By Aaron Howard, Jewish Herald Voice
December 23, 2010
A review of Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America by Kenneth L. Marcus
On May 7, 2002, Jewish students at San Francisco State University, wearing Hillel shirts imprinted with the word “peace” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, conducted a rally for peace in the Middle East. After the rally, some 50 students remained to clean up and conduct a prayer service.
Then, a larger group of pro-Palestinian counterdemonstrators surrounded the Jewish students, physically trapping them at the edge of the student plaza. The pro-Palestinian group began screaming epitaphs at the Jewish students, such as “Get out, or we will kill you” and “Hitler did not finish the job.”
Campus police arrived. They refused to take any action except to station themselves physically between the pro-Palestinian group and the Jewish students. As the anti-Jewish epitaphs continued and the physical intimidation of the Jewish students escalated, San Francisco police were summoned. The city police escorted the Jewish students from the plaza to the campus Hillel building and remained stationed outside.
The incident occurred one month after a pro-Palestinian rally on the campus. At that rally, students distributed a flier with the photo of a dead baby and the words, “Canned Palestinian Children Meat-Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites under American License.”
When university students feel intimidated, discriminated against or believe their civil rights have been violated, there is a federal go-to organization whose specific mission is to investigate and handle cases involving discrimination within the American university system. That organization is the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. If you are African-American, Hispanic, female or an older student who faces discrimination, the OCR will investigate your charge.
But, not if you are Jewish. Your case would not be opened because the OCR doesn’t categorize Jews as a racial or national origin category. Jews are defined as a religion. Congress has never passed legislation prohibiting religious discrimination in American education.
This is the Catch-22 identified by Kenneth L. Marcus in his book, “Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America” (Cambridge). As former staff director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Marcus is an insider when it comes to civil rights policy issues. At a structural level, Marcus charges that the OCR “has been essentially paralyzed in its ability to enforce equal opportunity by its inability to resolve a problem that is entirely conceptual: that is, the meaning of the phrase ‘discrimination on the grounds of race.’ Simply put: The OCR bureaucrats (many of whom are Jewish) have interpreted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as excluding Jews because Jews are not considered members of a distinct race. And, if Jews are not members of a distinct racial group, then they are not entitled to protection from discrimination because of race under Title VI. It’s a narrow conceptual framework. But, as law, it is binding on U.S. agencies and courts.
Is the issue important? Yes, argues Marcus. Since 2002, there has been a spike in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, Holocaust denial and divestment incidents on university campuses. Note that Marcus is not an alarmist in the sense of seeing anti-Semitism as systemic in higher education. He finds that outside the college campus, the U.S. “is almost philo-Semitic.” He also says that some of the anti-Jewish campus incidents have been “incidental.”
At the same time, he finds discrimination against Jews at some colleges as “systemic.” Marcus defines systemic as characterized by high volume or severity, cultural pervasiveness and/or structural attachment. At San Francisco State, for example, the May 7 incident took place within the context of a yearlong severe and pervasive anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish campaign on the campus.
However, following May 7, the San Francisco State administration took a series of positive actions to address the issue. For example, the administration declared, “A hostile environment such as that created by posters targeting a particular ethnic and religious group is a flash point.” In contrast, a faculty committee commissioned to investigate a series of incidents by fellow faculty members in the Middle East program at Columbia University produced a report that was a whitewash of student complaints.
Like other critics, Marcus finds that the politics on many U.S. campuses has become “overwhelmingly liberal.” These days, anti-Zionist and anti-American ideologies are concentrated on the left. Unlike other critics, Marcus finds little “new” in “the new anti-Semitism,” except the participation of Arab and Muslim students.
For those who argue that the whole issue merely is one of First Amendment rights, Marcus destroys that argument in an entire chapter of his book. Such speech actually has the effect of suppressing expression, especially when it veers into hate speech. The object of such speech is not to promote dialogue. The object is to bully and intimidate. This speech “has the peculiar ability to silence the groups that it aims to diminish,” says Marcus.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, Jewish students need, want and deserve the protection of Title VI. The legal arguments to obtain these rights and protections should be secondary.
Instead of getting hung up questioning whether Jews are a race, Marcus emphasizes that “the new anti-Semitism” dehumanizes all Jews through “racializing discourses that subordinate Jews or the Jewish state to a morally inferior group.”
To remedy these forms of assault, we need not have to sort Jews, as a group, into the exclusive category of “race, color or national origin.” These boundaries are not material to the determination of coverage, argues Marcus. Title VI needs to be reformed. Currently, Marcus serves as director of The Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism at the Institute for Jewish Community Research (jewishresearch.org). Title VI reform is the organization’s mission. Consider this book as a brief for Marcus’ case.