The case stems from a 2011 event sponsored at Rutgers by an outside organization that was accused of charging Jewish attendees for admission while allowing others in for free.
The initial investigation was closed by the department under President Barack Obama's administration in 2014. But the Zionist Group of America says the department has reopened the case based on its appeal.
In a letter to the group, Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, cites a broad definition of anti-Semitism that includes, among other things, "holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel."
That language was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental group that includes the United States and European Union states, and was embraced by the State Department under the Obama administration.
In his letter, Marcus also said discrimination "on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics" would violate federal discrimination laws and falls under the agency's description. The statement appears to indicate that the department is considering anti-Semitism as discrimination against an ethnic group, not a religious one.
"It's really a breakthrough," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Group of America. "Israel bashing and anti-Zionism can cross a line when it becomes anti-Semitism."
But critics say the definition is too vague and will limit freedom of speech on campus.
"It's a very broad and vague definition. It conflates anti-Semitism with any criticism really of Israel and Israel's policy toward Palestinians," said Judith Tucker, a professor at Georgetown University and president of the Middle East Studies Association. "If this kind of reasoning is allowed to move forward, it will have a chilling effect on any open discussion of Israel, of Palestinian rights, of any critical issues in the Middle East region that need to be discussed."
Marcus had previously served as president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, whose mission "is to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people" and combat anti-Semitism on university campuses.
Education Department press secretary Liz Hill said the agency's civil rights arm is not responsible for investigating religious discrimination, but it "does aggressively enforce" Title VI, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.
"The facts in the Rutgers case, many of which were disregarded by the previous administration, are troubling," Hill said in a statement. "Discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism may be prohibited under Title VI." She said the Office of Civil Rights will determine that on a case-by-case basis.
A Rutgers University spokesman said it has not yet been formally notified of the reopening of the case, but it will cooperate with the department.
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