The future of college: A Jewish townhall

Why doesn’t the world recognize this anti-Semitism? In a world that opposes bigotry, why is there no resounding chorus condemning this discrimination?

Columbia University. Credit: Pixabay.
Columbia University. Credit: Pixabay.
Alyza Lewin
Alyza D. Lewin
Alyza D. Lewin is president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and a founder and partner of Lewin & Lewin, LLP.

(The following are adapted remarks delivered by Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, at a townhall hosted by the Tikvah Fund on July 23, 2020.)

Thank you, Alan and Eric and the Tikvah Fund for inviting me to participate this evening in this important and timely program.

As president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, I hear nearly every day from students who are experiencing the anti-Semitic pressure you describe. Students are being told—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—that if they want to be accepted on campus, if they want to be included and join progressive clubs, social-justice demonstrations or even engage in dialogue, they must first shed their Zionism.

Demonizing and excluding Jews in this fashion is anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination. So why is it permitted? Why doesn’t the world recognize this anti-Semitism? In a world that opposes bigotry, why is there no resounding chorus condemning this discrimination?

I believe that one of the answers is that our society has been blinded by the Holocaust. What do I mean by that? I mean that the only anti-Semitism that most people today recognize as anti-Semitism is hatred that “looks” like the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. When people see a swastika, they know it is anti-Semitic. When they hear a Nazi or white supremacist, they recognize that, too, as anti-Semitic. The public today, however, does not realize that anti-Semitism existed for centuries before the Holocaust. People don’t understand that in each generation, anti-Semitism looks a little different. Anti-Semitism morphs. The constant, however, is that anti-Semitism always seeks to demonize and exclude the Jew.

Throughout history, the Jew has been blamed for whatever is society’s greatest evil. The Jew has been maligned as the Christ killer, the capitalist, the race polluter. Each generation finds a different excuse to demonize, blame and ostracize the Jew. According to anti-Semites, the Jew is dangerous.

Today, we are told the “greatest evil” is colonialism and apartheid. And lo and behold (as Yossi Klein Halevi once noted), who is demonized and falsely alleged to be the world’s most egregious colonialist and apartheid offender? The Jew. Today, however, after the Holocaust, the Jews have a nation-state. So it is not only individual Jews who are demonized. It is also the Jewish collective—the Jewish State of Israel—that is maligned.

Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and a world-renowned human-rights activist, once explained that traditional anti-Semitism sought to deny the Jew his place in society. Today, the “new” anti-Semitism seeks to deny the Jewish collective—the Jewish State of Israel—its place in the society of nations.

* * *

Judaism is unique in that it is both a faith and an ethnicity. Jews share not only religious belief, but also a common ancestry and sense of Jewish peoplehood. Our history, theology and culture are deeply intertwined with the Land of Israel. In fact, over half of the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch are connected to the Land of Israel and can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. For centuries, Jews have not only prayed facing Jerusalem. They have prayed to return to Jerusalem.

Zionism as the political movement of the Jewish people may have originated in the 19th-century, but the desire and determination of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland in Israel is thousands of years old, as old as Abraham and the Bible.

Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath or maintaining a kosher diet. Not all Jews observe Shabbat or kashrut, but those who do, do so as an expression of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists. But for many Jews identifying with and expressing support for the Jewish homeland is also an expression of their Jewish religious and ethnic identity. Harassing, marginalizing, demonizing and excluding these Jews on the basis of the Zionist part of their identity is just as unlawful and discriminatory as attacking a person for observing Shabbat or keeping kosher.

Yet this exclusion is happening on campuses with increasing frequency. Last year, for example, at Williams College, a group of students sought to create a pro-Israel club. The club was intended as a cultural, not political, club. Its leaders refused to take a position on the Palestinian‒Israeli conflict. The organizers satisfied all the requirements necessary to become a formally registered student organization (an “RSO”). However, when they applied to the student College Council (“CC”) for formal RSO status, the CC denied the application. It was the first time in more than a decade that the College Council had voted against having a club that met all the criteria set out in the bylaws.

During the debate on the club’s application, one College Council representative asked the Jewish students, “Why do you feel the need to ally yourself with the State of Israel, as opposed to taking a human-rights-oriented approach?” Another CC rep expressed concern about having a club “that is built on the assumption that Israel has a right to exist.”

The message to the Jewish students at Williams College was clear. A club that identifies with or supports the Jewish homeland is not welcome. It was only after tremendous public outcry and a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, that the president of Williams College identified an alternate procedure and granted the pro-Israel group formal RSO status.

Similarly, two years ago, at New York University, 53 student organizations signed an agreement to boycott not only the State of Israel, but to boycott all pro-Israel student groups on campus. The 53 student organizations, representing a broad swath of the campus community, resolved that they would not co-sponsor events or engage in dialogue with any pro-Israel organizations.

What message does this send to pro-Israel students on campus? It says to them, “If you want to join our campus community, if you want to be included as a full-fledged member and demonstrate with us on climate change, immigration, women’s rights, or LGBT rights (if you even just want to dialogue with us), we’ll accept you on one condition. Check your support for Israel at the door. Shed that part of your Jewish identity and you can join us.”

As I suggested earlier, that is no different than demanding that a student stop observing Shabbat or stop keeping kosher in order to gain admission. It’s comparable to demanding that a Catholic student disavow the Vatican or that a Muslim student shed his/her connection to Mecca. Excluding an individual in this manner on the basis of his/her identity is discrimination.

There is one more point that students and the general public should understand before we turn to the “legal remedies” and explain how the law can be utilized to protect Jewish students.

That is: Denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is qualitatively different than criticizing the policies of the government of Israel.

