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Lawsuit: Jewish Student Faced Antisemitic Discrimination from Carnegie Mellon Profs

Student was told to stop “acting like a victim”
[additional-authors]
December 14, 2023
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The Lawfare Project announced on Wednesday that they have filed a lawsuit against Carnegie Mellon University for failing to act against antisemitism that a student (who graduated in 2023) had been facing from her professors.

The complaint focuses on allegations that the student, Yael Canaan (who is Jewish and of Israeli descent), had with one of her professors, Mary-Lou Arscott, who became the Associate Head for Design Fundamentals for the School of Architecture in 2021. The complaint alleges that Arscott denied Canaan’s request for an extension on a homework assignment in 2018 so she could attend a memorial service for those who were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. A more recent allegation is that in May 2022, Canaan — an architecture student — was working on a model of New York City that converted “a public space into a private space through an eruv,” which the complaint defines as “a small wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of devoutly religious Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.”

Arscott, the complaint alleges, accused Canaan’s model of resembling “the wall Israelis use to barricade Palestinians out of Israel. This shocked Canaan, who then tried to regain her composure and finish her presentation. But when Canaan finished, Arscott said only that Canaan’s time would have been better spent if she had instead explored ‘what Jews do to make themselves such a hated group.’

“Canaan immediately approached her studio professor at the time to report the incident, but the professor simply told her not to worry because Arscott would not be grading her.” The complaint claims that “Canaan left class demoralized, shaken, and afraid.”

The complaint proceeds to state that Canaan reported the incident to the architecture school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Director Erica Cochran Hameen, who allegedly said she was “shocked and appalled” by the incident and pledged she would talk to Arscott, but she never did, according to the complaint.

Canaan eventually discussed the incident with Gina Casalegno, the university’s dean of students, the following month; Casalegno said that she would go on a “casual walk” with Arscott to discuss the matter and that she would follow up with Canaan after the walk. Two months later, Casalegno told Canaan that she had a “thoughtful conversation” with Arscott and that a meeting would be arranged between Canaan and Arscott. Canaan was under the impression that Arscott would be apologizing in that meeting; however, when the Zoom meeting between the two occurred the following November, “Arscott refused to apologize and expressed no remorse for her conduct,” the complaint alleges. “She stated to Canaan only, ‘I’m sorry you felt that way.’ Canaan realized that the DEI Office had done nothing to ‘facilitate’ or prepare Arscott in any way, or even to inform Arscott about what Canaan reported.”

Shortly thereafter, Arscott sent Canaan an article from a website called The Funambulist; the complaint describes the website as promulgates “antisemitic and anti-Israel articles, including articles that promote pictures of terrorist organizations throwing Molotov cocktails at Jewish people and that decry the ‘Judaization’ of a region of Israel. It is filled with article titles that refer to ‘Israeli Apartheid’ and ‘Israeli Police: The Daily Practice of Collective Punishment Against Palestinians.’ A sample passage in a Funambulist article states: ‘[Y]ou never make concessions to the oppressor. If you’re going to get punished, and you might, if you piss off Zionists, it’s always a possibility, right, then stare the oppressor in the face, and take whatever punishment is coming. Don’t concede, don’t start apologizing … The Palestinians aren’t backing down, nor should we … [we] do not make concessions to the oppressor.’” Arscott referred to the Funambulist article as being “insightful” and encouraged Canaan to read it.

Canaan reported the matter to Casalegno and Wanda Heading-Grant, the university’s chief diversity officer and vice provost of DEI. Heading-Grant, who the complaint says was copied on Arscott’s email, apologized to Canaan, but claimed that she couldn’t do anything to address the matter and referred her instead to the university’s Office for Institutional Equality and Title IX. But when Canaan met with Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Vice Provost for DEI Elizabeth Rosemeyer, she was “aggressively discouraged” against filing a complaint, as Rosemeyer contended that it “would take too long and would require extensive work on both of their parts” and would not be completed when Canaan graduated the following year.

The complaint further alleges that in the 2022-23 academic year, Canaan had two professors who are “beholden” to Arscott and engaged in retaliatory behavior against Canaan for reporting her. One professor, Theodossis Issaias, invited his students to a party at Arscott’s house after Canaan told him about her interactions with Arscott.  “When Canaan mentioned how disturbed she was that Issaias would choose Arscott’s home as a venue for a class party, Issaais told Canaan that ‘breaking bread is a process of reconciliation’ and that Canaan needed to stop ‘acting like a victim’ and that he was ‘not there to fight her battles for her,’” the complaint states. “He complained that Canaan was ‘calling all of us antisemites,’ and stated that he ‘cannot be an advocate for the Jews.’”

From thereon out, Issaias refused to provide Canaan with “one-on-one” guidance that he gave other students, publicly humiliated her in front of other students and gave her “a lower grade than her classmates in the same group for a group project.” Canaan was also allegedly the only student to be excluded from Issaias’ booklet of students’ work “distributed to students, professors, and community members to help market the students’ skills in hopes of developing their portfolios and job prospects.” Canaan received a “C” grade in the class semester despite receiving “A” grades in all her other classes, which she attributed to retaliatory behavior from Issaias.

The following semester, Canaan was enrolled in one of Professor Priyanka Bista’s classes. In Bista’s class, Arscott would come in-person for a studio review every other week. Canaan informed Bista about her incident with Arscott, but Bista claimed that she was unable to change her arrangement with Arscott since she owed her employment to Arscott. Bista eventually came up with a “compromise” in which Canaan could leave class whenever Arscott was scheduled to show up in person. “This ‘compromise’ meant that Canaan could only stay for a small portion of a four-hour studio class, the most important class for any architecture student … Canaan never knew when Arscott would join the class — she could and did come in at any time, without warning. The resulting anxiety triggered the migraine headaches and other physical symptoms. Canaan therefore missed most of the class that semester.” Consequently, “Canaan became lonely, depressed, and her grades suffered.”

The complaint alleges that Canaan kept searching for someone in the university administration to help her, to no avail. Further, the complaint alleges that the university’s inability to remedy the situation was intentional, arguing that the university received $591,571,726 from Qatar from 2004-19 and that Arscott herself “has spent professional time in Qatar — which shelters and protects antisemitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel terrorist organizations.”

“A November 2023 study found that ‘[f]rom 2015-2020, Institutions that accepted money from Middle Eastern donors, had, on average, 300% more antisemitic incidents than those institutions that did not,’” the complaint states. “By accepting outsized ‘donations’ from Qatar, [CMU] officials were incented not to address antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents, like the treatment of Canaan, so as not to jeopardize its lucrative relationship with Qatar.”

By failing to ameliorate the situation, Carnegie Mellon did not enforce its policies and is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the complaint alleges.

“The pervasively toxic environment found on college campuses across the country, which, in many instances, has been funded by Qatar, has resulted in the illegal discrimination against Jewish students,” The Lawfare Project Executive Director Brooke Goldstein said in a statement. “We are proud to be representing a brave student willing to stand up for Jewish civil rights and we will make every effort to ensure that justice is achieved.”

A university spokesperson said in a statement to the Journal, “We are steadfast in our commitment to create and nurture a welcoming, inclusive and supportive environment where all students can reach their potential and thrive. We take any allegations of mistreatment or harassment seriously. We have just received notice of this lawsuit and we will evaluate and respond to it.”

Arscott, Issaias, Rosemeyer and Casalegno did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment. The Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer for the university as well as KTK-BELT, which Bista co-founded, also did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment.

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