Myths and Facts from Today’s Congressional Hearing on Campus Anti-Semitism

Attorney Ken Stern testifying at today's hearing. 

Attorney Ken Stern testifying at today's hearing. 

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing titled “Examining Anti-Semitism on College Campuses.” The hearing featured testimony from several Israel advocacy organizations that relied on factually inaccurate stories to support their efforts to impose a widely criticized definition of antisemitism on college campuses. This effort failed last year, when the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (ASAA), which would impose the so-called State Department definition of antisemitism on the Department of Education (DOE) in its investigation of complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, was stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives after passing furtively through the Senate without debate.

Multiple speakers at the hearing repeated inaccurate allegations to reinforce their narrative that student speech critical of Israeli government policies and supportive of Palestinian rights contributes to antisemitic campus environments. Below, we debunk some of the most egregious claims aired at the hearing.

Myth

The ASAA adds new protections against antisemitism on campus. Many repeated this during the hearing.

Fact

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Department of Education’s enforcement of Title VI already protect Jewish students. All the ASAA does is attempt to restrict speech critical of Israel on campus by defining antisemitism as speech that demonizes Israel, holds Israel to a double standard and delegitimizes Israel. This does nothing to protect Jewish students against real antisemitism.

Myth

The ASAA would not infringe on speech. ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt repeated this ad nauseum during his testimony.

Fact

Rights groups, including the ACLU strongly opposed the ASAA because, “The bill poses a serious threat to the First Amendment free speech rights of those on campus who may hold certain political views.”

Administrators who consider the “State Department definition of antisemitism” have repeatedly censored protected speech. For example, UC Berkeley suspended a course on Palestine after 43 Israel groups complained that it “met our government’s criteria for antisemitism.” This was widely condemned as an alarming violation of academic freedom.

Censorship of Palestinian rights advocacy is systemic. Palestine Legal responded to 650 incidents of suppression targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights over three years. Over 50% involved accusations of antisemitism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policies. These incidents include a student club banned, a course suspended, a state legislature vote to cut-off funding, students sanctioned and many more.

Myth

The ASAA is not about chilling speech criticizing Israeli policies. Greenblatt repeated this during the hearing.

Fact

The ASAA is exactly about chilling speech criticizing Israeli policies.

Kenneth Marcus, President’s Trump’s nominee to head civil rights at the Department of Education and a supporter of the ASAA, has made it clear that even meritless complaints are good because they chill speech:

“Seeing all these [Title VI] cases rejected has been frustrating and disappointing, but we are, in fact, comforted by knowing that we are having the effect we had set out to achieve . . . . These cases—even when rejected—expose administrators to bad publicity. . . . No university wants to be accused of creating an abusive environment. . . . Israel haters now publicly complain that these cases make it harder for them to recruit new adherents . . . . Needless to say, getting caught up in a civil rights complaint is not a good way to build a resume or impress a future employer.” (emphasis added.)

Wary of the public relations fallout that Title VI complaints are designed to manufacture, administrators often restrict and censor speech activities critical of Israel.

The ASAA would make this situation worse.

Myth

The DOE has failed to address complaints of antisemitism on college campuses. Many repeated this during the hearing, including attorney Paul Clement.

Fact

The DOE Office for Civil Rights under Obama spent years investigating numerous complaints that criticism of Israel created a hostile environment for Jewish students. After lengthy factual investigations, DOE civil rights experts could not find sufficient evidence of anti-Jewish harassment that amounted to civil rights violations. The DOE dismissed these cases in 2013 and 2014 with lengthy written decisions applying the facts to law, only after civil rights investigators interviewed dozens of students and administrators at University of California (UC) Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and Rutgers University. The investigations lasted nine years at UC Irvine, two years at UC Santa Cruz, one year at UC Berkeley and three years at Rutgers University.

In each case Obama’s civil rights team looked carefully at the facts and determined that the allegations of antisemitism constituted First Amendment protected speech critical of Israeli policy.  

The DOE determined that these instances represent “expression on matters of public concern” and not “actionable harassment.” DOE further noted that, “in the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.” (See DOE’s determination letters here.)

The DOE Office for Civil Rights also created new resources for addressing religious discrimination, and, specifically, antisemitism.

In many cases of abhorrent antisemitism (like swastikas) there is no “civil rights violation” for the federal government to take action against because university administrators respond swiftly in condemning such acts and investigate. For example, in a case at UCLA where a Jewish candidate for student government was questioned about her ability to be objective on the question of divestment from Israel, the campus community roundly condemned the questioning, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the student council members themselves, the university Chancellor and President.

Myth

“Other demographic groups” have power to stop harassment, but pro-Israel Jewish students don’t, and that’s why we need the ASAA. Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Rabbi Abraham Cooper made this claim in his testimony.

Fact

Pro-Israel Jewish students and outside groups have made dozens of complaints of harassment to universities that are simply baseless.

In addition to dismissals of complaints by the DOE, campus investigations have also found the vast majority of such complaints to be unsubstantiated, or to constitute protected political speech targeting Israeli government policies. (For example, look at cases investigated at CUNY, San Francisco State, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Rutgers University.)

The reality is that over two dozen organizations support pro-Israel students on campuses in making such complaints against those who criticize Israel, and collectively contribute tens of millions of dollars to campaigns to promote Israel and undermine Palestine activism on campuses. For example, GOP mega-donor and Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson has raised at least $20 million to quash student speech critical of Israeli policies, particularly support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiatives. Adelson’s Maccabee Task Force funds pro-Israel students to host events on campus that portray Israel in a friendly light in order to combat the growing movement for Palestinian rights. Funding per campus, according to a task force official, is in the six figures per academic year, on at least forty campuses.