In Court Case, Community Weighs Gay Rights and Pro-israel Strategy
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In Court Case, Community Weighs Gay Rights and Pro-israel Strategy

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A U.S. Supreme Court case next month pits the American military against colleges and universities. But for much of the Jewish community, it pits their traditional views on gay rights against their interest in curbing anti-Israel rhetoric in higher education. The high court will hear the case of Rumsfeld v. FAIR on Dec. 6. It challenges the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment, which would cut all federal higher education funds to colleges and universities that refuse to allow military recruiters onto campus.

Several law schools have prevented military recruiters from meeting with students on campus, protesting the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays and lesbians.

The Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, which represents law school professors and student organizations, claims the Solomon Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996, violates law schools’ free-speech rights. A federal appeals court found the amendment unconstitutional last year.

Many Jewish groups have been sympathetic to the gay community’s civil-rights issues but have chosen to stay out of this case. While leaders note that they don’t get involved in all cases, they concede that part of the reason is a conflict between support for gay rights and support for the federal government’s policy of placing restrictions on federal aid to colleges and universities.

Court watchers in the Jewish community say the Solomon Amendment could set a precedent for allowing Congress to set parameters for federal funds it gives to institutes of higher education. Jewish groups see that as an opportunity to move legislation through Congress to stem anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric on campus.

“It’s already a precedent,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, and author of “The Uncivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education.” “Ultimately, if campuses can’t deal with systematic anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric, I would be in favor of legislation that holds them accountable at the state level and federal level.”

The federal government places parameters on much of the money it doles out, but has been loathe to place restrictions on the $180 billion it gives to colleges and universities each year, fearing it will stifle academic freedom on campus.

Jewish groups have been concerned about programs like Title VI, which gives federal funds to university programs on foreign cultures and languages. Several Jewish leaders claim the money has been used to promote anti-Israel and anti-Semitic biases.

They’re working on Capitol Hill to get an advisory board to monitor money doled out through Title VI, but if that doesn’t work, Jewish leaders say they like having another potential option.

“The Solomon Amendment was a congressional nuclear option,” Tobin said. “The threat of federal intervention on this issue is the last thing you want if colleges and universities do discriminate.”

Even so, it has led several Jewish groups to move away from their usual alliance with gay-rights groups.

The American Jewish Congress blasted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it was unveiled in 1993. But Marc Stern, the organization’s counsel, said the issue goes beyond the military’s gay-rights policy.

“We gave a lot of sympathy with the unease for the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Stern said. “I’m not sure, however, that ill-at-ease means the military should be excluded from universities.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military provided they don’t disclose their sexual orientation. It was unveiled by President Clinton in 1993 as a compromise after military leaders objected to his push to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The Anti-Defamation League and Reform movement were among the groups that objected to the Pentagon’s proposal at the time. Neither group signed on to briefs in the Solomon Amendment case.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said the issue hasn’t garnered much attention in the community.

“It just never found its way onto our radar screen,” he said. “I don’t think we had a single conversation on it internally.”

ADL officials were unavailable for comment.

“I think people were just not able to get their head around this case,” Stern said. “This case is not about the validity of gay rights.”

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