A mock separation wall put up by a Students for Justice in Palestine group at an Illinois college campus (Photo: Benchilada/Flickr)
A group of Muslim and Palestine solidarity groups from California colleges have sent a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights ahead of a briefing tomorrow on federal civil rights engagement with Arab and Muslim communities. 26 groups representing Muslim Student Associations and Students for Justice in Palestine organizations on campus signed on to the letter, which was sent November 7.
The letter seeks to inform the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about current events on California campuses that the groups say threaten their civil rights. The missive also protests the inclusion of Kenneth Marcus of the Louis Brandeis Center for Civil Rights as a testifying expert. Marcus and the center have been leading advocates for the use of the 1964 federal civil rights act to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism on campus, which often times has been conflated to mean Palestine solidarity activism.
The hearing is set for tomorrow morning at the commission’s headquarters. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, created in 1967, is an independent fact-finding agency that investigates and reports on the status of civil rights in the U.S. Here’s part of the U.S. Commission’s announcement for tomorrow’s hearing:
In the wake of September 11, 2001, federal government enforcement components made proactive engagement with the Arab and Muslim-American community a new, distinct, national civil rights priority. At the same time, the sustained national security emergency that began on September 11th prompted new anti-terrorism programs with resources and attention from federal agencies which saw in religious, national, and ethnic communities the seeds of a national security challenge—especially within the Arab and Muslim American community. Some of these programs have created real concerns for their civil rights impacts on these American communities. Evaluating the success and failure of the federal government in engaging the Arab and Muslim American community post 9/11 is significant in terms of redressing the very real discrimination faced by that community, but may be also instructive of how the federal government should respond in national crises or similar future events.
In addition to Marcus testifying, representatives from the Arab American Institute, the Muslim Bar Association of New York, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Boston College, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division and more will speak.
The letter excoriates what student groups call the “abuse” of Title VI to investigate alleged anti-Semitism on campus. “Our universities now find themselves under constant pressure by off-campus organizations to clamp down on our speech activities,” the letter reads. “That external pressure has translated into significant hurdles on our campuses, where events by Arab and Muslim students pertaining to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are heavily scrutinized by administrators who attempt to interfere with many aspects of the organizing, planning, and execution of events like movie screenings, lectures, and non-violent activities like theatrical checkpoints and ‘die-ins.’”
Title VI is part of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act, and protects people from being discriminated against while at federal agencies. In 2010, after lobbying by Jewish groups–particularly the right-wing settlement supporting Zionist Organization of America–the U.S. Department of Education reinterpreted Title VI to include protection for students from religious groups with “shared ethnic characteristics.” That decision opened the gates for Jewish organizations ostensibly wishing to look into anti-Semitism on campus, though these groups have been wholly unsuccessful and have often gone after Palestine solidarity activism for creating a “hostile environment” for students.
The Title VI investigations have particularly centered on University of California campuses, where there is a strong Palestine solidarity presence.
The latest complaint, which alleges that events like mock checkpoints and Israeli Apartheid Week at UC Berkeley create an atmosphere that “echoes” Nazi Germany, has been taken up by the U.S. Department of Education. The Muslim and Palestine solidarity student groups specifically address that complaint and investigation in their letter. The letter claims that the complaint at UC Berkeley is “laden with Islamophobic and baseless allegations that the MSA at Berkeley has a ‘pro-terrorist’ agenda, that it is an ‘incubator to recruit and radicalize students to support Hamas,’ and that membership in the MSA at Berkeley is a prerequisite to membership in the ‘Muslim Brotherhood.’ These are particularly damaging allegations for our students in the post- 9/11 environment and they create a climate of intimidation and fear.”
The student groups add that “we are worried that the use of Title VI complaints as a political weapon constitutes a dangerous precedent that will create great harm for Arab and Muslim students on campus.”
The letter also denounces the recent “campus climate” report on Jewish students, as well as the California legislature’s passing of HR 35, which while claiming to be concerned about bigotry conflates Palestine solidarity activism with anti-Semitism.
The Muslim and Palestine solidarity student groups also harshly criticize the fact that the Louis Brandeis Center’s Marcus is testifying. “His organization has celebrated all of the aforementioned threats on our campuses: the UC report, the California State Assembly resolution, and the baseless, Islamophobic Title VI complaints,” the letter reads. “We are shocked and dismayed that he has been slated to speak on the Arab and Muslim American civil rights organization panel despite his use of tactics clearly aimed at suppressing the speech of Arab and Muslim students in particular.”
You can read the full letter here.