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Asaf Romirowsky on Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America by Kenneth L. Marcus

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)   

Why has the position of Jews at American universities deteriorated in the past decade and what can be done about it? Understanding the history of this dilemma requires going back a number of years. In 2003 the social commentator Stanley Kurtz testified before the House Subcommittee on Select Education. The hearing was convened to examine charges of bias in international studies programs funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, including the academic study of the Middle East and other areas of the world. Kurtz, in conjunction with other critics such as the Middle East scholars Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, highlighted the bias existing in Title VI-funded Middle East centers.

This bias correlated with the influence of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Said was a leading figure in the creation of the ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle East studies), which is called postcolonial theory. In that context, Said equated academics who support American foreign policy with the nineteenth-century European intellectuals who allegedly propped up racist colonial empires. A core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power. Said’s major work, Orientalism, blamed all of the troubles of the Middle East on the West, stemming from a “trifecta of evils” – imperialism, racism, and Zionism. While Orientalism often ignored evidence that ran counter to its thesis, it is still the canonical text in the field of Middle Eastern studies.

Martin Kramer in his book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, details the pervasive influence of Said’s postcolonial theory on the discipline of Middle East studies throughout North America. These ideas, which became institutionalized over the past decades, form the backdrop to the treatment of Jews and Israel on American campuses.


Harassment: A Problem of Definition

During the first term of President George W. Bush, Kenneth Marcus served as delegated assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). In Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America, he details his efforts in that capacity to have Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to the ill-treatment of Jewish students.  Marcus was responding to the fostering by pro-Palestinian groups of a new wave of anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish and pro-Israeli students on American campuses. Title VI prohibits discrimination on grounds of race and national origin, and proven examples of discrimination can lead to the withholding of federal funds from educational institutions.

There was, however, a loophole.  Religion was not included as a permissible basis for alleging discrimination in the other parts of the Civil Rights Act and was omitted from the provisions of Title VI as a prohibited basis of discrimination.  Moreover, the drafters of this legislation still are reluctant to protect Jewish students because Judaism is deemed only a religion rather than an ethnic group, and Congress has not authorized probes of religious bias. Furthermore, the OCR does not want to be seen as singling out American Jews as a separate “race” or “nation.” Marcus, however, argues that the increase in anti-Israelism among North American campuses has reached the level of anti-Semitism and that discrimination against Jews is indeed covered by the Civil Rights Act.

This new situation has demonstrated the need for a clear and inclusive definition of anti-Semitism and an answer to the question of whether anti-Israelism constitutes anti-Semitism. The apparent dilemma has been that anti-Israelism itself is not blatantly or even necessarily anti-Semitic but rather may appear merely critical of “Zionist policies,” thus distinguishing between Jews and Zionists. This well-worn distinction has enabled the anti-Israeli camp to pose as critics who are in good faith. What has actually emerged, in effect, is a new form of anti-Semitism, because the state of Israel acts as a proxy for Jews at large. To the extent that it becomes harder to make a case for Israel on campus and in the Jewish community in general, the environment has become increasingly hostile to the pro-Israeli community.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy presents an additional challenge as it focuses on the U.S.-Israeli partnership. The authors contend that there is no sound justification for America’s support for Israel, to which they refer as a “strategic burden.” They argue further that the pro-Israeli camp has “hijacked” U.S. foreign policy to the detriment of America’s interests. Mearsheimer and Walt actually claim that AIPAC’s pressure bought about the war in Iraq.

Marcus also underscores the fact that an integral part of anti-Israelism is the adaptation of Holocaust rhetoric to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, by equating the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) with the Holocaust. This has engendered statements that, for example, Israelis are doing to Palestinians what was done to Jews during World War II and that the security fence is Israel’s method of “ghettoizing” the Palestinians. Such abusive rhetoric poses yet another hurdle for the pro-Israeli community, which has to counter demands to recognize a nonexistent Palestinian “Holocaust.” This task becomes increasingly difficult as the media consistently promotes the Palestinian grievance.

The fact is that, despite the recent resurgence of anti-Semitic incidents on American college campuses, the OCR has been incapable of protecting Jewish students. This fiasco has resulted from a problem of definition. Because it lacks a working understanding of either Jewish identity or anti-Jewish hatred, the OCR has been unable to address the problem of anti-Jewish harassment.

The late Gary A. Tobin, who coauthored The UnCivil University, wrote that

while anti-Israelism, in itself, encourages anti-Semitic sentiment, it also invites participation by traditional anti-Semites who tailor their bigotry to focus on Israel in order to be acceptable on campus. The use of offensive imagery, such as the swastika to portray Jews, the rejection of opinion based on ethnicity, and demonization to the point where physical threats seem justified, is not part of civil discourse and legitimate critique. They are attempts to intimidate, alienate and silence Jews and others who support Israel.[1]

It is also worth noting that the U.S. State Department considered the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia’s (EUMC) definition of anti-Semitism to be a good working definition for the current environment. The EUMC stated “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”


Proactive Steps Needed

For the purpose of Marcus’s case, the use of the word manifestations was key to illustrating that anti-Israeli incidents do fall under the rubric defined by Title VI. Although much work still needs to be done, there is no doubt that Marcus’s campaign struck a significant chord that consequently allowed groups such as the Zionist Organization of America to file a complaint against the University of California, Irvine (UCI), on grounds of anti-Semitic harassment. These allegations are now being probed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Furthermore, Marcus’s work enabled the California district attorney’s office to press criminal charges against a group of Muslim students for infringing the freedom of speech of Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren at UCI. During an address there in February last year, Oren was repeatedly interrupted by this group of Muslim students. Instead of waiting to express their dissent during the scheduled question-and-answer session, they took turns standing up and shouting epithets at Oren such as “mass murderer” and “war criminal.” As a result, Oren’s ability to make his points was significantly impaired.

Consequently, Orange County’s district attorney Tony Rackauckas has filed misdemeanor charges against the students – known as the Irvine 11 – accusing them of an “organized attempt to squelch the speaker.” He also said the students “meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing [Oren’s] ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting.”[2]

It is, however, quite indicative of the academy’s attitude of impunity that whatever is said in a classroom, academic or not, is deemed protected by “academic freedom.” Only sexual harassment appears exempt from this blanket protection. Gradually the entire American campus has become an “academic freedom” zone where protests and other activities now qualify as academic “speech.” The freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the two Satans: Israel and America, while efforts to curtail speech that academics find uncongenial have long taken the form of “speech codes” and restrictions on “hate speech.” Clearly, the exercise of academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.

Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America presents clear evidence of the lack of balance in academia, where so-called scholarship consistently fails to examine, much less condemn, terrorism or jihadism. Such an atmosphere enables intolerable ideas to become accepted as the norm. This situation must be challenged by all those concerned about the health of academia, as well as the continued well-being of Israel. It is to be hoped that Marcus’s efforts will prove effective and that this book will serve as a wakeup call for the Jewish community at large and encourage proactive steps on these critical issues.


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[1] Gary A. Tobin, Aryeh K.Weinberg, and Jenna Ferer, The Uncivil University (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2005), 4.

[2] “Free speech, too, for Israel’s advocates,” editorial, Jerusalem Post, 10 March 2011,

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ASAF ROMIROWSKY is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.