Alyza Lewin is at war – a legal war over the future of the treatment of Jewish-Zionists in the US, especially on university campuses.
In an interview on the sidelines of a conference on US-Israel relations organized by Israeli Institute for Economic Planning founder and chairman Yossi Hollander and co-sponsored by multiple groups, Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights (LDB), discussed her ongoing struggle to defend Jewish-Zionists on campus.
Most recently, Lewin has gotten to see some real victories and change after years of a meticulous and incremental legal and public-relations campaign.
Victories in the battle to defend Jewish Zionists on campus
As of 2018, the Department of Education (DOE) started to respond to anti-Jewish-Zionist discrimination complaints with serious investigations on the basis of Title VI within US federal law.
Though this started during the Trump administration era, including Lewin and LDB filing a complaint against University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, it continued during the Biden administration.
Biden-era complaints have been filed against the University of Southern California, Brooklyn College and the University of Vermont, and there is a separate Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation of Stanford University.
The DOE investigation into Illinois “led the parties to have a conversation to see if the university would take concrete steps… The parties issued a joint statement on antisemitism from the university… which recognized that Zionism for many of its Jewish students is an integral part of their identity and ancestral heritage,” Lewin said. “Students have a right to openly express their identification with Israel, and the university will safeguard that participation.”
“Students have a right to openly express their identification with Israel, and the university will safeguard that participation.”Alyza Lewin
Asked how the situation is on the ground, she responded – after an extended pause, that “change is slow. They have joined the campus climate initiative program… Members of the university administration have attended training by Hillel, but the Brandeis Center provides the legal piece of the university’s obligation under Title VI.”
NEXT, LEWIN said she hopes to “work through with the university: What are the concrete steps it needs to take to address this. When you have clubs that say Zionists aren’t welcome, the university has to treat that no differently than if someone said Blacks are not welcome, or no Asians in our club.”
“Judaism is more than a religion,” she said. “Jews also share a sense of peoplehood. Universities have made the mistake that the needs of a Jew are just with regard to religious practices – kosher food, putting up a mezuzah, an exemption for Yom Kippur – but they don’t realize Jews are being targeted based on peoplehood and due to their ancestral heritage.”.
“I hope Israelis can understand that American Jews talk about Jewish identity differently,” Lewin said. “We can teach Israelis about how to talk, think and understand” Jewish identity the way American Jews do.”
But all of this was after years of following anti-Israel efforts in painstaking detail
“Documentation shows [that] what is happening on campus is part of a well-organized campaign to delegitimize and destroy the Jewish State of Israel,” she said.
Part of what she wants to emphasize is that “These are not random isolated incidents. They are no longer discussing two states.: Part of this effort is to erase Israel.”
“These are not random isolated incidents. They are no longer discussing two states. Part of this effort is to erase Israel.”Alyza Lewin
Recounting one incident, Lewin noted how the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) circulated a booklet at Tufts University known as “the deadly exchange.”
“They seek to blame police brutality in America on Israel and the Jews,” she said. “‘Where did America learn racial profiling and aggressive police tactics?’ they ask, and then put forth Israeli-US security exchanges as the ‘deadly exchange’ or [they] manufactured [a] scapegoat.”
“Years ago, a Tufts police officer, who is not working there anymore, went on an ADL mission,” Lewin said, adding that the SJP got the university to put a referendum before all of its students, which passed in 2020, as part of student elections with three items:
- Should the university apologize for its former employee going to Israel?
- Must the university give assurances that it will never again send any police officer to Israel?
- Must the university commit to never hire anyone who had been on such a trip?
The booklet which framed the “deadly exchange” referendum included a map of the area of Israel, but Israel doesn’t exist on the map, she said.
FURTHER, LEWIN said that 43 student organizations supported the referendum, which could be said to be endorsing the map. They included the entire progressive community on campus: activists for minorities, LGBT, women’s rights, combating climate change and supporting immigration.
“Even most Jews who are for a two-state solution cannot accept this map,” she said. “There is no Israel. It automatically puts Jews on the wrong side of the divide on racial and social-justice issues.”
In an incident in 2018, before the SJP national conference, Lewin said they posted their goals on the conference website.
Later, she said, they took down the post, but it had been captured already as an archived page. In the post, they define Zionism as: ethnic cleansing, destruction, apartheid and death and mass destruction. They said “there is hope,” because Zionism can be broken down, dismantled and destroyed, she said.
Lewin said the SJP did not just want to “talk theory.” Rather, their post said they wanted to “develop local and regional campaigns with clear targets.”
“Who is the target?” she asked. “The Jewish-Zionist student who believes Israel has a right to exist?”
These days, “Some students have to create LGBT Jewish groups because queer groups won’t accept them,” she said.
The LDB president said that the Brandeis Center is working to “reframe the conversation on campus to raise awareness about what is really happening.”
The key is convincing university administrations that this is “not a good-faith debate,” she said, but instead that “what is taking place on campus is the marginalization, shunning and exclusion of Jews.”
A tool that the Brandeis Center, the Lawfare Project and StandWithUs are using to fight back is Title VI, which says that “any entity which gets federal government funds must give equal access to the opportunities it provides,” Lewin said.
Explaining that Title VI was “enacted to protect against segregation,” she said it broadly applies to anyone who is deprived of equal access, which “includes all extracurricular activities. If a university fails, they can lose their funding.”
Next, Lewin said a twist was that Title VI doesn’t include protections relating to religion. This limit was because sectarian institutions wanted to make decisions on admissibility based on faith, she said.
Though the Title VI lawsuits started mostly around 2018, Lewin said that LDB founder and chairman Kenneth Marcus, who previously worked at the DOE, started to lay the groundwork in 2004.
Marcus shifted the position to protecting even members of faith-based groups if they were being targeted on the basis of a separate category, along with their faith, she said. Later, the Department of Justice and the State Department also moved in this direction, and only in very recent years have the lawsuits started to bear fruit.