A New Legal Strategy to Protect Students

The frenzy of Jew hatred spreading at Columbia reminds us that great principles are useless unless they're enforced.
April 21, 2024
Protestors demonstrate near Columbia University on February 02, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine a silver lining from the anti-Israel frenzy that is sweeping through the Columbia University campus and a growing list of campuses nationwide. These are some of the chants that now greet Jewish students:

“Hamas we love you. We support your rockets too!”

“Al-Qassam you make us proud! Take another soldier out!”

“We say justice, you say how? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!”

“Red, black, green, and white, we support Hamas’ fight!”

“Go Back to Poland!”

It’s gotten so bad that a prominent rabbi at Columbia, Elie Buechler, took the drastic step of warning Jewish students to go home and not return to campus because of “extreme antisemitism” at the Ivy league school.

Asking Jewish college students to stay home for their own safety is next level urgency, especially for those of us who love America. It’s more than disappointing. It’s disheartening.

But is there a silver lining to this madness?

Yes: The masks are now completely off and the truth is now completely naked. This brings clarity.

The Jew-hatred we’re seeing these days is not just rabid and creepy and spooky and scary. It’s also unequivocal. It’s naked. It has nothing to do with the kind of nuance and complexity so many of us enjoy when we debate issues.

This is hate that aims not to debate but to crush. Just as Israelis are facing that level of hate, so are the Jewish students at Columbia and elsewhere.

Relying on the university and law enforcement to protect Jewish students, as we’ve seen recently to our dismay, is necessary but far from sufficient.

To really make an impact, we need something more fundamental; we need a law that will compel universities to prevent these disastrous situations from happening in the first place. 

“Campus antisemitism can be prevented if those who have the duty and power to enforce a university’s policy exercise this power in good faith,” legal expert Nathan Lewin wrote last year on JNS.  “Thus, Congress should impose federal legal liability on individual officials at federally funded institutions who have the authority to enforce preventive measures but knowingly fail to do so.”

Lewin, a Washington, D.C. attorney with a Supreme Court practice who has taught at leading national law schools including Harvard, Columbia and Georgetown, was making the crucial point that it’s a lot more effective to go after individual officials rather than universities.

“Lawsuits and administrative actions against the universities face significant legal obstacles,” he writes. “Universities retain costly top-tier counsel and mount defenses to protect their federal funding, which is commonly preserved by settlements that have meager practical effect.”

To have a real chance of protecting Jewish students, he advises that Congress “should enact a law that entitles any student at a federally funded institution who has suffered antisemitic harassment or violence, complained to university officials, and been ignored to sue the relevant officials personally in a federal court.”

This law would establish consequences for the very people whose duty it is to protect students.

Who should lead the way? The same White House that released a statement after seeing Jew-hatred at Columbia reach a boiling point:

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous … We condemn these statements in the strongest terms.”

But condemnations alone are ineffective. If the Biden administration is serious about eradicating the scourge of antisemitism on college campuses, it should work with Congress to introduce new legislation along the lines that Lewin suggests. And major Jewish organizations should jump in and lobby hard for such a law. This new law is not a silver bullet—efforts on many fronts are needed to undo decades of damage—but it’s a good start.

In the meantime, as the Jewish hatefest continues to spread, it’s important to reiterate that these campus riots have nothing to do with free speech. As I read recently, “Freedom of expression is an essential part of university life, but it does not include intimidation. Conduct that threatens, harasses or denigrates others for any reason is unacceptable.”

Those words came from a “University Statement on Academic Integrity” at the beginning of a documentary on the rise in antisemitism at a university. That university, it turns out, was Columbia, and the film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” came out 20 years ago.

Reminding us once again that great principles are useless if they’re not enforced.

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