Peter SchmidtThe Chronicle of Higher Education
April 24, 2012
By Peter Schmidt
Aaron I. Marcus says he has put up with a lot as a Jewish student here at Rutgers University.
Over the past few years, he says, he has been on the receiving end of anti-Semitism and threats from students and a staff member. A self-described conservative who often voices support for Israel in The Daily Targum, a student newspaper, he recently saw another student paper, The Medium, publish an April Fool's edition with a fake column under his byline that offered praise for Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Marcus, a senior majoring in political science, says that he has asked university officials to protect him from harassment, but that "because I'm a Jewish student, my concerns aren't heard."
Aaron Marcus (right), a senior at Rutgers, talks with Rabbi Akiva Weiss, of the Hillel chapter there. Mr. Marcus says that he has asked university officials to protect his rights, but that "because I'm a Jewish student, my concerns aren't heard."
Enlarge ImageComplaints of Anti-Semitism Raise Issues of Academic Freedom 4
Danny Ghitis for The Chronicle
Charles Haberl, director of Rutgers's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, says contingent faculty now hesitate to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in class, "and I don't blame them."
Last year he appealed to the Zionist Organization of America, which filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights accusing Rutgers of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to afford Jewish students the same protections against discrimination it would afford members of other minority groups.
Rutgers, which enrolls about 39,000 students on its flagship campus here, is one of several American colleges that Jewish activists have formally accused of tolerating anti-Semitism. They also brought a lawsuit against the University of California's Berkeley campus and filed federal discrimination complaints against its Irvine and Santa Cruz campuses, as well as Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia University. The accusations cite incidents, such as campus protests using hateful rhetoric, in which Jewish students and faculty members say they suffered anti-Semitic attacks in dealing with critics of Israel.
It remains unclear how the civil-rights office and courts will come down on the central question raised by such complaints: how to strike a balance between respecting First Amendment rights and protecting Jewish students against discrimination. The Berkeley lawsuit is still in the courts, and the civil-rights office has yet to rule directly on the merits of such a complaint since its 2010adoption of a more expansive view of what sorts of anti-Semitic incidents it can take action against.
Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers's chapter of Hillel, a national Jewish-student organization, says some students there feel the First Amendment is being used as "a tool for people to express prejudice or intimidation or bullying or harassment."
But Gregory S. Blimling, the university's vice president for student affairs, says what he hears is not anti-Semitism but disagreement over Israel's policies. "There are people on both sides of that debate," he says, "who would like to have the other side of that argument not have the same freedoms they do."
And Charles G. Haberl, director of the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, says its contingent faculty members are now hesitant to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in class. "They are frightened to say anything about these issues, especially since they don't have the shield of tenure to hide behind. And I don't blame them."
Academic groups such as the American Association of University Professors have expressed concern that some complaints of anti-Semitism threaten academic freedom. And those critics aren't alone.
The past year has been marked by growing division among and within Jewish organizations over when such complaints should be filed.
The David Project, a group that seeks to promote Israel on American campuses, argues that Jewish groups should take a more diplomatic approach, and in a new strategic plan it warns that "overly aggressive" civil-rights complaints "could create a campus backlash against Israel supporters that erodes, rather than enhances, Israel's standing."
More significantly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization representing more than 130 local, regional, and national Jewish groups, plans at its annual assembly next month to vote on a resolution stating that complaints of anti-Semitism should not be filed hastily with the Education Department, even if they are a valuable tool.
"Title VI isn't intended to be a panacea for all evils and a remedy for any and every perceived slight, no matter how small," says Gerald P. Greiman, a St. Louis lawyer who helped draft the measure as co-chairman of a panel on Jewish security and civil rights.
The resolution argues that "it is not in the Jewish community's best interest to invoke Title VI to promote a 'politically correct' environment in which legitimate debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is squelched and academic freedom is undermined." It urges the council's members to "consult with a broad range of Jewish student community leaders before publicly threatening a Title VI suit," to gauge what effect their actions would have on that community and whether the threatened suit's basic claim "is consistent with their experience on campus."
