Dept. of Education to Investigate SUNY New Paltz Over Antisemitism Allegations

It is the first antisemitism investigation launched by OCR into a university since last week’s launch of the Biden administration’s national strategy against antisemitism.
June 9, 2023
The Old Main at SUNY New Paltz (crz4mets2/Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has decided to launch an official investigation into the State University at New York (SUNY) New Paltz over allegations that two Jewish students were excluded from a sexual assault survivors’ student group. It is the first antisemitism investigation launched by OCR into a university since last week’s launch of the Biden administration’s national strategy against antisemitism.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus (JOC), jointly filed the complaint with OCR on behalf of the students,  and announced the launching of the investigation on June 8th. As the Journal previously reported, the August 2022 complaint stated that the New Paltz Accountability (NPA) group “excluded” and “publicly vilified” the two students, Cassandra Blotner and Ofek Preis. Blotner and Preis were subjected to “further sustained harassment, including threats and intimidation of social media.” 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.”

University President Donald Christian had said that the university can’t take action against the NPA because they’re not a recognized student group but the complaint argued that 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” and thus the university is required to take action against them. The Brandeis Center-JOC June 8 statement did acknowledge that the university met with various Jewish students and members of the community and issue a series of recommendations to improve the campus climate for Jews, including the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. But Denise Katz-Prober, director of legal initiatives for the Brandeis Center, argued in a statement that this was insufficient, as “it’s not enough to merely to consider adopting IHRA … The university must modify its policies, procedures and trainings, as UVM [University of Vermont] is now doing under the direction and supervision of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights …  “The current recommendations fail to recognize that Jewish identity is not confined to religious practice, but also involves shared ancestry, shared history and shared culture.  Just as with UVM, the Department of Education’s investigation, involvement and guidance is critical.”

Katz-Prober hailed the launching of the investigation as “a monumental day for Jewish students across the U.S.” “[It] sends a clear and unequivocal signal to SUNY New Paltz as well as universities across the country that they take anti-Zionist discrimination and harassment seriously and they expect universities to take it just as seriously, and address it with the same intensity and vigor, as they do all other forms of harassment and discrimination … In this case, students were excluded and harassed based on their Jewish identity connected to Israel … the Department of Education’s commitment to investigate what transpired at SUNY New Paltz signifies it recognizes this form of harassment and discrimination as national origin discrimination based on shared ancestry.”

JOC Co-Founder and CEO Julia Jassey said in a statement, “When Jewish students are excluded because of their identities, as Jews or Israelis alike, that is antisemitism plain and simple. For too long, our voices have been neglected and the lived experiences of Jewish students facing antisemitism have been ignored or outright dismissed. Today represents a new chapter … When Cassandra and Ofek approached Jewish on Campus to describe the hate they encountered, we were both inspired by their courage to speak up and outraged that such intolerance exists at SUNY New Paltz … No student should ever be excluded from campus because of facets of their Jewish identity, let alone survivors of sexual assault. By launching an investigation into SUNY New Paltz’s actions, or lack thereof, in the face of this blatant antisemitism, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is taking a necessary step toward accountability. But as Jewish students on campuses across the country are forced to confront similar discrimination in their classrooms and student organizations, today’s announcement is a beginning, not an end.”

In a statement to the Journal, the university said, “We unequivocally condemn any attacks on SUNY students who are Jewish, and we will not tolerate anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on campus. We do not comment on pending investigations.”

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