Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Blog

Last October, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan amended Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include “harassment of members of religious groups based on shared ethnic characteristics,” extending Title VI protections to the Jewish community, among others. Though the decision was widely applauded at the time, it has since raised significant concerns about the abuse of Title VI provisions against pro-Palestinian activity, under the guise of it being “anti-Semitic.”

Next week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization that includes groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, will be voting on a resolution that warns Jewish groups to not overextend Title VI to “censor anti-Israel events, statements, and speakers.”

The proposed resolution has ignited a heated debate within the community on the differentiation between anti-Jewish behavior and criticism of the state of Israel, an important distinction that has been unfortunately – and purposely – blurred.

In an article reporting on the resolution, Forward magazine explored the division in the American Jewish community, which has even extended to a public disagreement between American Jewish Council president David Harris and his anti-Semitism expert Kenneth Stern who expressed concern over the “dangerous” use of Title VI to “simply seek to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers.”

It almost goes without saying that anti-Jewish behavior is unacceptable under any circumstances, but criticism of the structure, methods, and abuses of a given political system – such as Israel’s current exclusionary and oppressive political climate – is a healthy and necessary part of any democratic system, and the silencing of such criticism with the label of anti-Semitism is a worrying trend in American political discourse.

The problem is exacerbated by individuals at both ends, by radical right-wing Muslim clerics for whom the label “Jewish” is little more than a pejorative epithet, but also by pro-Israel organizations that try to make the concepts of Israel and Judaism synonymous.

Reading some of the complaints filed under Title VI by organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America, it’s not hard to see why some JCPA members are worried about overstretching the bounds of anti-Semitism. One suit details an incident at Rutgers University where an event was called “anti-Semitic” because a student was heard to comment on how many “Zionists [code for Jews] showed up.” Contrary to the ZOA’s claims, the word “Zionist” is not “code for Jews,” it means precisely what it implies: adherents to a philosophy of Zionism, many of whom are not in fact Jewish at all.

Considering the troublesome conviction of the Irvine 11, a group of students at the University of California Irvine who were tried in court for disrupting a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, the pressures against anyone criticizing the state of Israel are already remarkably burdensome, even without the full weight of Title VI litigation.

The JCPA should seriously consider the merits of the proposed resolution, and take a stand on distinguishing between unacceptable racial prejudice, and necessary political criticism.

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