-Semitism is acceptable and tolerable. It isn’t and, as OCR has recognized, school leaders should clearly and publicly condemn an incident as anti-Semitic when it occurs.
OCR says that schools not only must take steps to end the harassment; they must also prevent its recurrence. Speaking out will help reach that goal. OCR’s new policy of enforcing Title VI is a much needed development. UCI is just one example of campus anti-Semitism; Jewish college students have had problems from Columbia, to the University of North Dakota, to UC Berkeley and elsewhere. Anti-Semitic incidents have also occurred at elementary and secondary schools.
In Naples, Florida, middle schoolers held “kick a Jew” day in November 2009. Two students came to school that day wearing Adolph Hitler moustaches. The superintendent’s response was as offensive as the event itself. He said, “These kids kicked a bunch of kids. What’s the real crime here?” All schools will now feel a greater imperative to respond to these horrific incidents if they know that they could face consequences from OCR, including a loss of federal funding.
OCR should be praised for its new Title VI policy, but more work needs
to be done. It’s critical that Title VI be amended so that the law
explicitly protects Jewish students from harassment, intimidation and
discrimination, thereby preventing an agency from undoing or diminishing
ZOA has been working closely with federal lawmakers to amend Title VI;
in September, Sen. Arlen Specter and US Rep. Brad Sherman introduced a
bill to fill the legal loophole so that religious discrimination is
explicitly prohibited under Title VI, in the same way that racial and
national origin discrimination is already forbidden. All of us should
urge our senators and representatives to support this bill if we care
about the ability of our children and grandchildren to get their
education in an environment that’s physically and emotionally safe and
conducive to learning.Morton A. Klein is the president of
the Zionist Organization of America, and Susan Tuchman is director of
its Center for Law and Justice.