A vociferous anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigner appointed by President Donald Trump to head a top civil rights organisation has re-opened a seven-year-old case over alleged anti-Semitism in an American university. The newly appointed official is seeking to use a controversial definition of anti-Semitism to revisit a case dismissed under the administration of Barack Obama.
In 2011 the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) – an agency of the US Department of Education that is primarily focused on enforcing civil rights laws prohibiting schools from engaging in discrimination – dismissed a complaint put forward by the Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA) over an alleged anti-Semitism incident at Rutgers University.
The event in question was sponsored by Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action, a pro-Palestinian group, and according to the Haaretz was called “Never Again for Anyone”. It’s reported that the organisers were attempting to expand the Holocaust remembrance slogan to also refer to other offenses, including Israeli abuses of the Palestinians.
At a certain point, the organisers are said to have begun charging a $5 admission fee; a decision that became central to the complaint raised by the ZOA. Admission to the event was advertised as being free but according to the ZOA the students started charging once they found out that “150 Zionists just showed up!” ZOA said that the comment about Zionists showing up was found in an email exchange between students. ZOA were trying to make the case that the organisers were discriminating against Jews by introducing an admission fee for Zionists.
The OCR initially did not consider the email as evidence because it had been redacted, so it dismissed the complaint. In a 2014 letter, it said there was no evidence that only Jews were charged admission, or that others got in for free unfairly.
“OCR did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate that any individuals were treated differently, based on national origin, with respect to the imposition of the admission fee,” read a 2014 letter from the office to ZOA.
Three similar complaints were dismissed by the OCR in other schools. The ruling on all four complaints was praised by Palestine Legal, a group that advocates on behalf of pro-Palestinian students. “Political activity advocating for Palestinian human rights does not violate the civil rights of Jewish students who find such criticism offensive, and that, to the contrary, colleges and universities have an obligation to create an environment that supports freedom of expression,” a statement by the legal group said in 2014.
A Trump appointee, Kenneth Marcus, described as a vociferous opponent of BDS, re-opened the case last week over the 2011 incident. In reopening the probe, Marcus is said to have employed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism which equates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.
Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Centre for Law and Justice, sees that as an important precedent. “OCR for the first time is going to be using the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.” Tuchman told Jewish Telegraph Agency on Friday. Endorsing the decision, Tuchman added: “It’s important because that State Department definition recognises that some anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism crosses the line into anti-Semitism.”
A profile of Marcus carried by the Intercept said that prior to his appointment by Trump he served under former president George W. Bush and spent years campaigning for crackdowns on Palestinian-American student activism and laws to punish Americans who support the Palestinian-led BDS movement. He is said to make little distinction between anti-Semitism and a boycott of Israel for its violations of international law.
The profile also revealed that Marcus had testified before state legislatures in favour of laws banning contracts with individuals who refuse to pledge not to boycott Israel.
The renewed investigation comes some three months after Marcus was confirmed to his position by the Senate. Critics have described his reopening of the case as an attempt to criminalise support for Palestinians in American campuses.
The IHRA code of conduct has caused a long running row within the British Labour Party. While the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the IHRA code is universally endorsed, the examples cited in the document conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism are widely rejected.
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