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You Call This Civil Rights?

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 17, 2018

This son of a Holocaust survivor has always seen himself as one associated not only with a Jewish religion but a Jewish ethnicity that goes way, way back. So, I welcome the Education Department’s decision this week to look out for Jews as an ethnicity caught up in human rights issues.

That said, however, the Education Department decision this week (during the Jewish holidays) to re-open a settled question at Rutgers University in New Jersey, leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

In taking up the cause of anti-Semitism, Betsy deVos’s decision to recognize Jews as an ethnic group gets everything weirdly mixed up with current day politics — in the United States and in Israel. The Education Department’s civil rights division has decided that the issues are narrowly defined as to protect certain kinds of Jewish college students and to do so by suing other students who are asking sensitive questions.

As the tale is told by The New York Times, Kenneth L. Marcus, new head of the department’s civil rights area, has reopened a seven-year-old case brought by a Zionist group against Rutgers, arguing that the Obama administration had ignored evidence that suggested the school allowed a hostile environment for Jewish students.

It turns out that Marcus is a longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes. His actions are putting the federal government directly into the spreading campus discussions about whether to divest and boycott investments in Israeli companies — apparently to align Education Department thinking with Trump administration foreign policy thinking and the Israeli political right.

In a letter to the Zionist Organization of America obtained by The Times, Marcus said he would overrule the 2014 decision to re-examine the conservative Jewish group’s cause “not as a case of religious freedom but as possible discrimination against an ethnic group,” said the newspaper.

The Times added that by so doing, the Education Department embraced Judaism as an ethnicity and adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that included “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination” by, for example, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of” Israel “a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Disclosure of this letter follows the Trump administration’s move of the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and as the White House has moved to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority and announced the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington.

Arab-American activists say, our government is declaring the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department told The Times that while the agency has no jurisdiction over religious discrimination, the office “aggressively enforces” civil rights law, “which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.” Thus, this new definition for Jews.

Rutgers is just one of many campuses where left-leaning students have questioned investments of universities in Israel as a protest against the continuing and burgeoning portrait of the Israeli government as anti-Palestinian. Some of those protests have gotten physical, as campus protests can and do.

Now In my family, we not only celebrate holidays that recognize that Jews have been persecuted in every generation; as U.S. citizens, we recognize when others are scapegoated by authorities too eager to always find someone to blame. These days, the list of persecuted often start with Muslims, and we see it as our responsibility to speak out strongly about governmental wrongdoing towards ethnicities.

I’ve got to tell you, mixing questions about Jewish identity — a constant for U.S. Jews — in with Israeli politics is always dicey. Specifically, aligning my interests as a U.S. Jew with the Israeli political right wing is not the way to be looking out for the well-being of Jews in America. Perhaps it is a Trump thing to assume that all Jews think alike.

For me, designing an approach towards protecting a Jewish homeland by denying Arab votes is a nonstarter; I think that ignoring the facts of settlement-building as being antithetical to peace-building is nuts. Indeed, I think I would tell the Education Department that Israeli policy-making is not among my top concerns, Jewish or other. Sure, I’d say taking positions on preserving Jewish survival is good. Enforcing laws banning hate speech and actions against Jews would be good. Calling out neo-Nazis and white supremacists who hate Jews would be just dandy by me. I don’t hear much of that from this administration.

And, I think the Education Department’s involvement in campus politics would more properly be to celebrate the complexities of free speech, and encourage people of all stripes to understand that promotion of one set of ideas need not come only at the expense of the ideas of another group.

In 2011, Rutgers was host to Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and after his speech, in which he called for the university to distance itself from Israel, the school issued a statement assuring the college’s Hillel group that it would not. The Zionist Organization of America filed a claim that any such actions were “contrary to the true values of Rutgers University and are not supported by the facts.”

Marcus, who was confirmed in June, came from Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit advocacy organization that pressured campuses to squelch anti-Israel speech and activities, said The Times. The group advocated revocation of federal funds from Middle East studies programs that are said to have an anti-Israel slant, and it urged universities to discipline students who are part of the divest movement.

Marcus informed ZOA that he would review 2011 allegations that a liberal, pro-Palestinian group, Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action, imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israeli students and non-students who attended an event and that there was physical tussling.

This kind of help we don’t need.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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