US lawmakers call to implement long-delayed measures to combat campus antisemitism

Bipartisan group of 39 Congress members says Biden administration has put off codifying 2019 Trump executive order meant to protect Jewish college students

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. A Title VI civil rights complaint has alleged ongoing antisemitism at the campus. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

A bipartisan group of American lawmakers has called on the US Department of Education to take steps to combat campus antisemitism that have been delayed for years.

Thirty-nine members of Congress sent the letter last week to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. House Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, led the group.

The letter says the Biden administration has long put off codifying rules meant to protect American Jewish college students, including an executive order signed by former US president Donald Trump in 2019, and delayed investigations into antisemitic complaints.

Trump’s executive order from December 2019 would effectively force the US government to withhold funding from colleges and universities if they fail to confront discrimination against Jewish students, by including Jews in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal funding.

The lawmakers’ February 4 letter called on the Department of Education to issue a rule on the executive order, which would formalize it as a regulation that would have the force of law. The process would codify the order, providing a stronger legal foundation for Title VI complaints, and give it more durability and permanence. Once formalized, the order would be less likely to be challenged in the future and would be automatically transferred between administrations.

Codifying the executive order would also send a message to college administrators that the Biden administration takes the issue seriously.

“During the previous administration, university administrators had a clear sense that the federal office for civil rights understood campus antisemitism and was focused on it,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, head of the Brandeis Center, an advocacy group that combats antisemitism. “I don’t think that university administrators have necessarily gotten the same impression yet from the Biden administration.”

The Biden administration first said it would issue the rulemaking in January 2022, then delayed the move until December 2022.

The Trump administration delayed issuing the regulations twice in 2020.

“After a year with historic levels of antisemitism, we ask that the administration re-prioritize the rulemaking process for Title VI and ensure it remains a priority,” the letter said.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Mike Evans is fourth from right (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The congressional letter to the Department of Education also said the Office of Civil Rights has delayed investigations into Title VI antisemitic complaints in the higher education system, some dating back to 2018.

It asked the office to clarify the status of the older complaints, the reason they are unresolved and an estimated time frame for their resolution.

The slowed investigations “are delaying justice and potentially allowing discrimination to persist on campuses throughout the country,” the letter said.

The letter also asked the office to provide technical assistance for combating campus antisemitism through its nondiscrimination center, or directly to colleges and students.

Marcus said, “Now is not the time to hit pause on much-needed federal guidance.

“Members of Congress are right to be alarmed and to urge the Biden administration to give this issue equal priority to the other work they’re doing.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt applauded the letter, calling it a “bipartisan effort to turn the 2019 Executive Order on antisemitism into law and ensure that the [US Department of Education] truly commits to combating it on college campuses.”

The letter cited FBI statistics showing Jews were the religious group most targeted in hate crimes in 2020, and a survey by the Alums for Campus Fairness group that found a majority of respondents felt campus antisemitism was a serious problem and avoided certain places and events due to their Jewish identity.

Jewish lawmakers Ted Deutch, Steve Cohen, Mike Levin, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Josh Gottheimer also signed the letter.

Trump’s 2019 executive order was controversial when he signed it because it effectively interprets Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.

Critics also said it would chill free expression and suppress the speech rights of Israel critics. The order endorses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition for antisemitism, which says some examples of Israel criticism amount to antisemitism.

A survey by the Jewish on Campus awareness group released on Monday collated over 544 reported antisemitic incidents on campuses in 2021.

The US Department of Education opened an investigation into alleged harassment of Jewish students at New York’s Brooklyn College last week, following a Title VI complaint from the Brandeis Center.

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