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The Zionist Organization of America’s Effort to Criminalize Campus Activism through Federal Civil Rights Legislation

By Eyal Mazor

Under the leadership of Mort Klein, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)

 is celebrating its success in its efforts to expand federal anti-bullying guidelines

 stipulated under the US Civil Rights Act of 1964.  So why in the world would Mort

 Klein and his pro-occupation and pro-settlement ZOA be interested in federal civil

 rights and anti-bullying policy in the first place? Perhaps a new-found interest in

 protecting religious practice and reigning in on all instances of discrimination?

 Of course not. Read on and prepare yourself to be outraged.

In a policy statement released this week, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

has adopted new guidelines that include protections against religious groups with

“shared ethnic characteristics.”   Appearing alongside indisputably positive policy

changes that increase protections for LGBT and disabled students facing bullying

and discrimination, it may seem totally inappropriate to cast doubt on this particular

aspect of the policy, no matter who has brought it to the table. After all, expanding

categories of protection is a good thing. However, once we understand the ZOA’s

motives, it becomes clear that this development should be cause for alarm for anybody

wanting to preserve students’ rights to organize on American campuses for peace and

justice in Palestine and Israel!

Indeed, the ZOA took up this effort specifically as a way to clamp down on student

activism that has pushed universities to hold Israel accountable to international law.

How? Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says that colleges and universities that don’t

address issues of discrimination can lose their federal funding.

This is part of a strategy to scare public universities into putting a stop to entirely

legal and non-discriminatory activism that the ZOA and others just don’t like.

Klein is shamelessly trafficking in the language of bigotry and anti-discrimination

in an effort to criminalize campus human rights activism in favor of justice and

peace in Palestine and Israel. It’s hard to imagine a more reprehensible manip-

ulation of the legacy of civil rights struggle.

The story actually begins in October 2004 when the first complaint to US

Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in 2004 on the behalf of Jewish students at the

University of California at Irvine. These claims, which form the centerpiece

of the ZOA’s whole case to OCR, seem at best to be an extreme misrepres-

entation of actual goings-on, and at worst totally lack substance–and that’s

coming from their subjects: UC Irvine students themselves. In response to

the initial complaint the ZOA filed with OCR on behalf of Jewish students at

the University of California at Irvine in October 2004, the most prominent

leaders of the campus Jewish community actually came out and publicly

refuted the ZOA’s claims that UCI is a hostile environment for Jewish students.

In March 2008, prominent Jewish student leaders of UCI (including the presidents

of the campus Hillel, the self-described pro-Israel group Anteaters for Israel, and

the Jewish Fraternity and Sorority) issued a public statement clearly and directly

contradicting the ZOA’s claims about their campus, stating instead that  “Jewish

student life thrives on campus, despite misinformation from outside organizations.”

In a story published in May 2008 issue of New Voices (since expunged from their

website, but available below), student leaders from UCI’s Jewish community testify

to being ignored, silenced, and even publicly discredited by ZOA and associated

activists for speaking the truth of their experience on campus.  One student, then

President of Anteaters for Israel,  even lost his position with the Israel advocacy

training group StandWithUs over a statement he made that the threat of anti-Semitism

on his campus has been exaggerated by community activists and organizations.

Who Speaks for Jewish Students?

In another case cited in a recent op-ed, Klein also cites a battery case filed by a

female pro-Israel activist at the University of California at Berkeley against a

Palestinian student activist. In fact, all charges have been dropped against the

Palestinian student, Husam Zakharia, who said from the very beginning that he

lost control of a shopping cart overflowing with donated toys bound for Gaza when

it accidentally hit the female student.

Klein’s campaign seemed to really take off earlier this year when 13 Jewish

organizations endorsed a March 16 letter to the Education Minister urging

the Office of Civil Rights to investigate incidents of anti-Semitism. Among

the endorsing groups are Abe Foxman’s ADL, American Jewish Congress (AJC),

and Hillel– all of which have a track record of manipulating charges of anti-Semitism

to silence critics of Israeli policy.

More recently, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Senator Arlen Specter (D-CA)

 have been championing in Congress Mort Klein and the ZOA’s proposal to amend the

 Civil Rights Act. In September, Sherman and Specter introduced legislation that would

 inscribe into federal law what the Department of Education has just changed in

federal policy. Shortly after the new guidelines were announced, Congressman

Sherman released a statement naming only Jewish students who face “severe and

persistent anti-Semitic hostility on their campuses” among groups who will enjoy

new protections under the policy.

Making no mention of any other communities facing religion-based discrimination, such as Muslims, Sikhs and other groups most impacted by the up-swell of Islamophobic discrimination, the political motives of the ZOA’s appeal is perfectly transparent. The ZOA is not and has never claimed to be an organization that fights bigotry or discrimination, nor do they purport to hold a message of universal tolerance. It is an organization set up to promote a pro-settlement, pro-occupation, right-wing Zionist agenda.

In addition to using federal anti-discrimination legislation to pursue a highly politicized agenda, one of the most troubling aspects of this campaign is that it has considerable de-amplifying effects for when authentic instances of anti-Semitism do arise.  This type of action will not make Jews, or anyone else, any safe

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