After decades of an apparent diminishment of anti-Semitism following the end of World War II, prejudice against Jews has resurfaced in recent years, often intertwined with anti-Israel bias, and nowhere has it been felt more than on college campuses.
Efforts to counter this rise, however, have been hampered by the inability of university administrators and federal government agencies to define exactly what constitutes anti-Semitism, according to Kenneth Marcus, founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
While universities will always respond to blatant anti-Semitic incidents, such as those involving swastikas or demonstrated hate by white supremacists, the issue becomes murkier when Israel comes into play, Marcus told a gathering Dec. 5 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
“Once they mention Israel or Zionism, it becomes a matter of free speech, and the colleges and universities back off,” said Marcus. “It’s completely different than the old school anti-Semitism.”
Marcus, a former staff director of the federal Commission on Civil Rights, said he became so alarmed at the confusion over the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that he felt compelled to write The Definition of Anti-Semitism, which was published in 2015. He previously authored Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America.
“This is one of the scariest times I’ve ever seen,” said Marcus, who launched the Brandeis Center in 2011 to protect the rights of Jews and promote justice for others. With chapters at 18 law schools across the country, one of its major focuses is combating anti-Semitism on college and university campuses.
Yet, despite all the divisive speech generated by the recent presidential campaign and the rising tide of anti-Semitism on campus, Marcus said he is hopeful it can be stemmed through Jewish unity. “We’re gaining strength by coming together,” he said.
He implored the crowd to speak up against every instance of anti-Semitic speech or act, big or small. Otherwise the “hardline anti-Semitism” won’t seem as repugnant.
“What scares me is the trajectory of where this is going,” said Marcus. “If we don’t stop it, 10, 20 years from now our college campuses will look like what we now see in Europe.”
He noted the results of a study of Jewish students at 55 campuses across the country conducted two years ago by his center with Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. More than half the students surveyed had either personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.
The civil rights attorney said while it’s possible to criticize Israel without hating Jews, as many as nine out of 10 involved in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign either consciously or unconsciously harbor anti-Semitic feelings.
He recalled the path leading him to realize the depth and complexity of the problem.
Marcus was a litigation partner at two major law firms before joining the government, where he expected to fight racism and sexism and fight for the rights of those with disabilities. While serving on the commission he became assistant secretary of education for civil rights.
During his time of service, a poster circulated at San Francisco State University in 2001-02 featuring a can with a picture of a dead baby and the words, “Canned dead Palestinian baby meat slaughtered by Jews under American license.” At a counter-protest organized by the campus Hillel, Jewish students and faculty were greeted with shouts of “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and “Jews to the ovens.” Marcus said the Jewish protestors had to be escorted by police to the safety of the Hillel building.
“It seemed political but at the same time it was clearly a form of bigotry,” he said. The staff debated how to handle a complaint from a Jewish student because the university did not have a policy on how to deal with anti-Semitism on campus.
During his tenure, as anti-Semitism couched in anti-Israel expression surged, Marcus sought to clarify the commission’s position, but after he left, his successor took a different tack, essentially leaving Jewish students without protection from 2004 to 2010 until the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued new guidelines.
At about the same time, he said, the State Department, under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopted a definition of anti-Semitism based on what Marcus called “the three Ds”: Delegitimization and Demonization of Israel and applying a Double standard of criticizing Israel alone for human rights abuses, thereby pressuring the international community to stand against Israel.
Ironically, Marcus said, this definition was applied only to overseas countries. “We lectured the entire world, but used it only for export purposes.” Americans seemed to understand what anti-Semitism “is in Paris and Cairo, but not in San Francisco or New Jersey.”
However, Marcus said, on Dec. 1 the Senate unanimously passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, sponsored by Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), designed to add teeth to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by protecting Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation at federally funded schools.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a companion House bill — cosponsored by Reps. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — will have time to be moved out of committee for a floor vote before Congress adjourns for winter break.
In that case, Marcus said, “We will just have to start over next session.”