In reopening a probe of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights may find in a 2011 incident at a pro-Palestinian event a violation of the civil rights of Jewish students. Or, like the Obama administration’s 2014 probe of the same facts, it may find the case for anti-Semitism too weak to pursue.
One change since 2014 is that the Education Department now uses the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes some types of anti-Israel activity, like holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions. We support the State Department standard and see nothing wrong in taking another look at the case.
At issue is a complaint against the university over a 2011 event held on campus by a pro-Palestinian group. The event was to be free with a suggested donation. But according to the complaint, organizers charged Jewish students $5 to attend while letting others in for free.
The university investigated the event before the Office for Civil Rights got involved. According to the OCR report, the $5 fee was imposed a half hour before the event began and was instituted “to control the number of attendees since the number of attendees was larger than anticipated.” Witnesses corroborated that “both Jewish and non-Jewish attendees were required to pay the fee for entry.” Finally, “OCR found no evidence that any Jewish individuals who paid the fee were denied” entry.
New in the current probe, led by Kenneth Marcus, the education department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, is an email that was redacted in the earlier investigation. Sent by an event organizer, it says, “We need to start charging because 150 Zionists just showed up!” but that “if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.”
Presumably Marcus will look into whether this is the smoking gun to prove anti-Semitism at the event and imputing it to Rutgers. “Zionist” can be a code word for “Jew,” and the conflation of Jews with Israel can be construed as anti-Semitic, according to the new definition. But whether this email had any influence on the fee charged, which seems to have been applied equally to Jews and non-Jews, Israel supporters and opponents, is an open question.
The 2014 report did a nuanced job in weighing the evidence in this and other charges of anti-Semitism at Rutgers. The new investigation will focus only on evidence already collected, but will weigh it under a different definition than was in existence four year ago. It will be interesting to see whether that change affects the result. PJC