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Rutgers to cooperate with U.S. Education Department’s reopening of anti-Semitism probe

A 2011 discrimination complaint against Rutgers University by the Zionist Organization of America alleging anti-Semitism will be re-investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights.

The federal education department reopens probe of allegations that Rutgers University discriminates against Jewish students.
The federal education department reopens probe of allegations that Rutgers University discriminates against Jewish students.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

As reports of anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses rise, the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights has reopened a probe, previously closed under President Barack Obama's administration, of 2011 allegations that Rutgers University discriminated against Jewish students, the New York Times reported.

Rutgers said in a statement Wednesday morning that it hadn't been notified of the revived investigation, but pledged full cooperation.

"There is no place for anti-Semitism or any form of religious intolerance at Rutgers," the school said.

News of the probe comes amid reports of rising anti-Semitism on college campuses in recent years and increased tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups on campus, and as the Trump administration increasingly has signaled more support for Israel.

A bill was introduced in Congress earlier this year targeting anti-Semitism, given the increasing incidents on college campuses, and encouraging the Education Department's office of civil rights to consider when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism — a step that some have blasted as treading on free-speech rights.

Nationally, from 2016 to 2017, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses increased 89 percent to 204, said Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League's Philadelphia office. There also has been a spike in white supremacist activity; locally over the last two years, the league has noted white supremacist recruitment at Rutgers, Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Drexel, Stockton, and Princeton, she said.

"There's no question on the white supremacist aspect that they have felt empowered over the last 18 months," she said. "Our government has not adequately called out the behavior of haters within our country, and when people see that kind of behavior being normalized, then the thoughts they may have had in private become actions they feel they can take in public."

Anti-Semitism, she said, has been around for a long time and is "the canary in the coal mine."

"It is the first place that people go when we enter a period of increased bias and prejudice," she said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was pleased that the Education Department was acting to protect Jewish students — and all students — on campus.

He also gave Rutgers a nod for taking steps to create a more hospitable environment and said the actions that the university took following the 2011 incident were deemed adequate by his New York office at that time.

The Rutgers case stems from a 2011 complaint filed by the Zionist Organization of America alleging that a pro-Palestinian group holding an event on campus charged Jewish students and pro-Israel supporters an admission fee. The group maintained that it charged fees to cover "university imposed" security costs, which arose after Jewish students staged protests of the event, according to Palestine Legal, a Palestinian rights group.

The Education Department's office of civil rights, in dismissing the complaint in 2014, said it found no indication that Jewish students or others were selectively charged fees.

"OCR determined that the university promptly investigated the event after it occurred," the office said. "OCR further determined that the evidence failed to substantiate any specific incidents in which the fee requirement was imposed unequally on Jewish or non-Jewish attendees, based on national origin."

Neither the Education Department nor the Zionist Organization of America returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.

The new probe was reopened under Kenneth L. Marcus, who became assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the Education Department in June. Marcus, who previously worked for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has written about anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.

The decision didn't sit well with David Hughes, a Rutgers anthropology professor and vice president of the faculty union.

"We're feeling that this is a very unfair way to treat our institution," he said. "We're also feeling that it doesn't make sense."

He referred to the Times report that said the federal government appears to be including opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitic. Criticism of a state is legitimate, he said.

In 2016, the union backed Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of women's and gender studies, after she faced death threats and calls for her firing for a speech at Vassar College in which she said the Israeli Defense Forces used cruel tactics against Palestin­ian civilians, according to an account in the student newspaper.

"We cannot operate as scholars and teachers, and students can't learn, in a political environment wherein criticism of one state is considered illegitimate," Hughes said.

Alyza Lewin, president of  the Brandeis Center, which supports the federal legislation and use of the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, countered that criticism of Israel at times does constitute discrimination and noted that pro-Israel groups on the nation's campuses have been singled out and excluded.

"You can criticize specific policies," said Lewin, who applauded the Education Department's decision to reopen the Rutgers case. "That's legitimate. If you are going to suggest that Israel has no right to exist, that Israel in its creation is a racist endeavor, that Israel has no right to a Jewish state, that is anti-Semitic."

Hughes, who noted that he is Jewish, acknowledged that anti-Semitism is increasing, but said it's not coming from college campuses or professors.

"It's coming from the people who marched on the campus in Charlottesville," he said, referring to the white supremacist march at the University of Virginia last year that erupted in violence.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit civil-liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a statement expressing disappointment with the Education Department's decision to reopen the Rutgers investigation "utilizing a definition of anti-Semitism that threatens speech protected by the First Amendment."

The organization's statement said the definition's "inherent vagueness allows for the investigation and punishment of core political speech. This is an unacceptable result."