The Trump administration has decided to reopen a case brought by a Zionist group against Rutgers University, previously closed by the Obama administration in 2014, alleging that the university had allowed Jewish students to be subjected to a hostile environment in violation of Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. The issue, ignored by the Obama administration, was whether the students were discriminated against based on their actual or perceived Jewish ancestry or ethnicity. Kenneth L. Marcus, the new assistant secretary of education for civil rights, decided that the case deserved another look. As the New York Times reported, Mr. Marcus’s decision “put the weight of the federal government behind a definition of anti-Semitism that targets opponents of Zionism, and it explicitly defines Judaism as not only a religion but also an ethnic origin.” The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will be examining not only the past case it has reopened. It will also examine whether a hostile environment for Jewish students continues to exist at Rutgers.
According to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which filed the original complaint on July 20, 2011, the allegations included claims of physical threats and anti-Semitic comments posted on Facebook against at least one Jewish student, and discrimination against Jewish and pro-Israel students. The discrimination charge involved an anti-Israel event entitled “Never Again for Anyone,” sponsored by an anti-Israel student group called “Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA),” where an admission fee was allegedly imposed and selectively enforced against Jewish and pro-Israel students.
In reopening the case, Assistant Secretary Marcus focused on the anti-Israel event held on January 29, 2011. He concluded that the Obama administration had erred in dismissing the case because it disregarded evidence that the admission fee allegedly imposed on Jewish students seeking to attend the event was discriminatory, based on ethnicity. The Obama administration also disregarded evidence that Rutgers had failed to respond appropriately to student complaints regarding the pricing policy. The evidence of discrimination, as reported by Algemeiner, included an e-mail purportedly from a BAKA student volunteer at the anti-Israel event stating that there was a need to start charging an admission fee because “150 Zionists just showed up,” although “if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.” Assistant Secretary Marcus noted that singling out “150 Zionists” for an admission fee “could have been based at least partially on a visual assessment, as opposed to individually polling all 150 such unexpected arrivals as to their views on the policies of the state of Israel.” The selection of whom to charge, he said, “could have been rooted in a perception of Jewish ancestry or ethnic characteristics common to the group.” He added that it is “important to determine whether the conduct related to Israel was motivated by anti-Semitism” and to “determine whether terms such as ‘Zionist’ are actually code for ‘Jewish.’”
What makes Mr. Marcus’s decision to reopen this Rutgers case so significant is that his Department of Education civil rights office decided for the first time to use the definition of anti-Semitism used currently by the U.S. Department of State. This definition, which goes beyond the purely religious dimension, recognizes that under certain circumstances anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism can conflate. The State Department definition describes three ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel, taking into account the overall context (known as the three “Ds” of anti-Israel bias that constitute anti-Semitism):
Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions”
“DOUBLE STANDARD FOR ISRAEL:
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist”
The State Department definition makes clear that anti-Semitism does not include “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country.”
Students for Justice in Palestine, on numerous occasions at Rutgers and at other college campuses across the country, has crossed the line between legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies and blatant anti-Semitism as defined by the State Department. Amongst its various manifestations of anti-Semitism, Students for Justice in Palestine has actively pushed for the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state to be adopted at Rutgers and other college campuses. BDS is premised on the three “Ds” of anti-Semitism when it comes to the Jewish state of Israel. It is part of Palestinian activists’ campaign of hate against Jews on campus.
Against this backdrop of hate, it is no coincidence that Jewish students at Rutgers, like elsewhere, have reported an upsurge of hostile actions against them, including a swastika found spray-painted on the outside wall of a Rutgers University residence hall last fall. According to a Brandeis University report released in October 2016, entitled “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Sentiment on US Campuses,” approximately 39 percent of Rutgers’ Jewish students said they perceived a “hostile environment to Israel.” Approximately 25 percent perceived a “hostile environment toward Jews.” As many as one third have witnessed anti-Semitic harassment. Rutgers was among the small number of schools, out of the universe of schools surveyed, that emerged as a setting for Jewish students’ relatively more frequent exposure to anti-Semitic statements, such as “Israelis behave like Nazis” or “Jews have too much power in America.”
Rutgers officials have a mixed record in dealing with anti-Semitism on campus. They did reject a call for the university to take part in the BDS movement against Israel. On the other hand, the Rutgers’ chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine got away with sliding fake “eviction” notices with a municipal code number in the top-right corner, including a case and warrant number, under hundreds of doors at the Rutgers New Brunswick campuses. The Rutgers Bias Prevention Education Committee found no violation of the student life policy prohibiting harassment, according to a letter written by the school’s senior assistant general counsel. The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter claimed that the “eviction” notice, which failed to state it was not real until its third paragraph, was supposed to educate students how Palestinians feel when they receive real eviction notices from Israeli authorities. Evidently, invading students’ rights to privacy in their own dorm rooms with fake eviction notices slid under their doors, causing some of the targeted students to feel insecure in their residences, is not considered harassment at Rutgers.
Several Rutgers professors have spewed anti-Semitic hate. The university took action against one of them, a tenured Rutgers microbiology professor, Michael Chikindas, who had posted vile anti-Semitic material on social media. These included a post calling Judaism “the most racist religion in the world,” a claim that “Israel is the terrorist country aimed at genocidal extermination of the land’s native population, Palestinians,” and a charge that “the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated by the Turkish Jews who pretended to be the Turks” He also posted all manner of anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews.
In a letter sent last December to Rutgers faculty members, University President Robert Barchi and Chancellor Debasish Dutta stated that Professor Chikindas was “found to have posted extensive bigoted, discriminatory, and anti-Semitic material on social media. This material perpetuated toxic stereotypes and was deeply upsetting to Jewish students, faculty, and staff across our community. The fears and concerns they have expressed to us and many university leaders are both justified and understandable.”
In response, the university stripped the anti-Semitic professor of his position as director of Rutgers’ Center for Digestive Health at the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health. Students will be able to avoid having to sit in his class room because he will be barred from teaching any required courses. He will have to participate in a cultural sensitivity training program. The university may take further disciplinary actions, which could include suspension without pay or even dismissal if approved by a five-member faculty panel. This was a good first step, but only a modest one in dealing with the problem of faculty and other voices of anti-Semitism at Rutgers.
Rutgers still has a long way to go. Kudos to Assistant Secretary Marcus for shining a light on the rising tide of anti-Semitism on American college campuses, including Rutgers.