The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will be investigating the University of Vermont (UVM) over pro-Israel students being excluded from a campus sexual assault survivors group.
The Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law announced on September 13 that OCR will be investigating the matter after the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus filed a complaint in October 2021 on behalf of Jewish students who felt like they have been harassed and discriminated against on campus.
“The type of antisemitism this complaint focuses on is a form of antisemitism that has been, for years, either ignored, swept under the rug or even its existence has been denied by university administrators.” – Alyza D. Lewin, Brandeis Center President
“The type of antisemitism this complaint focuses on is a form of antisemitism that has been, for years, either ignored, swept under the rug or even its existence has been denied by university administrators,” Brandeis Center President Alyza D. Lewin told the Journal in a phone interview. “They refuse to acknowledge that Jews have been shunned or excluded and pushed out of clubs, programs, denied this equal educational opportunity purely on the basis of a key component of their Jewish identity — namely their Zionism. We’re not talking about speech, we’re not talking about a political debate, we’re talking about conduct here. A sexual assault survivor group [and] a book club that have made explicitly clear [that] Zionists aren’t welcome.”
The complaint, which is authored by Lewin and Brandeis Center Director of Legal Initiatives Denise Katz-Prober and obtained by the Journal, stated that during the Israel-Hamas conflict in May 2021, the UVM Empowering Survivors student group falsely alleged in an Instagram post that Israel had engaged in “disgusting sexual abuse” against the Palestinians. The student group declared that they would block Zionists just as they would block anyone else engaging in trolling or harassing. When Jewish students reached out to them, the UVM Empowering Survivors group refused to engage, calling themselves “an anti-Zionist group.” UVM Hillel later posted to social media that various student groups were posting antisemitic comments online, causing Jewish students to feel unsafe, so the Hillel expressed concern to the university about it. The Empowering Survivors group then issued an apology to Jewish students who felt like their post was antisemitic, but reiterated their anti-Zionist stance and criticized Hillel for not standing with “the oppressed.”
This was hardly an isolated example, as Lewin and Katz-Prober noted that the UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union, which was started in May 2021, also announced that Zionists would be excluded from the group, lumping Zionism in with racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry. Students also allegedly pelted the UVM Hillel building with rocks and “a sticky substance” for 30-40 minutes; when confronted by a student to stop, one of the offending students asked if the student confronting them was Jewish. The university has not treated the incident as a bias incident, per the complaint.
Additionally, a teacher’s assistant (TA) asked in various social media posts if it would be ethical for her to reduce the grades of Zionist students. The TA has also urged her social media followers to harass and cyberbully Zionist students and praised an unknown individual for stealing an Israeli flag from student housing outside of campus.
Lewin told the Journal that the TA also said in her social media posts that she wanted to make Zionism “politically unthinkable” on campus, and her definition of “politically unthinkable” speech includes saying that there are two sides to the complicated issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that someone has family in Tel Aviv. “So she helps create the atmosphere on the campus where it’s acceptable to exclude Jewish students on the basis of Zionism, and the university says nothing,” Lewin said. “Even though students come over and over again to meet with the administrators to try and explain to them [that] Judaism is more than a religion, we’re also a people and the discrimination we’re experiencing now is targeting us on the basis of the ethnic part of our ethno-religion. The university ignores it.” Lewin added that the university administrators would even mock Jewish students and “redirect them to the interfaith group on campus which had no ability whatsoever to address the kind of discrimination that they were experiencing.”
The complaint went on to cite testimonials from three anonymous Jewish students who hid their Jewish identity out of fear for their safety on campus.
The complaint went on to cite testimonials from three anonymous Jewish students who hid their Jewish identity out of fear for their safety on campus. “I wore a Jewish-identifying necklace every day until I began to feel unsafe at UVM due to antisemitic rhetoric on campus and on social media as well as personal antisemitic messages that I received,” one student said. “Antisemitism on campus has caused my mental health to decline and has caused multiple anxiety/panic attacks, and I no longer wear Jewish identifying items as I feel unsafe.”
Another student said they almost left UVM because of the antisemitism they have experienced on campus. “My mental health has suffered immensely, and the various antisemitic incidents on campus and online have left me suffering with feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness,” the student said. “I am tired of feeling scared on my own college campus. I am tired of feeling anxious to wear my Star of David. I am tired of being scared to mention my Judaism or connection to Israel to people in my college classes, afraid that they will cut all contact with me if they find out who I truly am. I want to feel like I am a part of this college, but I feel more disconnected from each antisemitic incident that occurs. Jewish students on campus deserve better, and we deserve to feel safe.” The only reason this student has stayed at UVM is because they have received help from UVM Hillel.
Lewin and Katz-Prober argued in the complaint that under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the university is required to eradicate any forms of discrimination and harassment on campus, including against Zionist students. The complaint urged the university to investigate student groups over “discriminatory practices,” adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, denounce all forms of antisemitism and provide mandatory training to the campus community at large on how to recognize and address antisemitism on campus.
“This investigation, I think, is key because it will not only help raise awareness but it definitely serves as a warning to university administrators that when you have students that are being excluded and denied these educational opportunities like this, you have to pay attention and treat it with the seriousness it deserves because if you don’t, you could also find yourself the subject of an OCR investigation,” Lewin told the Journal.
The university said in a statement to the Journal, “The University is aware of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigation and is looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations, each of which was reported to the university in 2021 and investigated by campus officials. UVM seeks to foster a culture of inclusiveness for all students, faculty, and staff, including members of our Jewish community and does not tolerate acts of bias or discrimination related to religion, race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation on our campus.”