"The last thing we need as a community is vigilantes parachuting into college campuses and inflaming, or even creating, problems so they can secure headlines and publicity for their point of view," says David Luchins, chairman of the political-science department at Touro College, who helped draft the resolution as the council's vice chairman and representative from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Some Jewish students at Rutgers and elsewhere believe their community's image is being hurt by complaints of anti-Semitism. Daniel Heitner, a junior who left Hillel after becoming involved with a group that has advocated on behalf of Palestinians, says what he has witnessed here are slurs and threats directed by some Jewish students against "Islamic students and people who are not in agreement with the Zionist ideology."
Although the public-affairs council's resolution is expected to pass easily, its language warning against the overuse of discrimination complaints is strongly opposed by the Jewish Federation in Detroit and two local federations in New Jersey. Another group, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has offered a substitute resolution arguing that Title VI enforcement poses no threat to free speech.
Susan B. Tuchman, a board member of the northern New Jersey council and director of the Zionist organization's Center for Law and Justice, and Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist group, last week published an opinion essay in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's news service expressing puzzlement over other Jewish organizations's reservations about federal complaints of discrimination. They argued that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' resolution tries "to impose unreasonably harsh standards on when Jewish students should use the law to rectify a hostile anti-Semitic school environment—stricter even than the standards that the Office for Civil Rights applies." It is time, they said, to stop being "frightened Jews of the previous generation and start strongly speaking out."
The pressure on colleges to curb anti-Semitism has grown as campus protests against Israel's policies have spread. Moreover, the civil-rights office's pledge to more aggressively fight anti-Semitism followed statements by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the U.S. State Department defining as anti-Semitic much speech against Israel that is often regarded on campuses as fair game.
Kenneth L. Marcus, who is unrelated to the Rutgers student, directs the new Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which is devoted to fighting anti-Semitism on campuses and, he says, monitors "dozens of campuses" as potential targets of lawsuits. In his former position as a lawyer for the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, Mr. Marcus helped persuade the Education Department's civil-rights office, which he had previously led, to take a more aggressive stance against anti-Semitism. When the office announced its new position, he declared that the "elephant in the room" was the question of how it would distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Zionism or Israel.
The Zionist Organization of America cites the policies of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the State Department in arguing that criticism of Israel should be regarded as anti-Semitic if it demonizes Israel, argues that Israel has no right to exist, or invokes Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Most colleges, including Rutgers, have refused to take as broad a view.
Many Jewish activists argue that colleges are experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism as a result of the international "Boycott, Divest, and Sanction" campaign against Israel and related efforts to liken Israel to South Africa under apartheid. The lawsuit against Berkeley accuses administrators of exposing Jewish students to anti-Semitism and denying them equal protection by tolerating fake checkpoints and walls purporting to expose Jews and other students to the conditions under which many Palestinians live. At Rutgers, students last year similarly protested Israel's policies with an "apartheid wall."
"There is no question that there are coordinated international efforts to delegitimize Israel using Western college campuses as a key battlefield," says Mr. Marcus, of the Brandeis Center. An Israeli advocacy group, Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center, last year sent the presidents of more than 150 American colleges letters warning they may be subject to civil and criminal liability and "massive damages" if they did not protect the rights of Jewish and Israeli students.
Of the formal allegations of anti-Semitism recently made against colleges, the federal lawsuit that two students filed against the University of California at Berkeley was dismissed in December, on the grounds that most of the harassment it alleged, such as encounters with fake police checkpoints, amounted to protected speech. (One of the plaintiffs also claimed that a student supporter of Palestine rammed her with a shopping cart.) The judge allowed the students to file an amended complaint offering different accusations of administrative inaction, however, and the dispute has been referred to a magistrate judge for settlement.
The federal complaint against the University of California at Irvine, alleging that Jewish students were harmed by hateful e-mails, offensive anti-Israel protests, and other actions by Muslim and Arab students, was initially dismissed but is being reconsidered based on the civil-rights office's changed stance on anti-Semitism.
The office halted its investigation of Barnard College in January, saying it was unable to sort through the conflicting accounts offered by the sole complainant, a student, and the academic-department head she had accused of dissuading her from taking a class taught by a Columbia professor criticized as being hostile to Zionism. But Mr. Marcus, of the Brandeis Center, says he nevertheless regards that case as a victory, in that the civil-rights office established a willingness to consider allegations that students have been steered away from certain courses because they are Jewish.
