By James M. Wall — My Catbird Seat –
What effect will Tuesday’s midterm elections have on US-Israel relations?
Let us count the ways, starting with the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on American college and university campuses.
A new and much more conservative Congress will bring us changes we don’t want to believe in. A recent news release from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) offers a clue on what we can expect.
Morton Klein, ZOA’s director, was downright giddy over what he terms a major victory in his six year fight to expand the US Civil Rights anti-bullying provision.
What prompted Klein’s giddiness was a statement issued this week by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who announced that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act now includes new guidelines that will bring increased protection for disabled and LGBT students from bullying and discrimination.
Klein’s ZOA organization may also be concerned with other groups affected by the new provisions, but to ZOA the real benefit comes to the state of Israel.
The ZOA describes itself as the oldest and one of the largest pro-Israel organization in the US. Just how pro-Israel is ZOA is evident from the line up of speakers at the group’s Annual Louis B. Brandeis Award Dinner, October 29.
Keynoters were William Kristol, founding editor of the Weekly Standard, regular Fox TV panelist and co-founder of the Emergency Committee for Israel, and Gary Bauer, co-founder of Christians United for Israel and president of American Values. Special remarks at the dinner were delivered by Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Danny Danon.
Just how will tougher provisions in the Civil Rights Act fit Klein’s prime mission to push his Zionist agenda?
In Secretary Arnie Duncan’s announcement, along with protection for LGBT and disabled students, there is now an added category of students who gain protection under Title VI: Members of any religious group that has “shared ethnic characteristics”.
Eyal Mazor warns in a posting on the Jewish Voices for Peace blog, Muzzle Watch, that Title VI’s addition of ”shared ethnic characteristics” should be a concern to anyone concerned about, or working to preserve, the right of students to organize for peace and justice in Palestine and Israel on American campuses.
Mazor believes the ZOA took up this effort specifically as a way to clamp down on student activism that has pushed universities to hold Israel accountable to international law. How? Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says that colleges and universities that don’t address issues of discrimination can lose their federal funding.
Israel and its US Zionist allies have consistently maintained that criticism of the actions of the government of the state of Israel is, ipso facto, anti-semitism.
If US courts decide to interpret criticism of Israel’s actions as anti-semitism, then colleges and universities, for whom federal funding is the “holy grail” of education, will have been handed a coercive weapon beyond their wildest dreams.
Under ZOA’s reading of the new provisions in Title VI, school officials may arrest, expel, or bring all sorts of what Arlo Guthrie might describe as “mean and ugly” actions against students. teachers, or even boards of trustees, who use their freedom of speech to criticize Israel’s policies.
As Klein sees it, ZOA has been instrumental in pushing the US Department of Education to place the state of Israel and its student supporters, under the same provision that protects LGBT and disabled students from bullying and discrimination.
Eyal Mazor wrote on MuzzleWatch:
Klein’s campaign seemed to really take off earlier this year when 13 Jewish organizations endorsed a March 16 letter . . urging the Office of Civil Rights to investigate incidents of anti-Semitism.
Among the endorsing groups are Abe Foxman’s ADL, American Jewish Congress (AJC), and Hillel– all of which have a track record of manipulating charges of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israeli policy.
Peter Schultz does not share the excitement of Mort Klein and the ZOA.
Writing in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, (link for subscribers only) Schultz gives a less hysterical reading to Secretary Duncan’s actions.
In a move being hailed by some Jewish organizations as a major and welcome shift, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has signaled that it plans to step up its efforts to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism under a federal law that bars colleges from discriminating based on national origin or ethnicity.
By adopting such a position, however, the office might have increased the likelihood that it will need to grapple with the thorny question of whether it should ever treat verbal or symbolic attacks on Israel or Zionism on college campuses as amounting to anti-Semitic acts that violate federal anti-discrimination laws.
“The elephant in the room is anti-Zionism,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, who played a key role in the effort to persuade the department to take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism.
“Lots of observers will be closely watching to see whether OCR can take a firm but reasonable line” in dealing with cases in which criticisms of Zionism or Israel appear to have an anti-Semitic component, he said in interview Thursday.
Mr. Marcus said he wants the civil-rights office to take the position—already adopted by the European Union’s advisory agency on human rights and freedoms—that criticisms of Israel cross the line into anti-Semitism when they are based on anti-Jewish stereotypes.
Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group similarly has been urging the civil-rights office to take the position that certain statements about Israel—such as arguments that Israel should not exist, or comments comparing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the actions of the Nazis—amount to anti-Semitic speech that the Education Department should take action against.
Calls to use federal civil-rights laws to curtail such speech, however, are almost certain to meet resistance from advocates of the First Amendment and academic freedom.
Rachel Levinson, senior counsel for the American Association of University Professors, said applying anti-discrimination law in such a manner would result in there being entire areas of scholarship that “might be cut off, or where people might be reluctant to tread.”
Tuesday’s elections are expected to produce a strong conservative shift to both houses of the Congress. Whether that shift will lead to a stronger pro-Zionist mood in Congress is difficult to predict since almost all liberal Democratic members are already PEPs (Progressive except for Palestine).
What is certain is that because of its strong right wing tilt, the Republican party will be far more open to the desires of organizations like Klein’s ZOA, especially the new members who have an all-expenses paid trip to Israel awaiting them.
Take, for example, the actions of Brad Sherman and Arlen Specter.
Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) joined in ZOA’s campaign to include new wording in the Civil Rights Act that embraces “shared ethnic characteristics”. Sherman has represented California’s 27th district since 1997. He is expected to win easily in this week’s election.
Specter, who became a Democrat for pragmatic reasons, after a long career as a Republican, lost a primary race this year to Congressman Joe Sestak, who is now locked in a tight race for Specter’s old seat against a strong conservative, Republican Pat Toomey. As a member of the House, Toomey was already on record as a supporter for Israel. In the current campaign, Toomey has criticized Sestak for accepting an endorsement (and money) from J Street.
Sherman has demonstrated his Zionist bono fides on more than one occasion. In September, he and Specter introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would codify into federal law the language the Department of Education has just implemented into federal policy.
Shortly after the new guidelines were announced, Congressman Sherman released a statement naming only Jewish students who face “severe and persistent anti-Semitic hostility on their campuses” among groups who will enjoy new protections under the policy.
Sherman did not mention any other communities which are “facing religion-based discrimination”, like, for example, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups most impacted by the up-swell of Islamophobic discrimination.
PoliticalNews.me reported on its website this week:
Congressman Brad Sherman applauded Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for agreeing to return to its 2004 policy and applying Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to the protection of Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campuses.
“For two years, I have been pushing the U.S. Department of Education to adopt this policy, held numerous meetings with the Department’s officials, and conversations with Secretary Duncan.
The policy is now clear: Colleges and universities will no longer be permitted to turn a blind eye when Jewish students face severe and persistent anti-Semitic hostility on their campuses. The schools will now be compelled to respond.”
The way ahead for the new Congress and its relationship to Zionism, is as yet unclear. It is a good bet, however, that Morton Klein will watch Tuesday’s results closely. He will find ways to reach out to new members in the House and Senate with his views on how best to interpret to the new Congress the provisions of the Civil Rights Act.
Klein and his colleagues in the Israel Lobby, will greet new members with that all expenses paid trip to Israel, where they will be instructed on the importance of Israel to the security of the US.
The picture above of Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, was taken at a pro-Israel rally in New York, Jan. 6, 2009 by Daniel Sieradski/JTA
James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. He has made more than 20 trips to that region as a journalist, during which he covered such events as Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, and the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. He has interviewed, and written about, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders and private citizens in the region. Jim served for two years on active duty in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF (inactive) reserve. Jim launched his new personal blog Wallwritings, on April 24, 2008. He can be reached at: email@example.com