Complaint Filed Against AU Over Alleged Antisemitism on Campus

Eleven students claim the university did not respond to antisemitic incidents
January 18, 2024
Photo by Ron Cogswell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0 DEED

The Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on Wednesday alleging that the Washington, D.C.-based American University (AU)  has failed to properly handle incidents in which Jewish students were targeted on campus.

The complaint states that Student 1, a Jewish Israeli American who had several friends and family murdered during the Oct. 7 massacre, was subjected to calls of “Zionist pig” as he was walking back from a pro-Israel vigil with an Israeli flag around his shoulders. He was also allegedly spat at by two people wearing face masks and keffiyehs while riding scooters. Student 1 filed a report to the university over the matter, but heard nothing.

Student 1 subsequently hid his Star of David out of fear, but because many people were aware of his Israeli identity, the student was still subjected to several subsequent incidents of spitting and being called a “Zionist killer.” But Student 1 did not report any of these incidents to the university after not hearing anything after filing his first report.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that in November, Student 1 had posted a flyer advertising a piano recital he was performing in that was vandalized with a swastika and the words “DEATH TO ZIONISTS HITLER WAS RIGHT.”

“Student 1 immediately reported the vandalized poster to the AU administration,” the complaint states. “It took nearly a week for the administration to release a statement condemning the vandalism. After AU’s campus newspaper, The Eagle, reported on the incident and included identifying details without permission, Student 1 experienced increased harassment and unwanted attention on campus. AU administrators, however, made no effort to identify the perpetrators or inform Student 1 if it had taken any steps to ensure that other concert posters would not be similarly vandalized and that Student 1 would not be targeted at his piano recital due to his Jewish and Israeli identity.” The complaint further alleges that the FBI had two officers appear at the recital for Student 1’s safety; the school had connected Student 1 to the FBI, as the FBI were already there to investigate an anti-Palestinian message left at a Palestinian staff member’s office.

“The University’s response to the incidents targeting Student 1 has been wholly inadequate,” the complaint continues. “It took the administration five days to contact Student 1 after the vandalism incident, and even then, only one Dean emailed him, nearly a week after the event, to inquire about his well-being. This was only after Student 1 notified his professors that the administration had not offered him any support. AU’s failure to investigate the spitting incident Student 1 reported, left the student feeling abandoned by the University and demonstrated the University’s lack of care and concern.”

Further, the complaint notes that AU President Sylvia Burwell condemned the anti-Palestinian message left at a Palestinian staff member’s office as being “vile and dehumanizing.” Yet, in response to the vandalism of Student 1’s flyer, “the university sent an email to the AU community that merely restated the university’s policies on postering and made no mention whatsoever of the antisemitism.” This, the complaint contended, is “disparate treatment.”

Student 1’s suffering from the hostility on campus, combined with the university’s lack of an adequate response, has caused Student 1 to face such severe distress and anxiety that he canceled multiple piano lessons that he teaches and was unable to reach the maximum number of hours he needed as a teacher’s assistant — both of which are jobs he relies on to pay his tuition. As a result of the lost income, Student 1 could not visit his family during Thanksgiving.

Student 2, the complaint alleges, found a giant swastika scrawled on his door on Oct. 19, as well as on the door of another student and a third opened the door before the perpetrator could finish drawing it on the third student’s door. Additionally, “a bathroom on the same floor was also vandalized with a swastika and a Nazi slogan,” the complaint states. “Later that evening, the second student whose door had been vandalized received a text message from an unknown number that said, ‘I know who you are, jew.’”

AU President Sylvia Burwell did denounce the antisemitic vandalism as a “hateful act of antisemitism”; however, the complaint alleges that AU “has yet to take effective steps to identify the perpetrators, hold them accountable and prevent the  anti-Semitic vandalism of first-year dormitories from reoccurring.”

