The Electronic Intifada / October 23, 2020
New York University has agreed to settle with the US Department of Education over allegations that the university had not appropriately responded to claims of anti-Semitism.
Two attorneys filed the complaint last year on behalf of a student who alleged that she faced “two years of extreme anti-Semitism on the NYU campus which has created an intolerable and unlawful hostile atmosphere for Jewish students.”
Echoing previous attempts by Israel advocates to silence Palestinian rights activists on campuses, the complaint accused Students for Justice in Palestine of creating the “hostile” climate due to the group’s criticism of Israel and its state ideology Zionism.
The attorneys who filed the complaint are affiliated with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights – an Israel lobby and lawfare organization separate from Brandeis University.
In 2019 Donald Trump issued an executive order which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.
The executive order is based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) so-called definition of anti-Semitism and has boosted the aims of Israel lobby groups to file baseless complaints against universities over Palestinian rights activism.
The complaint against NYU was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). At the time, the OCR was led by Kenneth Marcus – who had been head of the Brandeis Center before he was appointed to the federal position by the Trump administration.
At the Brandeis Center, Marcus pioneered the strategy of filing complaints to the OCR under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act alleging that universities fail to protect Jewish students by allowing Palestinian rights activity to take place.
“Anti-Palestinian groups had everything going for them,” Radhika Sainath, senior attorney with the organization Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
But in the end, Israel lobby groups seeking censorship and punishment of Palestinian rights advocates barely got what they came for.
The NYU settlement acknowledges that the university had not violated any civil rights laws as Marcus’ colleagues asserted.
Under the agreement, the university has committed to tackling bigotry against Jews – but, notably, it has not explicitly conceded any undertaking to prevent criticism of Israel.
NYU’s president was also required to issue a statement to all students, faculty and staff reiterating that the university “does not tolerate acts of discrimination or harassment on the basis of shared ancestry and ethnic characteristics, including anti-Semitism.”
Nevertheless, anti-Palestinian organizations touted the settlement as a victory.
She has not issued a correction.
“They will keep coming back”
Palestine Legal wishes that the university “had fought this and had not agreed to settle,” attorney Radhika Sainath said.
“We hope that other universities fight these types of harassing, completely meritless complaints and don’t give into these settlements,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
Sainath explained that universities are understandably afraid of Trump’s executive order and possible investigations by the Office for Civil Rights and would want to find an easy way out.
But legal experts saw many of these kinds of complaints being filed during the Obama administration. Universities fought them and refused to settle on free speech and academic freedom grounds, she added.
By settling with the federal government, Sainath said, universities may think this can make the problem go away.
“But it won’t – once you open the door to these types of anti-Palestinian attacks, these groups are going to keep coming back and demanding censorship,” she noted.
Over the past several years, the NYU chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, together with supportive professors, have built a strong and resilient Palestinian rights activism community on campus.
Anti-Palestinian groups have long attempted to smear NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine and their allied groups as anti-Semites in order to protect Israel from criticism.
Despite these efforts and the NYU administration working with Israel lobby organizations “to misrepresent and silence campus activism, the movement will not go away,” Palestine Legal tweeted.
“Students and scholars will not stop demanding peace, justice and equality for Palestinians. And we’re here for it,” the group added.
Human rights groups smeared
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is planning to release a report labeling Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam as “anti-Semitic” over their work on Palestine.
The State Department is using the IHRA definition to smear such institutions, with information reportedly provided by NGO Monitor – a group that works with the Israeli government to attack human rights defenders.
Part of the State Department’s plan would be to target the international groups’ “alleged or perceived” support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, reported Politico.
Though the groups have vehemently rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism, some of their personnel appear to be playing into the hands of their attackers by impugning the non-violent boycott movement.
Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America disavowed the BDS campaign, saying that “Oxfam does not support BDS or call for the boycott of Israel or any other country.”
However, grassroots human rights advocates and civil rights groups are pushing back and defending the right to boycott.
The IHRA definition “is not about keeping Jewish people safe,” said Beth Miller from Jewish Voice for Peace Action.
“It’s a tool for censorship and, in this instance, for attacking a boycott movement for justice.”
The Palestinian BDS National Committee called the Trump administration’s smears “McCarthyite attempts” to intimidate and bully human rights groups “into complacency and complicity in human rights abuses.”
Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace warned that this is “just the start” of Israel lobby groups’ efforts to weaponize anti-Semitism in order to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.
Friedman noted that the Zachor Legal Institute, a major Israel lobby and lawfare organization, celebrated the news and explicitly acknowledged that it sees criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish bigotry as one and the same.
“What is key in the IHRA definition is its accuracy for modern anti-Semitism, which includes not only hatred towards Jews, but in specific cases, hatred and delegitimization towards Israel,” Zachor stated, claiming that the human rights groups hold Israel “to a completely different standard than any other country.”
This “double standard” trope is commonly used by Israel advocates to deflect criticism of Israel’s violations of human rights and shield Israel from any and all accountability.
In July, Zachor asked the US Justice Department to investigate ties between the Black Lives Matter movement and “terrorist” groups.
The Israeli government, along with lobby groups like Zachor and the Anti-Defamation League, have long seen Black Lives Matter as a major strategic threat.
Israel and its supporters are clearly agitated by the growing and solidifying solidarity between Palestinian rights campaigners and anti-racist activists in the US.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014)