If you’re worried about rising campus antisemitism and its impact on young Jews, you’ll be alarmed to know that the one federal agency tasked with addressing this problem – the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) – has spent years dragging its feet. It’s time for OCR to promptly and vigorously protect Jewish students’ legal right to a campus environment that’s physically and psychologically safe.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination in federally funded programs, which includes all public and almost all private universities. Under Title VI, a school must promptly and effectively address antisemitic harassment and prevent it from recurring, or risk losing its federal funding.
The antisemitic hostility on campus is frightening; the results of a recent Anti-Defamation League/Hillel International survey bear that out. Some 43% of Jewish college students experienced and/or witnessed antisemitic activity in the past year, and most who experience antisemitism don’t report it.
This should set off alarm bells at OCR. But several student-supported Title VI cases are stagnating. One, against Rutgers University, has been sitting at the agency for more than 10 years, and we have not been able to get OCR even to respond to our repeated requests for information about the case’s status.
The Zionist Organization of America filed its complaint against Rutgers in 2011. After we waited three years for a decision, OCR closed the case in 2014 for insufficient evidence. Four years later, OCR finally accepted the ZOA’s appeal, vacating its earlier decision and reopening the case, to determine whether a hostile environment had existed at Rutgers in 2011 and exists today.
This long-awaited development was positive but went nowhere, because the case has been sitting at OCR ever since. Disgracefully, the Jewish students who courageously came forward to report the discrimination they endured never got the justice they deserved. All of them graduated from Rutgers years ago. At least three are married. At least two are now parents themselves. It’s no exaggeration to say that OCR abandoned these students who rightly depended on their government to protect them and to hold their university accountable for violating their civil rights.
Jewish students at Duke University were also let down by the federal agency mandated to protect them. The ZOA filed a well-documented Title VI complaint against Duke a year-and-a-half ago, after Jewish students were threatened and harassed and their university failed to respond. OCR still has not even decided whether the complaint should be investigated. The agency’s inaction is particularly egregious because Duke has a history of tolerating antisemitism. When we filed our complaint against Duke, the university was already subject to a resolution agreement it entered into with OCR the year before, triggered by a previous Title VI complaint filed by the ZOA.
The Duke students who bravely came forward reasonably believed that OCR would enforce the law and protect them. But they’ve long since graduated, left to conclude that their Title VI rights are effectively meaningless. And Duke got a pass for once again tolerating antisemitism.
Filed over a year ago, the ZOA’s Title VI complaint against CUNY School of Law has also been languishing at OCR, which says the complaint is under review.
This sluggish response to combating campus antisemitism isn’t reflected in OCR’s latest report to the education secretary, the president and Congress. In the report, OCR recognizes the “troubling rise of antisemitism on campuses and in schools.” It emphasizes that this problem “cannot be ignored,” and that the “vigorous enforcement of Title VI to combat antisemitism” is one of OCR’s “most important priorities.” OCR proudly claims that for two successive years, it resolved at least 80% of all civil rights complaints filed within 180 days of receiving them.
Sadly, that’s not the reality of the Jewish students we’ve been privileged to work with. They depended on OCR to protect them. But OCR failed them.
Last August, we wrote to the acting assistant secretary for civil rights urging more vigorous enforcement of Title VI. She never bothered to respond. Recently, we wrote to Catherine Lhamon, the newly confirmed assistant secretary for civil rights, urging that OCR finally treat these Title VI antisemitism cases with the vigilance and seriousness they deserve.
Lhamon has been lauded as “one of the strongest civil rights leaders in America.” We implore her to use that strength to hold universities and colleges accountable, forcefully and without delay when they unlawfully tolerate campus antisemitism. Jewish students are counting on her.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Susan B. Tuchman, Esq. is director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.