Another allegation in the complaint is that a handful of separate students, who are also anonymous in the complaint as Students 3-6, reported to the university that they were putting up posters of Israeli hostages taken captive by Hamas — many of whom the students personally know — only to have them taken down by students. The students who took them down would also yell disparaging remarks, such as shouting that “Israelis aren’t real people.” The university allegedly claimed that they couldn’t do anything about it, so Students 3-6 — who are members of the university’s Students Supporting Israel (SSI) chapter — took videos of the students who were tearing down the hostage posters. But the university still did nothing, even though the complaint notes that university policy explicitly prohibits the vandalism of posters.

Instead, the university launched an investigation against Students 3-6 as well as Student 7, the president of the SSI chapter, and charged them with “harassment and disorderly conduct.” The university further charged that the students who vandalized the hostage posters were “removing unauthorized postings.” The complaint claims that “the students removed the Jewish students’ hostage posters from authorized locations as well as from alleged ”unauthorized” locations. Second, the students who removed the hostage posters replaced them with their own posters. Third, according to University policy, ‘No community member should remove or deface any poster.’ This applies to all posters, no matter where they are placed.” Additionally, the recordings taken by Students 3-6 were in a public space and in a state in which there are no two-party consent laws, the complaint contends, adding that the videos were not publicized in any way and were simply shared with the university as a part of the standard reporting procedure.

The complaint proceeds to several other instances in which Jewish students allegedly suffered harassment from other students on campus, including one Jewish student (Student 9) who was told by her suitemates that she is a “white privileged wealthy girl from New York City who knew nothing” because she didn’t believe that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians and has faced continuous “anti-Jewish hostility” from them. Student 9 eventually moved to a different suite, but the Housing Office did not take any action outside of suggesting she move to a different housing situation. Another student, Student 10, was allegedly verbally accosted by a classmate who screamed that she couldn’t sit near a Zionist and that Student 10 has “blood on your hands! You are responsible for genocide! Your people are killing innocent Palestinians!”

Student 11 allegedly dealt with a professor, whose name is redacted in the complaint, who asked students during a Nov. 6 class to share photos from a pro-Palestinian march the previous weekend; the professor also described the protest as being “powerful and meaningful,” per the complaint. “At one point, an image of a sign showing a Star of David in a trash can reading ‘Keep the world clean’ was projected onto the large screen,” the complaint added.”[Professor Redacted] made eye contact with Student 11, and many of her classmates turned around to stare at her. Student 11 was so uncomfortable she left the class in tears.”

The professor, the complaint alleges, knew Student 11 was Jewish because she always wears a Star of David necklace.

Additionally, the complaint claims that pro-Palestinian protests on campus were so loud that they disrupted classes and that the protesters actively blocked the entrance to a building described in the complaint as the “central student hub of AU’s campus.” And yet the university did nothing, the complaint alleges.

“Shamefully AU has repeatedly chosen to turn a blind eye to the antisemitism snowballing on its campus,” Brandeis Center Founder and Chairman Kenneth L. Marcus, who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under the George W. Bush and Donald Trump Administrations, said in a statement. “Not only has the university failed in its legal obligation to protect Jewish students from illegal targeting and harassment, it is attempting to bully those brave enough to speak up. The university’s delinquency is reprehensible, and it only signals to the AU community there are no consequences for those who harass, threaten, assault or shun Jewish and Israeli students, emboldening those hostile to Jews even further.”

“Not only has the university failed in its legal obligation to protect Jewish students from illegal targeting and harassment, it is attempting to bully those brave enough to speak up.” – Kenneth L. Marcus, Brandeis Center founder and chairman

Matt Bennett, AU’s vice president of communication, said in a statement to the Journal, “American University received a letter the Brandeis Center sent to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) regarding antisemitism. We have not received any complaint from OCR. We take these issues and any concerns in AU’s Jewish community seriously, and we review and address them. We will cooperate with any inquiries regarding our work to combat antisemitism.” He added: “American University supports the safety, well-being, and sense of belonging for our Jewish students, a community which has been and remains an important part of the fabric of our university. We have taken decisive action to address antisemitism, including working with the FBI on investigations, enforcing our student conduct code, incorporating antisemitism into our curriculum and inclusive excellence work, and engaging with Jewish groups including ADL and Hillel. While we have made progress in combatting antisemitism, we know we have more work to do.”


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