The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into allegations that Jewish students at the University of Vermont were harassed and discriminated against based on their ancestry and support for Israel.
The complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus said that the university “allowed a hostile environment to proliferate on campus in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
“Jewish students have expressed fear about identifying publicly as Jewish, report hiding their Jewish identity and have considered transferring out of UVM due to the hostile environment toward Jews,” said the center in a Tuesday press release.
The Office for Civil Rights “evaluates all complaints it receives, but it only pursues investigations in those it determines warrant a more thorough investigation,” the center said.
In the complaint filed Oct. 2, the center said that Jewish students who support Israel were harassed and threatened with lower grades by a pro-Palestinian teaching assistant [TA] who tweeted that she wanted to make “zionism and zionist rhetoric politically unthinkable.”
In September 2021, vandals threw small rocks and a sticky substance at the campus Hillel building. When one student asked them to stop, someone yelled, “Are you Jewish?” In May 2021, an Israeli flag was stolen from off-campus student housing.
UVM Empowering Survivors, a sexual-assault support group, said last year on Instagram that “if you don’t support Palestinian liberation you don’t support survivors. we follow the same policy with Zionists that we follow with those trolling or harassing others: blocked,” as shown in a screenshot.
While not all Jews are Zionists, the center said that “identifying with and expressing support for the Jewish homeland is also a sincere and deeply felt expression of their Jewish ethnic identity.”
“Harassing, marginalizing, demonizing, and excluding these Jewish students on the basis of the Zionist component of their Jewish identity constitutes anti-Semitic discrimination and is just as unlawful and discriminatory as attacking a Jewish student for observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher,” said the release. “Indeed, UNESCO has cautioned that ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist’ today are often used interchangeably in an attempt by anti-Semites to cloak their hate.”
Jewish on Campus released statements from six anonymous Jewish students saying the campus environment had taken a toll on their mental health.
“I’ve heard my classmates yell slurs at other Jews and I’ve seen them march through downtown chanting antisemitic things,” said one student. “I’m terrified of what would happen if they knew more about me. But what scares me the most is that I know there’s nothing I can do about it, because every time I try to ask the administration to even denounce antisemitism, they dismiss me.”
The university said Tuesday that it was “aware of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigation and is looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations, each of which was reported to the university in 2021 and investigated by campus officials.”
“UVM seeks to foster a culture of inclusiveness for all students, faculty, and staff, including members of our Jewish community and does not tolerate acts of bias or discrimination related to religion, race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation on our campus,” said the university statement.
The DOE OCR is also investigating complaints of antisemitism filed by Brandeis against the University of Illinois, Brooklyn College, and the University of Southern California.