The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced on February 3 that they are investigating a complaint accusing professors and students at Brooklyn College’s Mental Health Counseling (MHC) program at the City University of New York (CUNY) of harassing and bullying Jewish students for being “white and privileged.”
In a February 3 press release, the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law––which filed the complaint on behalf of Jewish students on campus––announced that OCR will be investigating the matter. The complaint, filed a year earlier and obtained by the Journal, centers on two students, identified solely as Doe 1 and Doe 2. Doe 1 and Doe 2 were in an August 2020 class where an unidentified professor allegedly said “that Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to America have become part of the oppressors in this country.” A month later, the same professor allegedly accused whites of establishing “the concept of professionalism to oppress people of color.” Another Jewish student told the professor during class that they felt “uncomfortable” with those comments since it implies whites “should feel bad or guilty about their race.” The professor replied that the student needed to “get your whiteness in check,” per the complaint.
That same month, the professor assigned students to rank their identities. Doe 1 said they identified more strongly as Jewish instead of white, prompting students to tell Doe 1 that they should have ranked white higher, arguing that Doe 1 is “white and part of the dominant culture” so Doe 1 “did not understand oppression.”
The complaint then describes a September 2020 WhatsApp discussion about Martin Luther King Jr. and Sigmund Freud among Brooklyn College students. A disagreement ensued in said discussion, prompting a student to threaten a Jewish student, and two other students supported the threat. When Doe 1 expressed concern over the threat, they were accused of being racist and “part of the dominate culture” that perpetuates “power structures.”
Doe 2 voiced concern to a professor about what was happening in the chat, the professor suggested that Doe 2 leave the chat, saying that “those of us who enjoy the privileges of whiteness, cisgender, heterosexuality … have to become increasingly humble and sensitive to how our privileges are preserved.” Doe 2 is a Jewish Hispanic woman, per the complaint.
Similarly, in December 2020 a Jewish student expressed similar concerns to an administrator in the MHC Graduate Program, saying there was a hostile environment against Jewish students. The administrator, according to the complaint, told the Jewish student to “keep their head down.” The student countered that Jews shouldn’t be forced to identify as “white,” prompting the administrator to reply “that’s never going to happen.”
Doe 1 and Doe 2 no longer feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints in the program, so much so that in December 2020 Doe 1 said they were considering transferring to another school.
“By advancing the racist and ethnic stereotype that all Jews are ‘white’ and ‘privileged’ and therefore oppress people of color, faculty members, students and course assignments in the MHC program thereby invoke the classical anti-Semitic trope that Jews possess disproportionate power and influence in society, which they use for nefarious purposes against non-Jews, while also subjecting them to racial stereotypes about ‘whites,’” the complaint stated. “Further, by advancing the anti-Semitic ethnic stereotype that all Jews, including Jewish students like Doe 2, who is a Hispanic woman of color, are ‘white,’ faculty, students and course materials in the MHC program are perpetuating an age-old anti-Semitic perspective that changes its perception of Jewish skin color depending on the nature of the perceiver’s prejudice.”
The complaint argues that Brooklyn College failed to take action to ameliorate the situation, and consequently the school is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act mandating that universities need to take action against discrimination on campus. The complaint concludes with a call for the college to take a series of actions to address the matter, including the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, establishing a task force to investigate the hostile climate against Jewish students and issuing a statement condemning antisemitism, among others.
“Once again, in a university program for mental health professionals, Jews are told they must identify as white, are called privileged, and are accused of being oppressors,” Denise Katz-Prober, Brandeis Center Director of Legal Initiatives, said in a statement. “This runs completely counter to Jewish history. It utterly ignores centuries of Jewish discrimination and murder, which we are frighteningly seeing resurface, and it promotes dangerous age-old anti-Semitic tropes concerning Jewish power, conspiracy and control. Training mental health professionals to oppose racism is a laudatory and important endeavor, but you can’t erase, let alone promote, anti-Semitism in the process.”
Students for Faculty and Equality (S.A.F.E.) CUNY said in a statement to the Journal, “S.A.F.E. CUNY is aware of the long and horrific history of antisemitism and bullying of Jews at Brooklyn College and throughout CUNY. By tolerating harassment, intimidation, and discrimination against one of the most oppressed and victimized minority groups in history, CUNY is complicit in fomenting an unsafe environment for Jewish students on their campuses. S.A.F.E. CUNY stands by the Jewish students at Brooklyn College and calls on CUNY to take immediate action to quash the systemic Jew Hate at Brooklyn College and throughout CUNY.”
A spokesperson for Brooklyn College said in a statement to the Journal, “Brooklyn College unequivocally denounces antisemitism in any form and does not tolerate it on its campus, and is committed to working cooperatively and fully with the U.S. Department of Education. The College appreciates the important role Jewish Americans have played in the rich history of the country, the city, and the campus.”
He added: “The College’s ‘We Stand Against Hate’ initiative features lectures, workshops, concerts, programs, and other events that reflect the school’s ongoing commitment to celebrate the voices that make up our diverse campus community. ‘We Stand Against Hate’ also serves as a platform to denounce antisemitism that touches our community.”