Jewish organizations were gratified when in 2010 the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights broadened its interpretation of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to prohibiting discrimination based on race, national origin or color in federally funded programs, the provision added protection against “harassment of members of religious groups based on shared ethnic characteristics,” which in practical terms includes Jews.
The question being debated in the community today is: now that we have the right to initiate federal suits against anti-Jewish or anti-Israel activity on campus, should we use it, or will it have a chilling effect on academic freedom?
The Zionist Organization of America has taken an aggressive lead on this front, viewing this legal protection as an effective tool and noting approvingly that the presidents of both the University of California and Rutgers University recently issued public statements condemning anti-Semitic activities on their respective campuses.
ZOA leaders Morton Klein and Susan Tuchman pointed out in a statement that the policy likely “played a role” in the presidents speaking out since it “recommends that university leaders label certain incidents as anti-Semitic.” The ZOA officials also noted that there are Title VI investigations, which the organization played a role in, pending against the two schools.
Other mainstream Jewish groups are expressing more caution, though. A resolution to be debated and voted on this weekend in Detroit at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs describes the Title VI right as “an important remedy” but warns of “the risk of backlash if Jewish students seek to invoke Title VI in circumstances where it is not intended to apply,” noted the chairs of the two task forces that drafted the resolution.
The consensus view of the JCPA, made up of representatives of 14 national agencies and 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils, appears to be that while the Title VI option is important to have, so are the tried and tested tools long employed by Jewish community relations organizations, like dialogue, personal engagement and education.
Who is to define whether schools have responded adequately to complaints? How long is it reasonable to wait for a response? What is the best way to gauge the tone of a sincere response?
As always, there will be differences of interpretation and plans of action among Jewish organizations. That is a good thing. So is knowing that Title VI is a viable option. While the ZOA says that “it is time for us to stop being ‘shah-still’ frightened Jews” and speak out more forcefully, others insist that excessive responses could destroy relations between universities and the Jewish community.
We trust that a policy calling for flexibility and measured steps, as well as holding out the option for litigation, will produce the desired results.