The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is reopening an investigation into an allegedly anti-Semitic incident at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Kenneth Marcus, the department’s new assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in a letter last week that a pro-Palestinian event in the state university in January 2011 may have discriminated against Jewish students by charging them admission while allowing others in for free.
The new investigation, responding to a complaint originally made by the Zionist Organization of America in 2011, also will look into whether students at the university experience anti-Semitism now.
In reopening the Rutgers probe, Mr. Marcus used the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes some types of anti-Israel activity, like holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions. The definition was composed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Susan Tuchman of Tenafly, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, sees that as an important precedent.
“OCR for the first time is going to be using the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism when it is accepting and deciding Title VI cases,” Ms. Tuchman said. “It’s important because that State Department definition recognizes that some anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism crosses the line into anti-Semitism.”
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin.
The investigation stems from a ZOA complaint filed in 2011 alleging that organizers’ actions at the pro-Palestinian event that year at Rutgers constituted anti-Semitism, and that Jewish students’ civil rights were violated because the school did not address the anti-Semitism appropriately. The complaint also alleged that Jewish students were harassed and physically threatened on other occasions.
In 2014, the Office for Civil Rights dismissed the complaint, and did not respond to an appeal filed shortly afterward by ZOA until last week. But on August 27, Mr. Marcus reopened the investigation into the event.
The meeting in question was sponsored by Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action, a pro-Palestinian group, and was called “Never Again for Anyone.” It sought to expand the Holocaust remembrance slogan to include other offenses, including Israeli abuses of the Palestinians. At a certain point, organizers began charging a $5 admission fee.
According to the ZOA, the meeting was advertised as free and open to the public, but organizers began charging Jewish students $5 after a large group of them showed up. ZOA pointed to an email sent by a meeting organizer saying that “We need to start charging because 150 Zionists just showed up!” but that “if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.”
The Office for Civil Rights initially did not consider the email as evidence because it had been redacted, so it dismissed the complaint. In a 2014 letter, it said there was no evidence that only Jews were charged admission, or that others got in for free unfairly.
“OCR did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate that any individuals were treated differently, based on national origin, with respect to imposition of the admission fee,” read a 2014 letter from the office to ZOA.
But Mr. Marcus wrote that the email should be considered, and that it may point to discrimination against Jewish students.
“In other words, the visual perception of a group of ‘150 Zionists’ referenced in the email could have been rooted in a perception of Jewish ancestry or ethnic characteristics common to the group,” he wrote, adding that it was unlikely that organizers polled each of the 150 entrants on their views about Israel. “In cases such as this, it is important to determine whether terms such as ‘Zionist’ are actually code for ‘Jewish.’”
The letter also noted that some students who reported being charged wore kippot and therefore looked overtly Jewish.
Mr. Marcus wrote that given these reasons, the office was reopening the investigation into whether the meeting was anti-Semitic. The investigation will focus only on evidence already collected, so former students will not be interviewed again.
“With respect to reassessing the record, that’s the record, and I don’t believe we can add anything to that,” Ms. Tuchman said.
The renewed investigation comes some three months after the Senate confirmed Mr. Marcus in his position.
Before taking that job, Mr. Marcus was at the forefront of efforts to combat Israel boycotts on campus and anti-Semitic harassment by demanding the enforcement of civil rights powers. ZOA, Hillel International, and other Jewish organizations supported his nomination, though women’s rights groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women, opposed the choice because Mr. Marcus supported rolling back Obama-era guidelines on how colleges should handle sexual assault.
Pro-Palestinian groups, meanwhile, warned that Mr. Marcus would wield the law to silence criticism of Israel on campus.
JTA Wire Service