Standing up for Jewish students

There is yet one more critical approach: Confronting this behavior for what it is – a violation of the civil rights of Jewish students.

Palestinians call for a boycott 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians call for a boycott 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As American college students return to campus for the new academic year, there are signs that the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel will be stronger this year. And Israel-haters won’t stop there. They will harass Jewish students. They will interrupt pro-Israel speakers and rallies. They will vandalize Jewish property, spit at Jewish students, threaten violence, or physically assault Jewish supporters of Israel. For several years, the Jewish community has struggled with the right response to such incidents as they have escalated.
There are, of course, brave students and faculty willing to stand up to this thuggish behavior. And there are many Jewish student groups who are giving a home to those who want to have civil discussions about the Jewish state.
But there is yet one more critical approach: Confronting this behavior for what it is – a violation of the civil rights of Jewish students.
This can be done by pursuing a claim before the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In 2004, and again in 2010, OCR acknowledged that Jewish students have civil rights that must be protected. Since then, several Jewish advocates have filed complaints with OCR, trying to protect the rights of Jewish students.
It is fair to ask whether this effort is working.
In one sense, we have been disappointed.
Between August 19 and 21, OCR dismissed high-profile cases alleging unlawful anti- Semitic harassment at the Berkeley, Irvine and Santa Cruz campuses of the University of California.
Seeing all these cases rejected has been frustrating and disappointing, but we are, in fact, comforted by knowing that we are having the effect we had set out to achieve.
First, we have given voice at the highest levels of the federal government to the concerns of Jewish students and faculty. These cases may have been rejected by a low-level regional staffer, but as long as we bring them, they will force federal officials to take seriously the conclusions reached by two successive administrations: That Jews deserve protections from ethnic disparagement in higher education settings.
Second, we have put universities on notice.
These cases – even when rejected – expose administrators to bad publicity. Just last week, I heard from a university chancellor who is eager to work with the Schusterman Center for Israel studies at Brandeis University to avert the possibility of a civil rights complaint.
At many campuses, the prospect of litigation has made a difference.
If a university shows a failure to treat initial complaints seriously, it hurts them with donors, faculty, political leaders and prospective students. No university wants to be accused of creating an abusive environment.
Federal officials have noted the abusive habits of some faculty and students, and those findings have bruised the reputation of these campuses. This is important.
Third, by pursuing complaints through legal channels, we affirm that these are legal – not political – issues. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether Israel should or should not have a security barrier. It doesn’t matter whether Israel should support Jewish housing beyond the Green Line. It doesn’t matter even that there is such a thing as a Jewish state.
What matters is that universities should be places where Jews do not feel threatened by virtue of their shared ethnic heritage. We are shifting the debate.
Fourth, we are creating a very strong disincentive for outrageous behavior by students in particular. Israel-haters now publicly complain that these cases make it harder for them to recruit new adherents. Apparently students are being told not to get mixed up in Jewbaiting, rather to focus on their studies and get their degrees. Needless to say, getting caught up in a civil rights complaint is not a good way to build a resume or impress a future employer.
Finally, the only way to win these cases is to file them, even when we see some or most rejected. In my view, the findings of existing authorities are important but not final. Not all cases are going to meet the same fate.
Sadly, the outrages of anti-Semitism on the campus make it likely that Jew-hatred will become even more extreme and another incident will capture the attention of our legal team and federal investigators. When that happens, we will be ready.
After all, we cannot leave Jewish students undefended. When young people have the courage to step forward and assert their rights, we must stand behind them.
The author is president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights.