Universities Must Shift Their Conception of Jewish Students as a Group – Jewish Journal

Posted By on August 7, 2021

As universities and colleges across the country gear up for the academic year, institutional offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are working hard to schedule programs designed to celebrate difference while facilitating greater inclusion and delivering on the promise of equality in higher education. DEI offices usually focus on historically marginalized populations, including racial and ethnic groups that have traditionally experienced discrimination. So its strange that in the vast majority of these offices, there is one historically marginalized and oft discriminated-against group that is routinely missing altogether, if not from the mission statement, then certainly from the mission practice.

The Jewish people.

But why the gap? The reason is that universities tend to think about the Jewish issues facing students as a subset of religious issues, falling under the purview of their Offices of Religious Life, or any of the various clergy groups on campus, as opposed to a racial or ethnic problem better handled by the DEI office. But while it is true that Judaism is a religion, and that Jewish students do sometimes face issuessuch as the scheduling of exams on holidaysthat might best be defined as religious discrimination and handled by someone with a focus in that area, reflexively putting Jewish issues in an exclusively religious box is both limiting and wrong.

It is also true that for the vast and ever-expanding number of Jewish students encountering antisemitic hatred on campus, their experience has nothing to do with their religious practice, and everything to do with their racial, ethnic or cultural identity. And for the most part, handling this kind of discrimination falls outside the purview and expertise of even the most well-meaning chaplain. Universities need to realize this, adjust their lenses, and plan accordingly, just as they do for other minority groups that might need assistance.

In an age of intersectionality, appreciating that Jewish students can and do hold multiple identities should not be controversial. Federal law, for instance, has already come to this realization and corrected its own definitional understanding for how to properly protect Jewish students.

In an age of intersectionality, appreciating that Jewish students can and do hold multiple identities should not be controversial.

Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act requires schools to ensure their programs and activities are free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. Notably, the Act does not give the Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights jurisdiction to investigate religious bias, and so until 2004, OCR was making the same mistake that university DEI offices are still making today: they were declining to investigate antisemitic complaints under their regular well-established framework for dealing with discrimination against other minorities because they saw Jews as only a religious group, and not a race, ethnicity or type of national origin. Because antisemitism fell outside the bounds of the normal system, it was much easier to get away with.

In 2004, however, OCR issued a series of policy statements announcing that they would henceforth investigate antisemitism complaints, to the extent that they implicate ethnic or ancestral bias. As the policy directive explained, [g]roups that face discrimination on the basis of shared ethnic characteristics may not be denied the protection of our civil rights laws on the ground that they also share a common faith. This idea has been confirmed in both Title VI and Title VII cases. It is high time for schools to actually put it into practice on campus as well.

Around the country, antisemitism has become entrenched and systemic, with recent studies showing that the number of Jewish students experiencing antisemitism had spiked to nearly 75 percent, and that Jewish students need and want their schools to be doing more to help them. Under Title VI, administrators have a responsibility to protect students and faculty from acts of hate and bigotry motivated by discriminatory animusincluding antisemitismand to proactively work to create a safe environment for everyone. They must ensure that when people discriminate against Jews for being Jewish (as opposed to their religious practice) it is treated as seriously and as quickly, and with the same procedures and processes in place, as discrimination against any other member of a minority group targeted for their racial or ethnic identity.

A step in the right direction toward shifting the framework through which colleges and universities see their Jewish communities would be to have someone in the DEI office specifically attuned or at the very least paying attention to the different aspects of Jewish life on campus. Jewish students across all spectrums, like any other group, should be celebrated for the diversity they bring, and appreciated for the contributions they make to campus life. At the very least they should feel free to express their full identities without fear, and have proper recourse and a designated someone to turn to if they are in fact excluded.

Dr. Mark Goldfeder, Esq. is Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center. He served as the Founding Editor of the Cambridge University Press Series on Law and Judaism.

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Universities Must Shift Their Conception of Jewish Students as a Group - Jewish Journal

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