This summer, the Jewish community was rightly focused on the existential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This fall, as Jewish college students return to campus, our attention must return inward.
On college campuses, students routinely hear calls to dismantle the Jewish state. In some cases, these calls are interspersed with anti-Jewish epithets, like “dirty Jew” or “kike.” In others, they are combined with anti-Jewish stereotypes and defamations. Jewish students have been assaulted, battered, threatened, and harassed.
Earlier this year, the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity College published a report that found that 54% of self-identified Jewish students on 55 campuses experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism during 2013-2014. Things may be worsening. Recently, a Brandeis University study found that nearly three-quarters of Jewish college student respondents had been exposed during the past year to anti-Semitic statements.
If any other minority faced this level of bias, the federal government would step in. After all, President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged his commitment to equal rights. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has eloquently stated, on behalf of the Administration, “that what we will always insist on is nothing less than equal justice; comprehensive justice; justice that ‘rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
When it comes to Jewish college students, however, they have not provided a mighty stream of justice. They have not given these students even a trickle.
While most Jewish college students have faced some form of anti-Semitism, federal officials have not found a single statutory violation in the last decade.
So where is our mighty stream?
You could we say we have ourselves to blame. After all, many Jewish students are unwilling to step forward and speak out against anti-Semitism. Some fear retaliation. Others are unwilling to bring unflattering attention to their schools or to take time away from their studies.
But it’s not just the students. The Jewish community is divided. Whenever one Jewish voice rises up to decry anti-Semitism, another rises to deny that the problem exists. With so much squabbling, it is no wonder that offiicals are sometimes reluctant to take action.
The biggest problem is governmental paralysis. For several years, federal bureaucrats could not agree to extend protections to Jewish students under any circumstance. Until a decade ago, when I headed the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, officials argued that Jews are just a religion, not a race or nationality, and that the applicable statute therefore does not apply to them.
Even after I wrote the 2004 policy extending civil rights protections to Jewish students, some of my successors declined to enforce it. It was only five years ago that the Obama administration committed itself to that policy.
Now that they concede that federal law bars campus anti-Semitism, however, they cannot agree on what anti-Semitism is. When Jewish students and professors complain of anti-Semitism, federal bureaucrats insist that the problem has more to do with Israel and less to do with bias.
Don’t blame the investigators. They need guidance. Specifically, they need policies telling them when conduct crosses the line and what it does not.
Such guidance exists. The Obama administration has endorsed it. But it was issued by the State Department, not the Justice or Education Departments. For this reason, the government only uses it for international relations, not domestic affairs. In other words, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
The United States should speak with one voice. The government should not be in the position of calling an anti-Semitic if it happens in Paris or Berlin but not if it occurs in New York or Los Angeles.
The domestic agencies should promptly adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition, including its examples of actions relating to Israel. The State Department has based its policies on Natan Sharansky’s 3-D test, which explained that hatred for Israel is not always anti-Semitic. But it may cross the line into anti-Semitism when it is based on Demonization, Delegitimization, or Double standards.
To be clear, adopting this definition is not the same as saying that every use of double standards is anti-Semitic. Context matters, as the State Department has clearly instructed. But the definition provides a starting point, a presumption. Moreover, it is one thing to say that demonization is anti-Semitic and quite another to say that it is illegal. Under the First Amendment, much speech is constitutionally protected. But colleges, universities, and federal agencies must have a uniform definition so that they can treat anti-Jewish conduct the same way that it treats racism and sexism: no better and no worse.
We would not tolerate a situation in which any other group faced this level of discrimination. Jewish students should be no different.
Kenneth L. Marcus, former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com). This month, Oxford University Press is publishing his newest book, The Definition of Anti-Semitism.