Lawsuit: Jewish Student Alleges She Was Forced Out of Columbia University Program Due to Antisemitism

School of Social Work student claims the university called her request to attend classes virtually after pro-Palestinian protests “unreasonable.”
February 14, 2024
Photo by Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

The Lawfare Project filed a lawsuit against Columbia University on behalf of an Orthodox Jewish student on Monday alleging that the university discriminated against the student by forcing her out of a program.

The lawsuit, which was obtained by the Journal, identifies the student as being Mackenzie Forrest, 23, a student in Columbia’s Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) Program in Spring 2023. Forrest alleges after she was accepted to the DBT Program in February 2023, she told the program’s Director Dr. André Ivanoff in February 2023, that she would be unavailable from Friday evening to Saturday evening due to observing Shabbat, and Ivanoff replied, “that is a problem.” Ivanoff then allegedly attempted to walk it back by claiming it’s “not a problem but an issue.”

The lawsuit claims Ivanoff later pressured Forrest to compromise her religious beliefs so she could fully attend the DBT program’s “Suicide Weekend” training workshop on Oct. 27-29, the lawsuit claims, citing a purported text from Ivanoff to Forrest that stated, “I am unclear what sort of accommodation you thought might be available for missing this experiential 2 ½ day workshop but I can tell you it is integral to DBT training. I think you need a weekend long dispensation from your rabbi to attend this educational work and to participate fully including using computer media etc. etc. to complete this important work.” Forrest, again, said that she couldn’t come to the Friday-Saturday portions of the training due to Shabbat but would be able to participate in Sunday’s programming.

However, Ivanoff eventually told Forrest that she would provide a different assignment for Forrest and told her not to come to Suicide Weekend.

The lawsuit also claims that, following the Oct. 7 massacre, Forrest requested that she attend her classes virtually due to safety concerns. She made the request because Jewish students had been assaulted and harassed on campus and that anti-Israel protesters had blocked “access to the Columbia campus and the CSSW [Columbia School of Social Work] building during unauthorized protests, sit-ins and teach-ins,” the lawsuit states. Additionally, Forrest pointed to remarks from Columbia Professor Shai Davidai about how he wouldn’t send his own children to Columbia because of the university leadership’s refusal to condemn the antisemitism at pro-Palestinian protests on campus. Forrest’s requests were repeatedly denied by the CSSW “even though it had previously allowed other students to attend certain classes online and even though it ultimately allowed all students to attend classes online on December 6, 2023, the day of a scheduled ‘teach-in’ in support of Hamas,” according to the lawsuit.

In fact, the lawsuit claims that Forrest’s CSSW advisor, Elizabeth Creel, told Forrest that she “is the only person feeling unsafe” on campus and that her request was “unreasonable.”

Further, the lawsuit claims that the CSSW launched a campaign to get Forrest to drop out of the program. The alleged campaign featured Ivanoff claiming in an email to Forrest that she was having performance issues during her field internship, despite Forrest regularly meeting with her supervisor and never hearing anything about performance concerns from said supervisor. The supervisor also regularly lauded Forrest’s work and professionalism, the lawsuit claims. Forrest also purportedly had “a perfect grade point average” at school, per the lawsuit.

“CSSW administrators asserted that [Forrest] was only seeing one DBT client and was declining to take on new clients,” the lawsuit alleges. “While it was true that [Forrest] had one DBT client, it had never been communicated to her that there was a minimum or maximum number of DBT clients that she was expected to see.” But more importantly, Forrest did not ever reject any requests to take on other clients, the lawsuit states.

Regardless, the CSSW allegedly threatened to give Forrest a failing grade unless she dropped out of the program, in which case such a grade would not go on her transcript. Forrest ultimately dropped out.

The lawsuit contends that the CSSW’s alleged actions constitute a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as well as a New York State law barring discrimination. Forrest is seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief.

“Columbia University failed Mackenzie and decided to launch a retaliatory campaign instead of protecting her from Jew-hatred,” Lawfare Project Founder and Executive Director Brooke Goldstein said in a statement. “If the university had provided her with the appropriate accommodations that she is legally entitled to, we would not be in this situation. Columbia, like any other college and university, must protect the civil rights of their students and provide them with safe learning environments free of discrimination.”

The university declined to comment on the matter, telling the Journal the university is “not going to comment on pending litigation.”

Ivanoff and Creel did not immediately respond to the Journal’s requests for comment.

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