In an opinion essay recently published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Shani Chabansky, a senior majoring in anthropology and Jewish studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, argued that the federal investigation there "is a waste of time" and "has turned Jew against Jew," because much criticism of Israel on that campus comes from Jewish students.
The investigation of Santa Cruz was triggered by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies who accused the university of sponsoring events she regarded as biased against Israel. Last year she co-founded the Amcha [Your People] Initiative to advocate for Jewish students in California. In recent weeks, the group has urged administrators of the University of California at Los Angeles and California State University at Northridge to stop professors from posting links on their Web sites to sites calling for a boycott of Israel.
Finding the Facts
The Zionist Organization of America's initial complaint to the Office for Civil Rights about Rutgers, filed last July, said administrators there had refused to act on Jewish students' concerns that the campus "has become increasingly hostile and anti-Semitic," and had reacted mainly by dragging their feet and seeking to protect the rights of Muslim students and an employee accused of discrimination.
Among its allegations, it said a student group called Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action, or BAKA, had created an anti-Semitic environment by regularly staging events "that promote anti-Semitic bigotry and demonize Jews and Israel." It also said Jewish students were subjected to hostility in Middle East-studies courses.
The civil-rights office refused to act on the accusations, saying the Zionist organization had identified only one student who complained of a hostile environment in Middle East-studies classes or more broadly on the campus, and had failed to demonstrate that BAKA's events promoted anti-Semitism or to identify any students who complained to the university about the group.
In a letter to the Zionist organization, the civil-rights office said it planned to limit its investigation to Rutgers's response to three specific allegations: that the outreach coordinator for the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Shehnaz Sheik Abdeljaber, had physically threatened Aaron Marcus (who is unnamed in the letter) during a 2009 argument and had posted threatening comments about him on Facebook; that other students had subjected Mr. Marcus to anti-Semitic harassment by threatening him on Facebook; and that BAKA had discriminated against Jewish and pro-Israel students by charging them $5 to attend a January 2011 event to which others were admitted free.
Mr. Blimling, the university's vice president for student affairs, says two lawyers and other university personnel have spent "hundreds of man-hours" providing the civil-rights office with requested documents and testimony. "It is noteworthy," he says, "that we have 6,000 Jewish students on campus, and we have had one student issue a complaint."
The outcome of the investigation is likely to hinge on a sorting of the facts. In the case of the January event, BAKA has said that the outside groups that had leased the campus space and were the primary organizers decided to impose a $5 admission charge to cover security costs after learning that hundreds of Jewish activists planned to show up in protest, and that the only people admitted without paying were volunteers and members of sponsoring organizations.
Regarding the accusations against Ms. Abdeljaber, university officials said an administrator had witnessed Ms. Abdeljaber's run-in with the student and did not see her physically threaten him. Mr. Haberl, of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said he looked into the alleged threats against the student on Facebook and had reason to suspect the authenticity of screen shots of the Facebook posts, which were no longer online.
When interviewed this month, Mr. Marcus said people who deny the existence of anti-Semitism at Rutgers "are either not paying attention or being completely ignorant on purpose." He also said Jewish students here have been taping their instructors' lectures to gather evidence of them making anti-Semitic remarks in class.
As students gathered at the university's Hillel House this month for dinner during Passover most described the campus environment as extremely supportive of Jewish students, and few said they had experienced any anti-Semitism except for a recent protest outside the house by pro-Palestinian students.
Mr. Getraer, executive director of the Hillel chapter, says that while the vast majority of Jewish students do not experience anti-Semitism at Rutgers, "for a number of students who are very active in the pro-Israel community, it has become hostile." Most, he says, are afraid to complain.
He blames the recent article in The Medium, falsely depicting Aaron Marcus as praising Hitler—an article that top officials on the campus have denounced as distasteful and deeply offensive, and which the Zionist Organization of America may try to incorporate into its federal complaint—on the university's administration. "It became open season" on the student when his earlier concerns about anti-Semitism went unheeded, Mr. Getraer says.
"When things happen to Jewish students and there are no repercussions whatsoever," he says, "it creates an atmosphere that just escalates."