NAICU Washington Update

Anti-Semitism on Campus is Focus of House Hearing

November 12, 2017

The House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing seeking to examine the prevalence and severity of anti-Semitic incidents at colleges and universities.

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) strongly condemned anti-Semitism and expressed concern about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to end international support for Israel based on its treatment of Palestine. However, Rep. Goodlatte also stressed the importance of protecting freedom of speech.

A total of nine witnesses testified at the hearing. Their views diverged widely, with some witnesses asserting that anti-Semitism is rampant on college campuses, while others questioned whether campuses are actually a hotbed of such views. Similarly, some participants equated the BDS movement with anti-Semitism, while others argued that the movement is not anti-Semitic because it reflects criticism of Israel’s policy choices, not anti-Jewish beliefs.

Members of Congress and witnesses also debated a potential legislative solution. Under current law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs or activities. Although there is no statutory prohibition against discrimination on the basis of religion, the Department of Education has issued guidance noting that “harassment against students who are members of any religious group triggers a school’s Title VI responsibilities when the harassment is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, rather than solely on its members’ religious practices.”

As a result, there are some instances in which current law can be used to address anti-Semitism, but some participants in the hearing called for additional legislation, arguing that it would aid the Department in addressing anti-Semitic incidents. The primary piece of legislation under discussion, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, would establish a definition of anti-Semitism for purposes of civil rights enforcement by the Department. However, the hearing participants appeared to be divided over the need for the legislation and whether or not it would chill freedom of speech and academic expression.

It should be noted that the Trump Administration recently announced it was nominating Kenneth Marcus for the position of Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In his current role as president and general counsel for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Marcus has been an advocate for combating anti-Semitism on college campuses.

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