An important step forward in the battle against antisemitism was taken recently by the U.S. Department of Education, which has the potential to improve the antisemitic atmosphere now tainting many U.S. college and university campuses. The DoE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has officially recognized that differential treatment of people because they adhere to the Jewish commitment to Zionism violates the Jews’ civil rights and constitutes illegal antisemitism.

As explained in the complaint to which OCR has now responded, opposition to Zionism, means “the denial of Jews their inalienable and collective right to self-determination, as expressed in the connection to their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel.” Self-determination by any people can only be exercised in a physical place—a place where that people has the right to determine its own fate. Anti-Zionism is thus at its heart an insistence on perpetual Jewish weakness, on Jews’ eternal dependence on the kindness and indulgence of non-Jewish majorities among whom all Jews would be forced to live if the planet were found too small to accommodate one Jewish homeland.

The use of anti-Zionism as a mask for antisemitism has spread rapidly across American colleges and universities. It’s now dripping down even to elementary and high schools, where anti-Israel activists are attempting to make public school curricula conform to their belief that Jews have no right to a homeland and that the Jewish commitment to Zion is racist.  One might have thought that the 1991 repeal of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism would have reveal this canard for what it is, but if one thought that one would be wrong.

DoE’s action comes in the wake of an announcement in August by 14 student organizations at the law school of University of California, Berkeley that they would refuse to have as speakers any person who supports “Zionism, the State of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” Note, for those who may be confused by other versions of anti-Zionist boycotts, that the mask is off on the announcement by these student groups: These boycotters don’t pretend they are merely interested in criticizing the State of Israel or some action it has taken with respect to Arabs within or near its borders. This boycott declaration is clear: The fact of Israel, and the fact of Zionism, are what need to be opposed and put a stop to. To achieve that goal, these students propose to do what so many American students now do at what used to be our finest universities: refuse to listen to anyone they disagree with.

A complaint filed with OCR argued that “Zionism is an integral component of Jewish identity” and “a key pillar of Jewish faith,” and therefore that exclusion of Zionists necessarily means closing the door to Jews—it “exclude[es], marginaliz[es] and silenc[es] Jews.” It would be no different if the student groups announced: “We’ve nothing against Islam, but we refuse to admit people who believe Mecca is a holy city that only Muslims may enter.”

In its Dec. 13 letter, OCR announced that it was opening an investigation into whether “a hostile environment [was created] at the law school” for students and teachers “based on their shared Jewish ancestry” when university-recognized student organizations passed a bylaw against inviting speakers who support “Zionism, the state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

We now need a full-throated commitment to the principle announced, and now acted upon, by the Education Department’s OCR, espoused, and acted upon, by civil rights offices of all states and cities.

But more is required, and not just from government entities but from the many people at U.S. colleges and universities who are charged with ensuring that these educational institutions do not discriminate against minority populations in their midst. That means the offices for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at all colleges and universities must internalize and act upon the central insight now adopted by the federal government: that “a hostile environment” is created for students and teachers “based on their shared Jewish ancestry” when university-recognized student organizations discriminate against people who support “Zionism, the state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

The typical response of anti-Israel activists to demands that they not be allowed to discriminate against Jews—including those espousing the Jewish commitment to Zion—is that their free speech rights are being denied. But that’s no more true here than it is for the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws to protect every other group. Nobody would buy the idea that a university must tolerate any student group’s exclusion of, or hostility to Muslims who believe in the sanctity of Mecca, or the exclusion of gays who believe in their right to marry one another.

The Jewish commitment to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is a sincerely held religious belief. Therefore, barring the door to Zionists means barring the door to Jews. That’s against the law, as DoE’s OCR has now made clear.

Everyone who cares about this issue needs to know that.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus is Legal Director for The Deborah Project (TDP) and Jerome M. Marcus is President of TDP.

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