Anti-Semitism on US campuses may force schools to choose free speech or bigotry
After universities fail to address Jewish students’ complaints, Trump issues EO to end discrimination — but even victims have second thoughts about how it might be enforced
NEW YORK — Long before she stood on a podium with US President Donald Trump, before she became the young woman who sued New York University, she was Jewish college student Adela Cojab, who studied Arabic and liked kanafeh.
Back in 2015, Cojab was a freshman at NYU starting a major in Middle Eastern diaspora studies. As a Mexican-Syrian-Lebanese Jewish woman, she found it both personally and academically gratifying. From the get-go she dove into Jewish life on campus, eventually becoming president of the student group Realize Israel and a member of student government. But each semester her sunny outlook darkened a little more.
“If you’re culturally Jewish and proud of your heritage you’re a target,” Cojab told The Times of Israel as she sat in a basement room of the New York Public Library, her black crystal Star of David glittering under the room’s harsh fluorescent lights.
There were social media attacks against Jewish students and student government resolutions supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition, could be interpreted as an anti-Semitic movement.
There was an instance of physical assault against another Jewish student on Israeli Independence Day, and last spring, students in her Arabic class refused to partner with Cojab because of her Zionism.
Cojab reported her concerns to the administration; each time she was told the school would act, she said.
“Being brought up in a religious home I was taught to give the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe they’d do something. Now, looking back, I would’ve threatened legal action sooner and in a much stronger way,” Cojab said.
And so six months ago, shortly before graduation, Cojab filed a complaint with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) against NYU for failing to protect its Jewish community and thereby violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hers is among several cases the OCR is now investigating. (NYU didn’t respond to inquiries from The Times of Israel.)
Since filing the complaint Cojab has had numerous interviews and speaking engagements. She also stood next to Trump last December and spoke briefly at the Israeli-American Council National Summit, days before he signed the Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism.
The order applies Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Jews, which is not new. What is new is its directive that all executive branch agencies and departments mandated with enforcing Title VI must apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This can have far-reaching implications.
Supporters who say universities have ignored rising anti-Semitism for too long welcome the order. Critics argue it stifles free speech and undermines the IHRA’s original intent. But beyond that, arguments remain over what compliance with the order will look like, and whether enforcement is realistic.
“The result is that nobody really knows what this executive order will mean in practice. It could have no impact. It could helpfully confirm that otherwise anti-Semitic conduct is not immunized from liability simply because it drapes itself in ‘anti-Zionist’ garb,” said David Schraub, a lecturer at Berkeley Law School and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center.
“It could be used to enact sweeping and draconian restrictions on protected campus speech. It could swing between these positions in wildly inconsistent and unpredictable ways,” Schraub said.
No longer the exception, but the rule
Anti-Semitism is no longer the exception on campuses in the United States: There were 201 reported incidents on US university and college campuses in 2018 alone, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Of those, 106 involved harassment, 91 were incidents of vandalism, and four were physical assault. As such, Jewish organizations and Jewish students across the political spectrum have been urging universities to more forcefully combat anti-Semitism.
“The same way there is an epidemic of anti-Semitism in the country, there is unfortunately an epidemic failure of administrations to respond to this,” said Carly Gammill of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism (CCA).
The executive order is in many ways an answer to unheeded calls to action, Gammill said.
Last October, Gammill drafted a complaint on behalf of UCLA student Shayna Lavi. According to the complaint, Lavi was subjected to ongoing anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment in the 2019 spring semester. OCR has notified StandWithUs that it intends to investigate the complain. (Lavi declined to comment to The Times of Israel.)
According to Gammill’s complaint, during an anthropology class, a guest lecturer denied Israel’s right to exist and called Zionists “white supremacists” who engage in ethnic cleansing. After the class Lavi told her professor, who allegedly harassed her rather than show support. UCLA didn’t effectively respond when informed of the incidents, asserts the complaint. The complaint also outlines the administration’s failure to address a pattern of anti-Semitic incidents at UCLA dating back to 2012.
In a statement UCLA said its Discrimination Prevention Office (DPO) had looked into the matter even before the OCR announced its investigation.
