In recent years many campuses have debated whether speakers, works of scholarship or student activities that are harshly critical of Israel constitute anti-Semitism or bias that is illegal under federal law. While it's easy to say (and most of those in the debate agree) that one can criticize Israel's government without being anti-Semitic, one person's cogent critique is another's bigoted attack.
In an effort to promote better discussion of these tensions, leaders of the American Association of University Professors and the American Jewish Committee in April issued a letter that urged greater scrutiny for claims that anti-Israel statements and activities on campuses amount to illegal intimidation of Jewish students. In particular, the letter said that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which bars discrimination by organizations receiving federal funds -- is not generally a tool for resolving such disputes. And the letter urged colleges and universities to place an emphasis on promoting rigorous debate on all topics -- even those like the Middle East on which people strongly disagree.
The letter was seen by its signatories as a way to promote a better campus environment, but was attacked almost immediately by some pro-Israel groups. As of now, the joint statement may be down to one party. The head of the American Jewish Committee has repudiated the letter and said that it shouldn't have been signed.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, sent a letter to a critic of the letter this month in which he said: "AJC's internal system of checks and balances did not function well in this case. We believe that the letter was ill-advised and regret the decision to have released it."
The Harris letter was first reported Tuesday by The Jewish Daily Forward, after which the AJC released the brief letter from Harris, but declined to comment further. The repudiation is notable because the AJC signatory on the letter with the AAUP was not some low-level official but Kenneth Stern, director of the American Jewish Committee’s program on anti-Semitism and extremism, and someone who is generally considered to be a leading expert on anti-Semitism. A spokesman for the American Jewish Committee said that Stern was on sabbatical and was not commenting on the situation.
Much of the criticism of the joint letter concerned its discussion of Title VI. The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights found in 2010 that some kinds of anti-Jewish activity (it gave as examples the use of swastikas or bullying directed at Jewish students) could constitute the type of ethnic or racial harassment banned by Title VI. The AAUP-AJC letter does not disagree.
But it issued a strong caution against the use of Title VI in some of the disputes that have broken out on various campuses. "Title VI is a remedy when university leadership neglects its job to stop bigoted harassment of students; it is not a tool to define 'politically correct' campus speech," the letter said. "Anti-Semitism should be treated with the same seriousness as other forms of bigotry. But one should not, for instance, suggest that a professor cannot make an argument about immigration simply because some might see any such argument as biased against Latino students. Nor was Title VI crafted with the notion that only speakers who are 'safe' should be allowed on campus. By trying to censor anti-Israel remarks, it becomes more, not less, difficult to tackle both anti-Semitism and anti-Israel dogma. The campus debate is changed from one of exposing bigotry to one of protecting free speech, and the last thing pro-Israel advocates need is a reputation for censoring, rather than refuting, their opponents."
Via e-mail, Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP and the co-signatory of the April letter, said that he stood behind it. And he was also critical of attempts to focus on Title VI as a means to promote a better campus environment.
"The attempt to assemble a set of unconnected phenomena -- from visiting speakers to student group activities to classroom speech -- to qualify under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is unlikely to survive a full court test," he said. "Thus whatever maneuvering the AJC or other groups do now has more to do with internal politics and community relations than with any principled or carefully thought out legal position. In any case, neither Ken Stern nor I acted without consulting colleagues in our respective organizations."