WASHINGTON - Some evidence suggests harassment of Jewish students in high schools and colleges has been on the rise since September 11, 2001, according to the chief of enforcement for the Department of Education's office of civil rights.
In an interview last week with The New York Sun, Deputy Assistant Secretary Ken Marcus said, "Although we don't track statistics we certainly have heard anecdotally of more incidents of anti-Semitism since late 2001 than before that time."
Mr. Marcus this year changed the department's long-standing student harassment policy to respond to anti- Semitism. In September he sent a letter to more than 20,000 schools informing administrators of the new policy and warning that the September 11 anniversary may coincide with increased harassment of Arab, Jewish, and Sikh students.
"While OCR lacks jurisdiction to prohibit discrimination against students based on religion per se, OCR will aggressively prosecute harassment of religious students who are targeted on the basis of race or gender, as well as racial or gender harassment of students who are targeted on the basis of religion," the September 13 letter said.
The policy marks a departure for the civil rights arm of the Department of Education, which traditionally focused its energies on gender equality in college athletics programs during the Clinton administration, as well as incidents of racial harassment on campuses that came to national attention in the early 1990s through fights over college speech codes.
"OCR has been around for a long time," Mr. Marcus said. "It is surprising the agency did not previously investigate anti-Semitism complaints. It is important that the agency is being proactive to make sure students are aware of what their rights are. My hopes are there will not be many of these incidents, but to remind students that there is a mechanism to deal with them if they occur."
To that end, Mr. Marcus has said he has been meeting with Jewish organizations across the country to make them aware that students with legitimate cases have a right to file a complaint with his office. Usually these complaints are not referred to the Justice Department, Mr. Marcus said. Instead the Department of Education works with the school to develop a policy or set of programs that addresses the concerns raised in the original complaint. "The vast majority of our cases are dealt with through voluntary agreements," he said.
In recent weeks, two major universities have splashed into the headlines after complaints from Jewish students that discourse over the Arab-Israeli conflict has crossed the line from discussion to targeting those students who take Israel's side.
The Zionist Organization of America, an organization that has criticized Prime Minister Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, on October 15 filed a formal complaint on behalf of Jewish Students at the University of California, Irvine. According to the ZOA, Muslim students chased a Jewish student wearing an Israeli flag pin on his lapel into the dean of student's office. The chase was so heated, the student filed a police report. A student newspaper on campus catering to Arab Americans has also called the Hillel society an "unknown campus terrorist group."
At Columbia University, a group of students has recently made a documentary detailing how Jewish and pro-Israeli students have been singled out in Middle Eastern studies classes. In one case, an Israeli student who had served in the army is asked by a professor of Arab politics, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" The student responded by asking the professor how many members of his family celebrated after September 11, 2001.
"I have seen the documentary," Mr. Marcus said. "We do not have any specific complaints about Columbia. We don't have a complaint. Because it is a specific place where they may be allegations that will be made before us, I don't want to address the specifics at this time," he said.
Mr. Marcus, who has been a litigator on First Amendment law cases, was careful to stress that he did not see the role of his office to enforce speech codes or infringe on the rights of students to debate. When asked about the propagation on campuses of Palestinian film festivals that often portray Israeli soldiers as child killers, Mr. Marcus said he did not think such events fell under his office's jurisdiction.
"We have to be protecting legitimate expressive conduct. But there is a line," he said. "This agency tried to make it clear that we are protecting First Amendment rights on that subject. On the other hand, there is conduct that goes over the line." He said he has seen cases in high schools where Jewish students have endured ethnic epithets and alleged physical harassment.
"We had a case involving a Sikh child allegedly beaten up and called Osama," Mr. Marcus said. "One hears about it anecdotally. People are allegedly stopped or pushed, berated on a regular basis. It's one thing to say everyone on campus has a right to free expression, it's another to say we should turn our backs to students legitimately victimized by hatred and bigotry."