“After viewing a recording of the class and interviewing participants, DPO, while not endorsing the guest speaker’s ideas or the manner in which the class was handled, concluded that the comments made during the lecture were not the type of severe, pervasive and persistent unwelcome conduct that constitutes harassment or discrimination,” according to the statement.
The OCR is also investigating a separate complaint concerning UCLA brought by the Zachor Legal Institute on behalf of several students. This complaint concerns a 2018 incident when the anti-Zionist organization Students for Justice in Palestine hosted a national conference on campus. UCLA said no public funds or student fees were used for the event, and that the university didn’t endorse the event, the speakers, or the views expressed.
As for complying with the new executive order, UCLA said it is “bound by and believes deeply in the First Amendment.” Subsequently, it said, students of all political persuasions may sometimes times encounter ideas they find highly objectionable, even offensive.
The OCR recently announced it is investigating an additional case filed by the Lawfare Project on behalf of Columbia University student Jonathan Karten, an Israeli-American. The complaint alleges that Karten and other Jewish students have faced “systemic discrimination.” Columbia University has no comment on the executive order nor Karten’s complaint at this time, said a university official.
Failure to address anti-Semitism
While the incidents described in the complaints vary, there is a common theme: University administrations have failed to address pervasive anti-Semitism, Gammill said.
The complaints are also similar in that they propose similar outcomes for satisfactory resolution of the issues. None of the complaints call for the banning of anti-Israel groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, or events such as Apartheid Week. The complaints also don’t demand professors be removed.
Instead, suggested remedies include broad-based sensitivity training, the ability for Jewish and Israeli students to freely and safely express Jewish and Zionist viewpoints, and for Jewish and Israeli students to be able to fully participate in campus life free from harassment and discrimination.
George Washington University sophomore Blake Flayton said he is familiar with such discrimination.
During Flayton’s first year on campus, he considered various campus clubs that aligned with his politics. One was the Democratic Socialist Alliance. Twenty minutes into the first meeting, the club’s leaders told everyone they would never normalize Zionism, he said. Once again, Jewish students were expected to denounce Israel and the Israeli government. Flayton was aghast.
“There is that litmus test. We are really being ostracized from these communities. Many of these progressive groups are explicitly anti-Israel, calling for intifadas in Israel, defending Hamas, defending rockets into Israel and violence against settlers,” said Flayton, who previously wrote a New York Times opinion piece about being a progressive Jew on campus.
The Phoenix native was adamant that universities across the country, GWU included, haven’t done enough to thwart campus anti-Semitism.
Even so, he found Trump’s new executive order troubling.
“Why I think I’m so opposed to the executive order is that it further isolates Jewish students and subjects them to attacks from progressive-styled [people or groups]. To the vast majority of these students, the order means Donald Trump is no longer allowing you to speak about Palestine and that somehow Jewish students are a part of that,” Flayton said.
Going forward, enforcement of the order might prove difficult since “both anti-Semitic speech and non-anti-Semitic speech are equally entitled to constitutional protection,” Berkeley Law School’s Schraub said.
In fact, a few months before issuing the anti-Semitism order, Trump signed one saying that universities receiving federal funding can’t suppress free inquiry and open debate on campus. Now universities are told they are legally obligated to quell speech perceived as anti-Semitic.
“One could forgive the beleaguered dean or chancellor for wondering how she could comply with both mandates at the same time,” Schraub said.
There is nothing in the order that prohibits students or faculty from criticizing Israel or its government, wrote Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
Rather, the order asks universities to treat anti-Semitism the same way they treat racism or other forms of discrimination, Lewin wrote.
Gammill agreed. “Administrations would do well to undercut those arguments and educate administration, faculty and staff that this newest order isn’t intended to end free speech. What it does do is tell students that certain protected speech when combined with certain conduct is anti-Semitic and discriminatory,” Gammill said.
And that’s why Cojab has no regrets about filing her complaint.
“We have to show we belong in the world. If there’s one thing I take away from this experience is that you can’t let others decide where you belong,” Cojab said.
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