Denying the right of Jewish self-determination is anti-Semitic not only because those who deny this right apply a double standard to the Jews. They support self-determination for all other groups (including the Palestinians and the Kurds), but deny it only to the Jews. It is also anti-Semitic because (as we have been discussing) it demands that Jews shed a key component of their identity as Jews—namely, the historic Jewish yearning and determination to return to Zion.

I once heard Israel’s Ambassador [to the United States] Ron Dermer give the following analogy. He said, if a couple has a conversation about whether or not they should have children—whether they can afford children, whether they have the disposition to be good parents—that conversation is legitimate before the couple has any kids. After the children are born, that discussion becomes immoral.

Similarly, 75 years ago before the modern State of Israel was born, it was legitimate to have conversations (as many did) about whether or not a Jewish state should be established, particularly if that state would have to “live by the sword” and engage in the “dirty business” of statehood. Today, however, to suggest that the Jewish State of Israel has no right to exist is immoral and anti-Semitic.

It is immoral because supporting the destruction of the world’s only Jewish nation-state is akin to supporting the destruction of Jews. Denying the right of Jewish self-determination means supporting the destruction of the safety net for Jews who are and have historically been persecuted around the globe.

In 1998, the noted columnist Charles Krauthammer (who passed away just two years ago) penned a piece called “At Last, Zion.” The article, which was written over 20 years ago, describes how essential Israel is to Jewish continuity. Krauthammer said:

The return to Zion is now the principal drama of Jewish history. What began as an experiment has become the very heart of the Jewish people—its cultural, spiritual, and psychological center, soon to become its demographic center as well. Israel is the hinge. Upon it rest the hopes—the only hope—for Jewish continuity and survival.

Krauthammer explained that as the demographics shift, “The Jewish people will be centered—not just spiritually but physically—in their ancient homeland.” And indeed, today approximately half of world Jewry lives in Israel. Over 80 percent of the Jews around the world live in either Israel or the United States.

Krauthammer pointed out that “to destroy the Jewish people, Hitler needed to conquer the world. All that is needed today is to conquer a territory smaller than Vermont.” “The Jews,” he noted “have … put all their eggs in one basket, a small basket hard by the waters of the Mediterranean. And on its fate hinges everything Jewish.”

When people on campus and beyond say that they are merely “criticizing the policies of the government of Israel,” we have to know where they stand on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Criticism of Israel by those who deny Jews the right of self-determination and who say Jews do not have a right to a Jewish homeland in any borders in the Land of Israel is anti-Semitic, even if it is cloaked in human-rights terminology. If you do not believe the Jewish state of Israel has a right to exist, your criticism of Israel is not intended to reform the policies of the government of Israel. It is not intended to be constructive. Rather, it is intended to be destructive and destroy the Jewish state.

* * *

So now, a quick word on legal remedies which we can discuss more in depth during the question and answer period.

  • What we are witnessing on campus (and beyond) is not a “free speech” issue. It is the result of an organized, well-funded strategy to harass and marginalize pro-Israel Zionists and deny them a place in society.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires universities to protect students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
  • Although Title VI does not mention religion, both Republican and Democratic administrations have formally recognized that religious groups such as Jews, Sikhs and Muslims who have shared ancestral and ethnic characteristics are also protected under Title VI.
  • If students feel they are being discriminated against, marginalized and excluded on the basis of their shared ancestry or ethnicity, they can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) in the Department of Education. OCR will then conduct an investigation. If OCR finds that the university was aware of the discrimination and did not take adequate steps to address it, OCR could withhold Federal funds from the university. In practice, that rarely happens. Usually, OCR negotiates a resolution with the university where the university agrees to take steps to address the discrimination.
  • Not every unsettling incident on campus is grounds for a Title VI complaint. In our country, the First Amendment protects even hate speech. Marginalizing and excluding students on the basis of their identity, however, is not a “speech” issue. It is unlawful harassment and discrimination. We have to learn to articulate the difference. Condemn the anti-Semitic speech, punish the discriminatory conduct.
  • Document, document, document. Documentation is key. Students have to learn to document both the anti-Semitic speech and the discriminatory conduct. Make the university aware of the anti-Semitic speech so that the university can condemn it the same way it would condemn racist or bigoted speech. But don’t stop there. Explain how you are being marginalized and excluded. Are you being shut out of a student group or campus event? Is your program being disrupted? Are you being told you are not welcome? Are you afraid to wear a yarmulke, Star of David or a T-shirt with Hebrew lettering because you are afraid that if you do, you will be targeted and maligned? That documentation is crucial to proving the harassment and discrimination that is currently taking place on campus.
  • In addition, feel free to contact us at the Brandeis Center for help. We have attorneys and a trained a group of law-school students: our JIGSAW Fellows. They are available to work with you, to help you prepare talking points for meetings with administrators or to help you draft university bias complaints when appropriate. If you are experiencing anti-Semitic harassment on campus, send us an email (info@brandeiscenter.com), and we will put you in touch with someone who can help you.
  • And finally, always remember that the best response to unlawful discrimination is self-confidence and pride. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Jews have a deep, rich, profound heritage. Study it, embrace it and be proud of it. The Jewish people and our tiny relatively young nation-state have changed the world. We have made enormous contributions in the areas of science, technology, agriculture, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, art and more. We have so much of which to be proud. Imagine if Israel had no enemies committed to its destruction. Imagine if Jews were no longer demonized. Israel would not have to spend any time or resources on security and defense. It could devote 100 percent of its resources to improving the world in which we live.
  • So let’s unite and push back together against those who pressure Jews to abandon the Zionist component of our identity. No one has the right to demand that we give up our sense of Jewish peoplehood or our historic yearning for Zion. Whether you are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist, haredi or Chiloni, we are all Jews, and Israel is our homeland.

Alyza Lewin is president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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