Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that universities redress racial and ethnic discrimination, or risk losing their federal funding. Thus, if African-American or Hispanic students are harassed on campus, they can complain to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is mandated to enforce Title VI and ensure that their schools fix the problem.
But Title VI does not clearly protect Jewish students, as we found out after the Zionist Organization of America filed a Title VI complaint with the Office for Civil Rights on behalf of Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine.
To correct this problem, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last month that would require that Jewish students be protected from harassment and intimidation on their campuses. It would add protection from religious discrimination to Title VI, which currently prohibits discrimination based on "race, color or national origin."
The Specter-Sherman bill would fill a legal loophole that effectively permits colleges and universities to ignore when Jewish students are harassed or discriminated against. Lawmakers should enact this bill quickly, so that Jewish students are assured a campus environment that is safe and conducive to learning.
The many troubling incidents of campus anti-Semitism highlight the need for this amendment. For example, at U.C. Berkeley last March, a Jewish student was holding a sign at a pro-Israel campus rally that said "Israel Wants Peace." She was rammed from behind with a filled shopping cart. The attack was unprovoked, and the victim required medical attention.
At U.C. Irvine, a Holocaust memorial was destroyed, and swastikas were inscribed on campus property. Posters have depicted women in Muslim garb saying, "God bless Hitler." A Jewish student was told to "go back to Russia, where you came from." Jewish students have been threatened and physically assaulted.
The campus regularly hosts one- to two-week-long events that demonize Israel and Jews. In May 2009, a speaker compared Jews to Satan. Last May, this speaker referred to Jews as "the new Nazis."
The complaint that the ZOA filed in October 2004 on behalf of Jewish students at U.C. Irvine detailed years of increasing anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination, and charged that the school had either ignored the problems or made token efforts to address them.
At the time the complaint was filed, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights concluded that the law applied to religious groups that also share ethnic characteristics, such as Jews. It proceeded with the ZOA's case, rendering it the first one of anti-Semitism it had ever agreed to investigate under Title VI.
Soon after the investigation started, however, the leadership of the Office for Civil Rights changed, and it reverted to denying Title VI protection to Jewish students, perceiving Jews simply as a religious group, not also an ethnic group.
As a result, the office dismissed the ZOA's complaint. Our appeal of that decision has been pending since April 2008. Even now, with new leadership under President Barack Obama, the policy of denying Jews the same protections as other minority groups has not changed.
The injustice of the decision inspired the ZOA to advocate for a change in the law. We communicated with many members of Congress, educating them about the problems that Jewish students face on campuses, and about the law's failure to afford them the same protections as other ethnic and racial groups.
When U.S. Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), co-chair of the Congressional Taskforce Against Anti-Semitism, convened a briefing last June on campus anti-Semitism and the federal government's role in redressing it, the ZOA briefed congressional members and their staff.
The briefing led to letters from 38 members of Congress to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging the Education Department to enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students.
Sen. Specter and Rep. Sherman have taken a leadership role in ensuring that Jewish students are protected. We have worked closely with them on the issue.
All of us should urge our representatives in Congress to support this bill so that an unjust gap in the law will finally be filled, and Jewish students will no longer have to tolerate anti-Semitic harassment on their campuses.
Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America. Susan B. Tuchman serves as director of ZOA's Center for Law and Justice.