Overturning an Obama administration decision, the US Education Department is reopening a probe into a 2011 incident at Rutgers University that drew allegations of anti-Semitism against a pro-Palestinian student group.
The move is initiated by Kenneth L. Marcus, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, who has a long record of opposing Palestinian rights causes. Marcus informed the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that he would review one of the three allegations made in its 2011 complaint, which said that the pro-Palestinian Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action group imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israeli students who attended an event called “Never Again for Anyone.”
ZOA charged that an email proved that an organizer wrote that the group began collecting fees only after it perceived “150 Zionists” who “just showed up.”
Yet Palestinian rights group Palestine Legal offers an alternative account of the incident: fees were charged for the event only after Jewish groups including Rutgers Hillel sent alerts to mobilize their members to protest the event. Pro-Israel protesters, Palestine Legal clalims, physically assaulted event volunteers, calling them “towel heads” and “suicide bombers” and calling one a Jewish volunteer a “traitor.”
Thus the organizers were forced to charge a last-minute fee to cover costs mandated by the university, including an increased price to rent the space and to cover security to manage the protests.
In dismissing the case in 2014, the Education Department determined that the host began charging last-minute fees because the event drew more attendees than anticipated, including many nonstudents.
Obama-era department investigators wrote that they had discovered no evidence that Jewish attendees were selectively charged fees. According to the findings letter, the email that said “150 Zionists” had shown up — which ZOA presented as evidence of the intentional discrimination — was heavily redacted, and the claim of discrimination was thus unverifiable.
Critics charge that the re-opening of the case signals a significant policy shift on civil rights enforcement in the US, injecting federal authority into the contentious fights over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that have divided campuses across the country.
This comes on the heels of such Trump administration decisions as moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority and shutting down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington.
Relaunching the probe, Marcus said he intends to examine the conservative Jewish group’s cause not as a case of encroachment on religious freedom but as discrimination against an ethnic group.
In so doing, “the Education Department embraced Judaism as an ethnicity and adopted a hotly contested definition of antisemitism that included ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’ by, for example, ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’ and ‘applying double standards by requiring of’ Israel ‘a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.'”
“OCR for the first time is going to be using the State Department’s definition of antisemitism when it is accepting and deciding Title VI cases,” Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, was quoted by JTA as saying.
“It’s important because that State Department definition recognizes that some anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism/ crosses the line into antisemitism.”
The left-wing Jewish American group If Not Now stated that “This is exactly the type of action we feared would happen when Ken Marcus was appointed by Trump earlier this year. We campaigned against his appointment, and our communal leaders were silent then. Now we’re paying the price.”