Representatives of Jewish groups told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias are rampant at colleges and universities across the country and that if campus officials fail to stop such abuse, federal and state governments should intervene.
"Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism are systemic ideologies in higher education," said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a San Francisco-based group, at a hearing before the commission. Those ideologies, he said, "find their expression in the classroom and outside the classroom, producing what we consider to be an environment of harassment and intimidation of Jewish students."
The hearing, held at the commission's offices here, marked the first time it had examined the issue of anti-Semitism on campuses. Although the commission does not have enforcement powers, according to its Web site, it can draw attention to rights violations by investigating complaints of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, and by submitting reports, findings, and recommendations to the president and Congress.
In recent years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated a wave of controversy on many college campuses. Faculty members and students have circulated petitions calling on universities to divest financial holdings in companies that do business with the Jewish state and to boycott its academics.
The issue came to a head last fall at Columbia University, after a documentary accused professors in the department of Middle East studies of intimidating pro-Israel students. Although a university investigation found no evidence that faculty members had made anti-Semitic statements, the allegations sparked headlines in New York newspapers and prompted a member of Congress to call on the university to fire an assistant professor (The Chronicle, October 10, 2004).
The events at Columbia were often cited by speakers on Friday.
At the hearing, Mr. Tobin presented findings from The Uncivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education (Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2005), which documents what he described as anti-Semitism and bias against Israel in the academy. The book, which Mr. Tobin helped write, is based on more than 50 interviews with students on a variety of campuses and more than 40 interviews with leaders of Jewish organizations from 2002 to 2005, among other sources.
Mr. Tobin told the commission of one flier created by Muslim student groups at San Francisco State University. The flier depicts a Palestinian baby with the words "Palestinian Children Meat" and "Made in Israel" above it and "Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License" below it. The flier refers to "the medieval anti-Semitic blood libel of Jews slaughtering children -- this time, Palestinian children -- for ritual purposes," the book says.
Based on incidents like that, Mr. Tobin said, "we do encourage Jewish students to begin filing complaints."
In October 2004, the Zionist Organization of America filed one with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California at Irvine, said Susan Tuchman, director of the group's center for law and justice, in her testimony before the commission. In the complaint, which she said the Office for Civil Rights is now investigating, Ms. Tuchman wrote that Jewish students at Irvine "have been subjected to longstanding and pervasive hostility and intimidation."
She said Muslim student groups had invited campus speakers who incited hatred for Jews and Israel, and she told of how Jewish students avoid certain areas of the campus where they feel physically threatened. Ms. Tuchman said the university's administration had ignored Jewish students' concerns.
Sarah Stern, executive director of governmental and public affairs for the American Jewish Congress, also offered examples of campus anti-Semitism, including a 2002 incident at San Francisco State in which pro-Palestinian students shouted at Jewish students, "Hitler didn't finish the job."
Columbia and Irvine officials declined the commission's invitation to testify at the hearing, Kenneth L. Marcus, the panel's staff director said. He read a letter to the commission from Alan Brinkley, Columbia's provost, who said the university abhors anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.
During and after the testimony, members of the commission spoke freely about anti-Semitism and a range of other hot-button issues about American higher education, including the hiring of what one commissioner described as "lunatic" professors and the leftist ideological bias that is said to be rife in the academy.
Abigail Thernstrom, the commission's vice chairman, spoke of her experience as a Jewish student in Middle East studies in the 1970s and said the programs, then and now, are very much alike: "violently anti-Israel" and "very pro-Palestinian."
But the commissioners offered few specifics on what to do about the host of problems they heard about, and they seemed to reject Mr. Tobin's proposal of government intervention.
"I'm not sure what the remedy is," said Ms. Thernstrom, who ran the meeting in the absence of the chairman, Gerald A. Reynolds, the only member who did not attend. She added that she is "extremely nervous about administrative oversight on university campuses," with officials walking into classrooms and deciding whether what the professor is teaching is acceptable or not.
Jennifer C. Braceras, a commissioner, also expressed ambivalence about involving the federal government and administrators in the issue and imposing speech codes. She said part of the solution might be encouraging universities not to hire professors who promote anti-Semitic viewpoints in the classroom.
"Somehow," she said, "the universities got off track in the 70s and 80s, hiring people like this as a way to show sympathy for Third World people, quote unquote."
Mr. Tobin said that programs in Middle East studies should not be allowed to tenure their own faculty members. He added that he was not in favor of speech codes.
When commission members asked Mr. Tobin why universities had not dealt with anti-Semitism on their campuses, he said that administrators are afraid that, in taking action against such bias, they would go down the "slippery slope" of violating academic freedom and freedom of speech. While they routinely condemn other forms of discrimination on campuses, he said, anti-Semitism has slipped under the radar.
At a news conference the day before the hearing, Mr. Tobin said that "anti-Israelism is framed in the politics of race."
"Jews and Israel are white, colonial, Western oppressors," he continued. "Palestinians are brown, indigenous, colonized people." So "in this paradigm, Jews are racist," as is anyone who supports Israel. Therefore, "anti-Semitic language is legitimate because you're combating racism," he said. "That's how it plays out."
Toward the end of the hearing, Mr. Marcus, the commission staffer, asked the guests if they believed that students knew about their rights on campuses. Mr. Tobin said no.
Ms. Braceras asked Mr. Marcus if it would be possible for the commission to put together a pamphlet or brochure informing students of their right not to be discriminated against under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"It's certainly something we ought to explore," he said.