Martin Raffel responds to ZOA

Martin Raffel responds to ZOA

Editor’s Note: In the previous issue, NJJN published an op-ed written by Morton A. Klein and Susan B. Tuchman, “Jewish leaders must urge students: Use Title VI to fight anti-Semitism” (Nov. 15), in response to a recent column by contributing columnist Martin J. Raffel, “Rutgers case demonstrates anti-Semitism is in the eye of the beholder” (Nov. 1).

Although the Opinion section promotes healthy debate and the free flow of ideas, the “Jewish leaders” piece included personal attacks on Raffel that, upon reflection, should not have been included in the op-ed. NJJN extends our apologies to Mr. Raffel.

I always welcome considered responses that either agree or disagree with the views expressed in my columns. What I abhor, and I believe should be rejected by all fair-minded people, are mean-spirited responses that misrepresent facts and distort what I have written. I believe the Nov. 15 NJJN column authored by Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) leaders Morton A. Klein and Susan B. Tuchman is such a response.

According to the authors, my Nov. 1 column “endangers Jewish students. And it encourages Jew haters…” Unfortunately, the ZOA has made a habit of criticizing Jewish organizations and leaders over the years. This year, three organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), HIAS, and the National Council of Jewish Women, filed a formal complaint with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, alleging that the ZOA had violated the Conference’s by-laws prohibiting members from attacking each other with “insults, ad hominem attacks, and name-calling,” or leveling criticisms that are “false, inaccurate, or unfairly exaggerated.” Among the Jewish leaders most harshly criticized by ZOA — Abe Foxman, the ADL’s iconic former national director.     

The authors write, without a shred of evidence to back the claim, that when I worked at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), I tried “to restrict Jewish students’ rights under Title VI” (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is a federal law that prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination in federally funded programs.) In fact, my role at JCPA only extended to international issues — Israel, human rights, and world Jewry. I also was deeply involved in establishing the Israel Action Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the JCPA to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. 

But my JCPA colleagues did provide a valuable service by developing a balanced and nuanced resolution on Title VI and the challenges facing Jewish students today. The 2011 resolution, which was widely praised by Hillels and other Jewish organizations, succeeded in protecting Jewish students and their rights, while maintaining consistency with principles of American jurisprudence and academic freedom. As with any JCPA consensus resolution, it was approved by the agency’s diverse membership, which includes all four of the Jewish religious denominations, prominent national Jewish public affairs organizations, and over 100 Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs).

The resolution recognized Title VI as a potential remedy for students, but only if there is a finding of “objectively offensive and severe or pervasive anti-Semitic or anti-Israel conduct such as conduct involving intimidation, violence, or threats of violence,” and the school has “accepted, tolerated, or failed to correct the hostile environment.”

The resolution affirmed the importance of “promoting a climate in which Jewish students are physically secure and able to participate fully in campus life,” while protecting the values of the First Amendment. Responsible speech often is the best response to hate speech. Finally, the resolution cited the need to educate about the distinction between criticism of Israeli policies and the kind of severe or pervasive anti-Jewish climate subject to Title VI scrutiny.

The authors of the op-ed also criticized me for questioning whether Jewish students faced a hostile learning environment at Rutgers. The Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) now is investigating whether a severe, pervasive, or persistent hostile environment toward Jews existed or continues to exist at the school — and my column did not question the decision to re-open the investigation. The authors seem to believe an investigation is superfluous, that such a hostile environment undeniably exists, and that the university has failed to meet its responsibilities. We shall see. I have spent a lot of time on the campus over the years talking with Jewish students, which is why I observed in my column that an OCR finding of a hostile environment would be very surprising to me. Overall, Rutgers seems to be an excellent place to be a Jewish student. 

I find most presumptuous, and especially offensive, the authors’ assertion that “violent threats against Jews … should be as unacceptable to Raffel as they are to us.” There isn’t a single word in my column to suggest that I am any less bothered by violent threats to Jews than they are. In fact, the first paragraph of my column states, “Jewish students, indeed all students, must be safe from harassment and intimidation, which might prevent them from enjoying the educational and social opportunities provided by their chosen academic institutions.” 

I also was wrongly accused of rejecting the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes the three D’s regarding Israel — delegitimization, demonization, or holding Israel to a double standard.  In fact, I see the definition as a helpful tool in identifying when Israel-related speech rises to the level of anti-Semitism, not mere criticism of policy. I quoted the ADL’s and American Jewish Committee’s support for its utilization in Title VI cases. I did suggest that applying the definition to real-life situations often is challenging. Inevitably, I argued, there will be differences of opinion on where the line is drawn.   

In my column, I described Title VI, which can cause an institution to lose its federal funding, as a “blunt instrument” that ought to be used as a “last resort” when a “university fails to act in the face of clearly discernible harassment or intimidation.” It seems to me this formulation is very closely aligned with the much-praised JCPA resolution. I also wrote in my column — it’s worth repeating — that I want our community to invest more resources in preparing Jewish students to fully and effectively participate in the university’s marketplace of ideas.  Rather than trying to silence our adversaries, we can win the debate by the quality of our positions and skillfulness of our arguments.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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