Group resolves to help protect Jewish students from 'hostile campus environments'

May 8 2012 - 9:47am

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The Jewish Council for Public Affairs
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs

DETROIT -- Concerned about increasing anti-Israel activity on some campuses, a Jewish-American umbrella group passed a resolution during its annual conference -- being held in Detroit this week -- that calls for Jewish organizations to help protect Jewish students at universities nationwide.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, or JCPA, voted late Sunday to pass the detailed resolution, Jewish leaders said Monday. It encourages Jewish groups to work with university administrations, students and others to make sure there isn't a hostile climate for Jewish students. But it also said free speech should be honored on campuses.

"We're committed to the bill of rights, and we're committed to freedom of speech," said Allan Gale, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit, one of 125 councils across the U.S. that are part of the JCPA. In addition to the councils, other Jewish groups are part of the conference, which ends Tuesday. The event at the Renaissance Center has drawn about 300 leaders from across the U.S. Participants have discussed issues from poverty to Darfur to engaging young Jews. The resolution on universities has been intensely debated the past few years.

In recent years, there have been a number of cases where Jewish students or Israeli officials visiting campus have been harassed or singled out. Such disputes have at times spilled over into anti-Semitism, say Jewish leaders at the conference. Passed overwhelmingly, the resolution says Jewish groups should "develop well-coordinated strategies for protecting Jewish students from hostile campus environments, and to support initiatives that promote Israel and the well-being of Jewish students."

The resolution also said that Jewish groups should consider invoking Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs -- in ensuring protection of Jewish students. The act doesn't specifically mention religion, but after lobbying by the JCPA, the U.S. Department of Education decided in October 2010 to effectively include Jews and other groups under the act. In some cases, legal action could be taken under Title VI, said the resolution.

But it cautioned against using legal action as a knee-jerk response. In recent years, some Jewish groups have resorted to lawsuits or threats of lawsuits in response to anti-Israel activity. But the JCPA said such actions are too aggressive at times and can cause a backlash.

"We feel very strongly that people should not be parachuting in looking for problems," said David Luchins, a member of the Orthodox Union and chairman of the political science department at Touro College in New York City. "It's very counterproductive."

Wendy Wagenheim, ex-president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit, said: "The safety of Jewish students on campus is extremely important to us, as well as a robust and legitimate debate on campus."

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