Two Jewish College Students Claim They Were Excluded from Sexual Assault Survivors Group Because of Pro-Israel Views

A complaint was filed to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) after two Jewish students accused a State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz sexual assault survivors group of excluding them.
August 18, 2022
The Old Main at SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, NY. (Photo by crz4mets2 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

A complaint was filed to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) after two Jewish students accused a State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz sexual assault survivors group of excluding them.

The complaint, filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights and Jewish On Campus on behalf of the two Jewish students and obtained by the Journal, alleges that the New Paltz Accountability (NPA) group “excluded” and “publicly vilified” the two students, Cassandra Blotner and Ofek Preis. Blotner and Preis were then “subjected to further sustained harassment, including threats and intimidation of social media,” the complaint stated. “Although the University knew about and publicly acknowledged the exclusion and harassment, it failed to intervene, either to discipline NPA or the organization’s leaders or to ensure opportunities for all victims of sexual assault on campus. It also failed to address the Complainants’ safety concerns arising from the harassment; as a result, both students were unable to attend classes and Ms. Blotner was afraid to spend time on campus.” Additionally, the complaint noted that the campus Jewish Student Union (JSU) stated in a letter to the university that SUNY New Paltz’s failure to action against the NPA signaled that antisemitism is “acceptable on campus.”

The complaint then details the sequence of events leading up to the compliant: Blotner and another student founded the NPA group in May 2021; she and Preis were both active in the group. But in December 2021, Blotner wrote in an Instagram post: “Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.” The NPA leadership chided Blotner for her post in a series of private WhatsApp messages for “condoning imperialism and settler-colonialism” and insisted that they meet with her to discuss it. Blotner rebuffed their efforts for a meeting because she felt like they were attempting to hold the only Jewish member of the group “accountable for the actions of a foreign government.” However, she did later suggest that the NPA meet with her and the JSU to discuss Zionism, but the NPA refused, stating they didn’t believe that adherents of Zionism were compatible with the group’s mission to fight oppression.

Preis, herself a Jewish Israeli, posted the same message to Instagram that Blotner did as a form of solidarity in January; the NPA then ceased informing Preis about their activities and revoked her access to the group’s documents. Preis issued a public resignation from the NPA, to which the NPA told her that Zionists were not allowed in the group. The NPA subsequently issued a document stating that they don’t support Zionism or the Israeli government because they don’t “support imperialism, settler-colonialism, nor white supremacy” and “supporting a settler-colonial state goes against what we stand for and thus we cannot organize with members who do so. Those members have left the organization due to our political differences. We stand in solidarity with Palestine and all other oppressed groups!”

The Oracle, a student newspaper at SUNY New Paltz, reported on these events in February, prompting the NPA to issue yet another social media post doubling down on their anti-Zionist stance and then published their private messages with Blotner and Preis. The complaint blames the NPA’s public stances against Zionism for inciting harassment against Blotner, which included receiving messages on the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak calling her a “dumb b—-” and that she “needs to go.” Blotner reported the harassment to the university and said she didn’t feel safe on campus, but was told that there was nothing they could do and that she should simply stay home if she felt unsafe. And so she did, causing her grades to suffer. Similarly, Preis stopped going to class because she didn’t feel safe on campus and her grades suffered to the point where her second major had to be turned into a minor so she could graduate.

“While I didn’t initially think I should be forced to defend my personal beliefs, I realized the opportunity here to educate NPA that as Jews we share a history, theology and culture—we’re both a faith and an ethnicity—and it’s all deeply tied to the Land of Israel,” Blotner said in a statement. “Expressing support for the Jewish homeland is core to my Jewish identity, the two are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to shed that piece of my Judaism in order to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. To then get cancelled, stalked and harassed, well I can’t even put into words what a horrific and frightening experience this all turned into for me.”

