The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is reopening a 2011 case that accused Rutgers University in New Jersey of tolerating a hostile environment towards Jewish students.
In a letter sent last week to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus said the OCR — which exonerated Rutgers after concluding a probe on the matter in 2014 — will again examine whether the university had failed to properly address concerns that Jewish students had faced national origin discrimination, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
ZOA’s initial complaint noted that a part-time official at the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies had described a Jewish student as a “racist Zionist pig” in 2010, about a year after she allegedly physically threatened him.
The same Jewish student was also the target of threatening messages shared by peers on Facebook, one of whom said they would be “happy to see him beat with a crowbar.”
The complaint further pointed to a 2011 event called “Never Again for Anyone” held on campus with the help of BAKA — Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, which was accused of selectively imposing an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel students.
After concluding its investigation in 2014, the OCR determined that there was no evidence to back claims that any of the incidents involved national origin discrimination. It could not substantiate allegations that the university failed to appropriately respond to complaints over the BAKA event, nor corroborate “that Jewish and pro-Israel students were treated differently by being charged the fee.”
Yet ZOA appealed the case shortly afterwards, and received a response nearly four years later from Marcus, who was confirmed to his post in June.
Marcus’ letter dismissed the OCR’s previous conclusions specifically regarding the BAKA event, saying it had wrongly ignored a key piece of evidence — an email purportedly written by a BAKA student volunteer saying they were instructed to impose an admission fee because “150 Zionists just showed up,” although “if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.”
While the OCR had interviewed a student witness who received the email, it ultimately determined that the message could not be verified as it had been redacted for confidentiality reasons.
“While weighing the credibility of evidentiary sources is important, altogether disregarding the information reflected in the above-referenced email and accompanying witness information was erroneous,” Marcus wrote.
He asserted that “the email and accompanying witness information provide at least some evidence” that the fee was motivated by the sudden appearance of “150 Zionists,” and that efforts to single out those who fit this description “could have been based at least partially on a visual assessment, as opposed to individually polling all 150 such unexpected arrivals as to their views on the policies of the state of Israel.”
This assessment “could have been rooted in a perception of Jewish ancestry or ethnic characteristics common to the group,” Marcus added. “The reports of some students not granted a fee waiver that their appearance reflected Jewish identity (e.g., by wearing a kippah) invites an inference that such Jewish-identifying appearance was used as a signal of the lack of ideological support.”
“In cases such as this, it is important to determine whether terms such as ‘Zionist’ are actually code for ‘Jewish,’” he explained.
Pointing out that there was no indication that the OCR previously analyzed whether the conduct related to Israel was “motivated by anti-Semitism,” he said it now planned to evaluate the matter using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Adopted by more than 30 countries including the US, the definition describes antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes examples such as advancing “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”
The probe will also seek to determine whether a hostile environment currently exists at Rutgers for Jewish students.
A spokesperson for the university told The Algemeiner on Thursday that it always fully cooperates with the OCR, though “it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on their investigation.”
Rutgers has in the past rejected allegations that it discriminated against Jewish students, saying when the OCR first opened its inquiry in 2011 that “the claims by the ZOA are contrary to the true values of Rutgers University and are not supported by the facts.”
“Rutgers University has one of the largest populations of Jewish students of any public university in the nation,” a representative for the school told New Jersey Jewish News at the time. “Rutgers also has a long tradition of working with and supporting the Jewish community, and a longstanding commitment to facilitate meaningful dialogue and promote civility among all members of our community.”
The university was in the national spotlight several times last year, after its professor Michael Chikindas was found in October to have published multiple social media posts that were condemned as hostile to Jews, women, and members of the LGBT community. A month later, The Algemeiner revealed that Mazen Adi — a faculty member in its political science department — formerly served as a spokesperson for the Syrian government, which is under US sanctions. The university announced disciplinary action against Chikindas in December, and confirmed in February that it was no longer employing Adi.
The head of Rutgers’ Chabad House told The Algemeiner in November that while Rutgers “is not a center or a hotbed of antisemitism,” there were “pockets of places that exhibit antisemitism, and [Mazen Adi] and others like him are perfect examples of that.”
Marcus — who authored Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America in 2010 and The Definition of Anti-Semitism in 2015 — has frequently spoken out against rising antisemitism on American college campuses. He has in the past argued that some of the more extreme tactics used by anti-Zionist campus activists against Jewish supporters of Israel — including harassment, vandalism, and even assault — represented “a violation of the civil rights of Jewish students.”
While previously serving as the head of the OCR under President George W. Bush in 2003, Marcus extended protections afforded under Title VI to members of groups that “exhibit both ethnic and religious characteristics, such as Arab Muslims, Jewish Americans and Sikhs.”
He continued his advocacy after temporarily leaving government, founding the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law civil rights group in 2012.