The new head of civil rights in the Education Department has re-opened a seven-year-old case against Rutgers University brought up by a Zionist group, essentially redefining anti-Semitism on campuses and defining Judaism as an ethnic origin, a New York Times report said on Tuesday.

The case, which was closed by the Obama administration four years ago, was based on a complaint made by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) about discrimination of Jewish students on the campus. The initial complaint was filed in 2011, after the college hosted Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, who called for the university to distance itself from Israel.

Kenneth L. Marcus, who was appointed as the assistant secretary of education for civil rights in June, told the ZOA, in a letter, that he would reopen the case. He also said he would re-examine the conservative Jewish group’s cause as a possible discrimination against an ethnic group and not as a case of religious freedom.

This essentially means the Education Department accepted Judaism as an ethnicity, which is a widely contested viewpoint. It also adopted a new definition of anti-Semitism within campuses which included “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination.”

A religion is a belief system that worships a God or Gods, whereas ethnicity is a method of classifying population based on common traits such as a shared culture, heritage, language, and dialect. While the two are different, they are intricately connected as well. Most often, people who share the same ethnicity might also share the same religion. This happens because buildings like churches, temples, mosques or synagogues help people in establishing a community and therefore an ethnicity.

According to the website Judaism 101, though most secular American Jews think of it as an ethnicity, it actually is not, as Jews around the world have different traditions, languages and even cuisines. For example, Yiddish is not a shared language among Sephardic Jews, the website says.

A Quora user replying to the question “Is Jewish an ethnicity?” described Jews as an ethnoreligious group, which means they are both ethnic and religious, or for some, only one of the two. He described Jews as a “scattered ethnic group just like the Gypsies.”

A Russian study said Judaism and the observance of religious rituals are a manifestation of “symbolic ethnicity." The study said historically Judaism (religion) and the Jewish identity were fused. Many Jews were reported to not feel Jewish as their culture and consciousness were now vastly different from conventional notions. 

The appointment of Marcus, a staunch opponent of Palestinian rights causes, was protested by Palestinian and human rights organizations. They said he would use his position to propagate and further his pro-Israel agenda.  Pro-Palestinian activists refer to him as “crusader” who “has spent years advocating for laws and policies aimed at punishing students who advocate for Palestinian rights,” Daily News reported

“This is exactly what we feared would happen — he has a long track record of pressuring universities and government bodies to trample on free speech,” Rahul Saksena, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a Palestinian rights group, said. “You would think that the O.C.R. would have their hands full these days, and instead they’re using their limited resources (to reopen a case) that the Education Department spent years investigating, and had been closed.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the group Palestinian Legal said the government’s decision “classifies virtually all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.”

Meanwhile, ZOA president Morton Klein praised Marcus’s move. “It took a leader like Kenneth Marcus to finally decide the ZOA’s appeal and to also make it clear that (Office of Civil Rights) will finally be using a definition of anti-Semitism that makes sense and that reflects how anti-Semitism is so frequently expressed today, particularly on our college campuses,” he said.