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian has publicly stated that the university can’t take action against the NPA because they’re not recognized as a student group on campus; the complaint argues Christian’s statement is false because the university “has treated NPA as a de facto recognized student group on campus, providing survivors of sexual assault and their allies with educational programs and activities on campus through NPA.” Consequently, the university has an obligation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to take action against the NPA and protect Blotner from harassment on social media; because the university failed on both counts, they are therefore in violation of federal law, the complaint alleged.

“Excommunicating and excluding Jewish and Israeli survivors from NPA denies us of our right to fight against sexual assault on college campuses and hold our universities accountable,” Preis said in a statement. “We were left with nowhere to go, feeling isolated from those who claim to be fighting for us, for our right to an uninterrupted education. The accusations made against me on account of my national origin denied everything I inherently am as a person: a fighter for justice, an anti-racist, a combater of oppression, and most relevantly, a survivor. I should not have been asked to choose between being Israeli or being a survivor. I should not have been asked to align with only survivorship or only Zionism. It is possible and necessary to include intersectional identities in spaces that fight for survivors.”

The complaint concluded with a call for SUNY New Paltz to take a series of steps to ameliorate the situation, including a full investigation into the NPA’s action, ensuring that a truly inclusive student group exists for sexual assault survivors on campus, providing Blotner and Preis with adequate security on campus and adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

“Ms. Blotner and Ms. Preis were shunned and isolated by the very people to whom they had turned for support as sexual assault survivors; these women were excluded from a survivor support group merely because they expressed pride in the Jewish people’s ethnic and ancestral connection to Israel,” Brandeis Center Director of Legal Initiatives Denise Katz-Prober said in a statement. “Unfortunately, universities often fail to recognize this form of anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination. When Jewish students, like Ms. Blotner and Ms. Preis, are cast out of social justice spaces and campus activities because they express pride in their ethnic or national identity, that is a form of unlawful discrimination, not political speech. This case is not about the awful things that were said to these women. Rather, it is about the awful things that were done to them. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires universities like SUNY New Paltz to ensure that Jewish and Israeli students are not denied educational opportunities due to discriminatory behavior that targets them on the basis of their ethnic and national identities. That’s exactly what was done here when these women were thrown out of their student organization because, as Jews, they feel a strong sense of connection to the Jewish homeland. Unfortunately, universities are misdiagnosing the problem and, as a result, failing to protect their Jewish students, like Ms. Blotner and Ms. Preis, from unlawful discrimination.”

Jewish on Campus CEO Julia Jassey also said in a statement: “These students were subject to a litmus test which forced them to decide: forfeit your commitment to an integral social cause, or forfeit your identity. Beyond the clear example of anti-Semitism and sexism which this case shows, it further demonstrates how normalized xenophobia against Israelis has become on American campuses, with one student being explicitly harassed for their Israeli nationality—an identity they were born into, and one they have the protected right to be proud of. This case is about anti-Semitism, it is about sexism, it is about harassment, and it is about xenophobia. More than anything, though, it is about justice and equality. And as jarring as this case is, the experience these students have faced is unfortunately not unique. All over the country, Jewish students face unjust treatment due to their identities. It is our duty, as an organization that speaks by and for Jewish students, to ensure that no student is denied the protection they deserve.”

The university said in a statement to the Journal, “SUNY New Paltz has provided access to resources and support for those impacted by the events of this past year and we continue our active engagement to support our Jewish students and employees around the rise of antisemitism, to address antisemitism and bias concerns when they arise, and to continue dialogue and educational efforts. As a public institution, we value the First Amendment and uphold the free exchange of ideas.”

In February, after The Oracle’s report came out, the NPA issued a response stating that Blotner showed “indifference and denial of the genocide and terror the Israeli military has put the Palestinian population through,” they wrote. “We simply could not stand by and not address it with her. So no, we did not corner her into talking about it.” They also argued that Preis was not an official member of the group and more of a “prospective member.” The NPA did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.

This article has been updated.

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