A little more than a year after the campus Hillel chapter accused the Georgia Institute of Technology of not protecting Jewish students, an agreement calls for the university to implement a definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the United States government.
In a Jan. 18 statement, Georgia Tech said “Anti-Semitism and any other forms of discrimination are not acceptable. . . . It is incumbent upon all of us to work together to ensure that unlawful discrimination and harassment are not welcome at Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is committed to working collaboratively with Hillel and others to provide a campus community that is free from unlawful discrimination.
The university “recognizes” that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism will be employed “when evaluating the intent in cases of discriminatory harassment,” the statement said.
That definition reads: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The incident that led to the agreement happened April 1, 2019, when Lauren Blazofsky, then the director of Hillel at Georgia Tech, was barred from entering an on-campus room where the Young Democratic Socialists of America were holding a “Teach-in: Palestine 101” as part of Israel Apartheid Week.
Asked about the recent agreement, Blazofsky told the AJT, “I am very pleased with the outcome with Georgia Tech. Our goal all along was to ensure that moving forward our students feel safe and can rely on the university to protect them when faced with discrimination. This outcome now establishes the groundwork for us to build a partnership with the university that ensures a safe environment for Jewish students on campus.
“I am happy with where we have arrived with the university and feel very positive about the continued relationship we will build on. I think it is important to realize that all along this was not about trying to look back but about trying to build forward together,” she said.
Blazofsky became associate director of the Hillel at Emory in February 2020 after two years at Georgia Tech. “It’s going well,” she said of her time at Emory. “We are all so lucky to work with this generation of passionate, driven students.”
A complaint filed on behalf of Hillel of Georgia in December 2019 by the American Center for Law and Justice alleged that Georgia Tech “has willfully ignored” anti-Semitic activity and asked the federal Department of Education to conduct a civil rights investigation.
The complaint was filed two weeks after then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that codified protection against anti-Semitism on college and university campuses within the Civil Rights Act, which already covered “discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.”
In a letter to then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus, ACLJ attorneys said, “We write to respectfully urge you to investigate and determine whether Georgia Tech has engaged in discrimination, in permitting a hostile environment, and other violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
According to the ACLJ: “Georgia Tech allowed blatant anti-Semitic exclusion and harassment at a campus group event, attempted to conceal the offense, repeatedly and systemically stonewalled Jewish student and faculty efforts to address the incident; ignored two out of the three complaints arising from said event; and after a student conduct board finally found the campus group guilty on the one complaint they did hear, violated their own policies and issued a decision on appeal reversing that guilty ruling – allowing the anti-Semitism to continue unchecked.”
There are 500-plus Jewish students at Georgia Tech, a small fraction of the campus population. Most are undergraduates.
The attorney representing Hillels of Georgia pro-bono was Mark Goldfeder, ACLJ’s Special Counsel for International Affairs. Formerly a fellow at Emory University’s Center for Law and Religion, Goldfeder also is an ordained rabbi, religious court judge, and Hillel’s general counsel.
Goldfeder told the AJT that he was “very happy with the agreement” and “I think this is a win-win, for Hillel, for Georgia Tech, and for the Jewish community. We think that it’s going to protect Jewish students.”
“We did agree that we, Hillel, are going to work together with them on next steps, . . . as partners, not adversaries,” Goldfeder said.
The IHRA adopted the “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism” at the organization’s 2016 meeting in Bucharest. The U.S. became a signatory in January 2019. As of September 2020, the governments of 28 nations have adopted the definition, as well as a growing number of universities and other institutions around the world.
Of the 11 defining examples of anti-Semitism that accompany the 38-word definition, six reference Israel. Among them are accusing Jews outside of Israel of dual loyalty and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”
Critics contend that the examples referencing Israel could lead to a stifling of debate around the Israel-Palestinian issue, with criticism of Israeli policies being taken as anti-Semitism. On Jan. 12, a coalition of a dozen politically progressive American Jewish organizations issued a statement that focused not on the definition itself, but with the examples regarding Israel. “The effort to combat antisemitism is being misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights,” the group stated.
Goldfeder said, “The IHRA definition doesn’t silence speech,” and called it a tool to use “when analyzing motivations behind antisemitic acts.”