Students, faculty react to OCR’s decision to re-open Rutgers case

Kenneth Marcus, the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

Tufts students and faculty responded this week to a Department of Education (DOE) decision to reopen a case filed against Rutgers University by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) in April 2011. According to a New York Times story about the matter published on Sept. 11, the organization claimed that the previous administration, in closing the case, had ignored a hostile response to Jewish students on campus.

The decision comes from newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus, who opposes Palestinian rights causes, and marks a shift in the department’s civil rights enforcement, the Times reported. The DOE has used a new definition of anti-Semitism — one already in use by the State Department — that treats opposing Zionism as an anti-Semitic act. In addition, he has interpreted Judaism as an ethnic origin rather than a religion, a distinction that the definition leaves ambiguous.

Molly Tunis, a member of student groups Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Tufts Jewish Voice for Peace, believes the move hurts Palestinian rights activism on campus and delegitimizes the anti-Semitism that Jewish students face on campuses. Tunis, a junior, added this differs from the definition that Marcus is going by in his decision.

“It is concerning that in a movement for Palestinian human rights, a movement that focuses on liberation and justice, the voices of Jewish students are being centered and heard louder than those of Palestinians,” she told the Daily in an email. “[T]hese voices have the capacity to override those of Palestinian students fighting for their own liberation.”

Ben Shapiro, co-president of Tufts Friends of Israel (FOI), a pro-Israel student group, said that the Office for Civil Rights’ decision instead needs to be examined in the context of the new definition of anti-Semitism.

“Any administration has the right to reopen a closed investigation,” Shapiro, a junior, said. “But I think that this reopening is particularly interesting because it’s not Trumpian in the respect that it’s trying to undo something the Obama administration did, but it’s re-evaluating something according to an updated and more correct definition which may or may not yield a different result.”

Shapiro also emphasized the importance of the ethnic dimension of the definition.

“The Jewish people are an ethno-religious group, and this updated criteria defines the Jewish people as not just a religion, but also an ethnicity, which is just historically and genealogically true,” he said.

He further believes that the Jewish people are the ones who should be determining what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be anti-Semitic.

“I don’t think it’s other people’s place to comment on what anti-Semitism is, as a [form of] discrimination and oppression, if they’re not invested in this and it doesn’t affect them,” Shapiro said. “And I think that that’s the case with all forms of racism and discrimination.”

Tufts FOI does not plan to carry out any actions in response to the case right now as this case is dealing specifically with an incident that occurred at Rutgers, according to Shapiro.

Parker Breza, a member of Tufts SJP, expressed his concern over the potential for this decision to associate criticisms of Israel with a state definition of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism still exists at Tufts, in the US, and around the world,” Breza, a senior, told the Daily in an email. “[B]ut, this ruling would not combat anti-Semitism, and will instead seek to criminalize Palestine solidarity activists.”

Student leaders from Tufts’ J Street U chapter declined to comment on the specifics of the decision and how it could impact Tufts, but provided the Daily with a copy of the national organization’s statement. The release notes that OCR’s decision suppresses free speech on college campuses, rather than fighting anti-Semitism.

“The initial Rutgers investigation into an event held by a Palestinian group on campus was triggered by a complaint from the [ZOA] — an ultra-right group that has sought to suppress virtually all activities critical of Israeli government policy, and which regularly traffics in anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim bigotry. The complaint was thoroughly investigated and dismissed by the DOE in 2014. Its reopening is not about upholding civil rights or a serious effort to combat anti-Semitism, but about advancing a right-wing agenda that seeks to silence open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the statement reads.

The Times, in its reporting, also notes that Middle Eastern Studies programs at multiple universities are preparing for accusations of bias from the current administration. However, this does not appear to be the case at Tufts.

Associate Professor of Religion Ken Garden, who also directs the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tufts, noted that OCR’s decision will not have a major, if any, impact on Middle Eastern Studies because the program does not receive federal funding.

He also emphasized the differences between a department and a program in why Middle Eastern Studies will experience a minimal impact. A department has a chair, receives funding to make its own decisions on faculty and is generally grouped together in the same office space.

“A program doesn’t do any of that,” Garden said. “As a program director, I receive a modest budget — $3,000 a year — for programming. We sometimes put on programs and then pass the hat to other programs for co-sponsorships, [while] other programs pass the hat to us for co-sponsorships for their programming if there’s a Middle Eastern aspect to it.”

Faculty within the Middle Eastern Studies program all primarily work in another department, Garden added.

“If I talk about the position of Middle Eastern Studies on any given issue, maybe that means I’ve had a meeting with four or five other members, and we’ve discussed something,” Garden said. “But we’re not really in the position of putting out statements as a program.”

To the best of his knowledge, the Tufts Middle Eastern Studies program has never been formally accused of taking a particular stance on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

“There was an event [one year] ago, when I was here, [where] the student senate took a vote on criticizing or condemning Israel, and it was during Passover so Jewish members of the student body weren’t here to debate or vote on the issue,” Garden said. “Somebody did call me anonymously and leave a message on my machine saying, ‘Well I don’t know what you’re teaching kids there.’ But other than that, I’ve never encountered any criticism of us as a program.” 

There are also faculty affiliated with both the Middle Eastern and Judaic Studies programs at Tufts, he added. The two programs co-sponsor events for one another.

“I’d like to think that relations are pretty good between the programs,” Garden said.

The university continues to monitor the case and surrounding updates in the meantime.

“It is premature to speculate about potential implications for Tufts until the Trump administration has completed its re-examination,” Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations, told the Daily in an email.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of Education’s new definition of anti-Semitism considers Judaism as an ethnicity. The definition does not do so. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.


COPYRIGHT 2019 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.