NEW YORK (JTA) – In the eyes of the Zionist Organization of America, the most depraved enemies of the Jewish people are obnoxious college campus loudmouths. As the editor of New Voices, a national magazine by and for Jewish college students, I have a different perspective.
The ZOA led the campaign to have discrimination against Jewish students recognized as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, originally passed in 1964 to remedy racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. But in its charge to circle the Jewish communal wagons, the ZOA has overreached.
ZOA President Morton Klein and Susan Tuchman, director of the group’s Center for Law and Justice, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed that Jewish college students today face “harassment and discrimination at schools receiving federal funding.” The ZOA pitched a six-year fit about it, which the group credits with this triumph: “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, finally clarified in October 2010 that Jewish students finally would be afforded the same protection” that other minorities have under Title VI.
The ZOA campaign capitalizes on and needlessly exacerbates the Jewish community’s already unwarranted paranoia about what’s happening to our young men and women on campus. As a member of the class of 2011 and as the editor of New Voices, I can say with confidence that there’s never been a better time to walk the halls and lawns of American academia as a Jew.
Thankfully, the response from leading groups like the Anti-Defamation League to the ZOA’s call to steamroll colleges into submission with Title VI has been tepid at best.
It’s good that Jews are covered by Title VI, but let’s make sure we use the coverage to protect ourselves from true hatemongers, not mere political opponents. That the ZOA is at the vanguard on this issue – instead of, say, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which has been unfairly pilloried by Title VI’s Jewish cheering section for cautioning restraint – should be the first clue that this push to sue universities under civil rights legislation is not just about protecting Jews.
In the race to ferret out Israel’s on-campus detractors, ZOA leaders have conflated two unlike things: They wrongly act as though opposition to Zionism is always anti-Semitism. It’s not so simple.
As much as our rightmost flank would like for Zionism to be codified into the Jewish faith – perhaps a 14th for Maimonides’ 13 principles? – it is neither universal nor central. Rather it is a political movement, one that gives expression to an ancient Jewish hope, but a political movement nonetheless. Zionism itself is no more at the essence of Jewish belief than is membership in large suburban synagogues.
Klein and Tuchman tsk-tsk their critics, saying their detractors ignore “that the policy has already shown its value.”
They are right that there have been Jewish Title VI victories, but in their rush to stoke our anxiety about Jewish life on campus they skip over the real wins, which have involved high schools, not colleges. Instead they cite statements issued by University of California President Mark Yudof and Rutgers University President Richard McCormick condemning behavior on campus that was downright nasty and might be seen as anti-Semitic as well.
But Title VI is a federal law. Shouldn’t the real wins come in court or official rulings by the OCR? In fact, such outcomes have been mixed, at best. A case against the University of California, Berkeley was dismissed by a federal court. One complaint at the University of California, Irvine was tossed out before Title VI covered Jews but is now being reconsidered. At Barnard College in New York, one was tossed out this year when it became clear that there was nothing more than dubious he said/she said evidence.
The real successes have come at the high school level. A case regarding a bullied Virginia high school student was ruled in the complainant’s favor. The Forward recently reported that this is the only case so far to result in such a ruling. Most important, the incident did not involve Israel but classic swastika-laden anti-Semitic tropes. When less confrontational means fail, true anti-Semitism like this should certainly be fought under Title VI – wherever this filth rears its head, be it on a college campus, in a high school or, God forbid, in younger grades.
Meanwhile, the ZOA-backed college cases — attempts to use Title VI as a bludgeon to advance the ZOA’s far-right political viewpoints — aren’t going anywhere. In at least one example, it has even led to the despicable targeting of fellow Jews. As Shani Chabansky, a Jewish student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote in February in New Voices and the Forward, a Title VI complaint at UCSC has sparked a witch hunt within the Jewish community, hurting more than helping many Jewish students. Jewish students who subscribe to left-wing forms of Zionism shamefully have been accused of being anti-Israel.
The ZOA’s intent is now clear: Its use of Title VI is a political tactic that targets valid, albeit distasteful and wrongheaded, political debate. Even as a transparent attempt to stifle legitimate discourse, the ZOA’s Title VI campaign is hardly the success that Klein and Tuchman make it out to be.
(David A.M. Wilensky is the editor of New Voices Magazine and executive director of the Jewish Student Press Service.)