For more than 120 years, the Zionist Organization of America has worked to educate the world about the need to protect the homeland of the Jewish people in the State of Israel and to fight against every type of manifestation of antisemitism. One of ZOA’s key activities involves speaking up on behalf of Israel and Zionism—the belief that the Jewish people have a historic right to live in the lands of their ancestors. A number of college campuses have become centers of not only anti-Zionism but of a deep and particularly virulent hatred of Jews simply for being Jewish.
A campus civil rights battle
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has become the site of increasing concerns about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias on its campus in recent years. Unfortunately, as ZOA continues to maintain, the school’s administration has ignored the situation, only making it worse and putting Jewish students further in danger.
In October 2019, UNC responded to evidence put forward by ZOA by establishing a formal resolution agreement with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education, intending that action to settle the matter.
The resolution document stipulated that UNC would undertake a reasonable series of measures to ensure that Jewish students would not become the targets of a hostile campus environment. UNC also agreed that it would appropriately engage with students’ allegations of antisemitic harassment.
In August 2021, ZOA notified the OCR that the school, by continuing to allow discrimination against its Jewish student body, violated the resolution and was in continuing violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
ZOA’s leadership additionally wrote directly to the UNC chancellor about the matter but received no immediate response.
The wrong way to teach the Middle East conflict
In its letter to the Office of Civil Rights, ZOA put forward its considered opinion that UNC is aware that a fall 2021 course is likely to have a negative impact on Jewish students. According to its course description, “The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine” is focused on “the conflict over Palestine” over the past century, looking at “competing nationalisms” and the conflicts that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.
The problem, as ZOA points out, is the same one that several Jewish and pro-Israel members of the local community have voiced to UNC. The professor selected to teach the course allegedly posted to social media crudely negative and biased references to both Israel and the United States. Jewish students, along with those who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, have made clear their concern that they might become targets for abuse if they were to take the class.
One UNC sophomore told local media in August that the discourse surrounding Israel and the Middle East had become so extreme on campus that it demeans the very concept of Jewish history, as well as her identity as an individual. The larger issue, ZOA says, involves the academic freedom of these Jewish and pro-Israel students not to be the objects of discrimination due to their views or identities.
Other Jewish groups support ZOA’s view
The editors of a contemporaneous Jewish Journal piece wrote that, in allowing the course to move forward, UNC was in plain violation of the American Association of University Professors’ century-old Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. Specifically, this document calls on professors who bring up “controversial” issues in class to present opinions that differ from their own, giving students a robust range of analysis and interpretation to engage with.
The newspaper went on to point out that, although the First Amendment provides strong—and necessary—protections even for offensive speech, the Office for Civil Rights has made it plain that some speech can cross the line to become one-sided discrimination against, or harassment of, individuals.
The UNC chapter of Hillel, the largest campus association serving Jewish students in the world, also supported the concerns of the UNC Jewish students. Hillel leaders spoke with the UNC administrative team on several occasions, but as of late August, Hillel said the concerns brought forward had not been addressed.
Previous federal decisions support ZOA’s view
There are academic precedents in the UNC Jewish students’ favor. As The Forward newspaper has reported, the University of Illinois, after a Department of Education investigation shone a light onto antisemitism on its campus, publicly stated in 2020 that Jewish students have the fundamental right to declare their “identification with Israel.” And in 2019, the DOE confronted UNC itself with the threat to defund its Middle Eastern studies unit after it held an overtly anti-Israel conference.
At the start of the 2021-22 academic year, the group Alums for Campus Fairness published a report further documenting recent high levels of concern among students about antisemitism at institutions of higher education. Many of the students responding cited problems with biased instructors, particularly regarding Israel.
In early 2021, vandals covered one of UNC’s buildings with antisemitic and racist words. That incident is only one instance of the surge in hate crimes that the state of North Carolina has experienced over the past few years. Experts note that recorded hate crime incidents rose by close to 50 percent from 2018 to the following year. The bigger issue surrounding the UNC debacle is the looming shadow of this very antisemitic and racist hate over college and university campuses across the nation, and in the culture generally.
ZOA has made its position loud and clear: the Office of Civil Rights “must deliver a strong message” to the school. That message needs to state unequivocally that the federal government is serious in its efforts to combat antisemitism and will hold colleges and universities responsible if they do not address discrimination directed at Jewish and pro-Israel students on their campuses. These students, like all others, deserve a school where they can learn in an atmosphere of safety, academic freedom, and respect.