With the troubles of a pro-Israel advocate at Rutgers University on their minds, representatives of New Jersey’s Jewish community relations organizations waged a losing battle to delete several paragraphs regarding free speech protections from a resolution that was passed at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs national convention.
The vote on “Countering Anti-Jewish and Anti-Israel Activity on Campus” came by a show of hands on Sunday at the JCPA’s 2012 Plenum, taking place May 5-8 in Detroit. The NJ delegates would have preferred that the resolution not include several clauses stressing the need to maintain free-speech protections on campuses.
The resolution, which was adopted by a broad majority:
• Asserts that “aggressive application of Title VI” —a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, including groups with “shared ethnic characteristics” — “can be a useful tool” or “misused in an effort to silence criticism of Israel.”
• Reaffirms JCPA’s “bedrock commitment to protecting free speech and academic freedom and to combating anti Semitism” and “recognizes the importance of First Amendment protected speech and believes it is not in the Jewish community’s best interest to invoke Title VI when it could lead to an environment in which legitimate debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is squelched and academic freedom is undermined.”
• Urges the fostering of “Jewish life on campus that is inclusive and diverse in opinions and activities” and “encourages understanding of the breadth and limits” of using Title VI to protect pro-Israel advocates from harassment.
“Our resolution was framed with the backdrop of Rutgers University and what has been happening there,” said its sponsor, Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus.
With the aid of the Zionist Organization of America, Aaron Marcus, a student on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, has filed a federal lawsuit under Title VI.
The suit alleges that Rutgers failed to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” around alleged bullying and intimidation of Marcus, who writes a conservative, pro-Israel op-ed column for the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum.
He was also the target of a satirical campus publication called The Medium, which falsely placed his byline and picture on an April Fool’s Day parody op-ed praising Hitler.
“We felt the JCPA resolution raised unwarranted concerns about the impact of Title VI complaints and lawsuits on free speech,” Kurland told NJ Jewish News in a May 7 phone interview from Detroit. “The courts have already set standards. We didn’t feel that was necessary.”
Other delegates from New Jersey supported Kurland’s position.
Speaking by cellphone from the conference, Melanie Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest and Central NJ, told NJJN, “Our position was that we wanted to strengthen the resolution, but in the end we supported the one that passed…because we felt Title VI should be used as a tool if and when appropriate. We also feel that it should not be misused or overused. It should only be used in the most extreme circumstances.”
Kurland, however, voted against the measure that was adopted.
“We felt the JCPA resolution raised unwarranted concerns about the impact of Title VI complaints and lawsuits on free speech,” she said.
Susan Tuchman, a board member of the Northern NJ JCRC, was one of the people who drafted the failed resolution. As legal director of the ZOA, Tuchman is representing Marcus in his complaint against Rutgers.
Wearing her “ZOA hat,” Tuchman said the resolution adopted by the JCPA “raises concerns about the First Amendment that are completely unwarranted. So far as I know, no one has ever used, or is trying to use, Title VI to suppress free speech.”
In an e-mail to NJJN, she added, “The JCPA resolution also suggests that there are some in the Jewish community who are using Title VI indiscriminately. There’s absolutely no evidence to support that claim. The claim is divisive and it’s wrong.”
ZOA president Morton Klein told NJJN that “the university should use its own freedom of speech to publicly condemn these people who viciously attack Israel and Jews” and should “set up programs to educate these people about the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“Many of these programs compare Israelis to Nazis, say Israelis are baby-killers, and say Israel is an apartheid state — all of which is completely false. When you are bashing Israel with lies like these it verges on anti-Semitism,” Klein argued.
“My gosh, we don’t tolerate it. Nobody tolerates that,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of JCPA in defense of the resolution that was approved.
He acknowledged that “some of those statements are deeply anti-Semitic and cause us to stay up at nights. Jewish students cry out, and we hear them.” However, Felson added, there are “many ways to help Jewish students. There isn’t just one way.”
According to Felson, both resolutions — the one that was adopted and the one that was sponsored by the Northern NJ JCRC — “speak of a profound concern for the safety and security of Jewish students on campus. The resolution that was adopted also spoke of the other important tools — aside from Title VI lawsuits — “including education, dialogue, and respect for academic freedom.
“There is a time and purpose for each,” Felson said.