Department of Education reopens anti-Semitism case against Rutgers

Department of Education reopens anti-Semitism case against Rutgers

Charges stem from alleged discrimination at 2011 student event

Some Rutgers Hillel students wore yellow T-shirts protesting comparisons of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Photo by Debra Rubin
Some Rutgers Hillel students wore yellow T-shirts protesting comparisons of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Photo by Debra Rubin

2011 civil rights case alleging that Rutgers University New Brunswick permitted a hostile environment for Jewish students has been reopened by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) four years after the case’s dismissal in 2014.

The charges stem from a January 2011 event organized by pro-Palestinian student groups who issued admission fees only to attendees who appeared to be Jewish, according to the complaint. This incident is a possible violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requiring recipients of federal funding to ensure that their programs are free from ethnic and racial discrimination.

The legal action was initiated in 2011 by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) using the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism which recognizes that anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism can be used as a camouflage for anti-Semitism, said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, in a phone interview with NJJN.

The action could result in the university being stripped of federal funding, but Tuchman said as far as she knows the OCR has never taken such extreme action against any educational institution.

Tuchman said that on Aug. 27 she received a letter from Kenneth Marcus, the newly appointed assistant secretary for civil rights, informing her the agency had decided to reopen the Rutgers case. The OCR will also be investigating whether there is an ongoing hostile environment for Jewish students, according to Tuchman.

“We’re very pleased under Kenneth Marcus the investigation has been reopened,” said Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer. “It should have been done years ago.”

In his August letter Marcus wrote that Jews would be included within the Title VI definition of groups that are protected from discrimination based on “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” Among other groups already included are African-Americans and Hispanics.

In response to the case’s reopening, Dory Devlin, Rutgers senior director of news and media relations, wrote in an e-mail to NJJN, “We always cooperate fully with the Office for Civil Rights. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on their investigation.”

In 2011 the ZOA filed a complaint accusing Rutgers of failing to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” on campus that included charging discriminatory entrance fees at the Jan. 29, 2011, “Never Again for Anyone” program — advertised on Facebook and in flyers as free admission — which featured Jewish Holocaust survivors critical of Israel. The program, held at the Douglass Student Center, was sponsored by BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, American Muslims for Palestine, the International Anti-Zionist Jewish Network, and the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

The imposition of the $5 fee by event organizers was allegedly in response to the large number of protesters expected to attend.

In his August 2018 letter to Tuchman Marcus wrote, “There is no dispute that at some point just before the Jan. 29 event, a decision was made to impose a $5 admission fee.”

He said a student witness told the OCR that an event organizer had said, “The admission fee needed to be imposed because ‘150 Zionists just showed up,’ adding the caveat that ‘if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.’”

Marcus also wrote, “It is important to determine whether terms such as ‘Zionist’ are actually code for ‘Jewish’’ and whether “the conduct relating to Israel was motivated by anti-Semitism.”

Liran Kapoano of East Brunswick was one of the students active in pro-Israel activities at the time who helped initiate the ZOA legal action. Kapoano, 35, and now a board member of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, said initially Jewish student leaders took their complaints to a meeting with Rutgers administration. Kapoano said he would have been happy with an apology and assurance that the university would ensure such incidents never happen again.

However, according to Kapoano, Rutgers never investigated the incident “and made us feel like the bad guys.” He then contacted the ZOA and was among a group of students interviewed by the OCR.

Kapoano said he hoped the action taken against Rutgers by OCR will serve as a warning to universities everywhere to be vigilant about anti-Semitism, “and if that is my legacy from my time at Rutgers I will be very happy.”

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