Department of Education opens investigations of antisemitism and Islamophobia at 7 schools in the wake of Oct. 7
A woman affixes a flier for Israeli hostages to Cooper Union College in New York City, a day after Jewish students sheltered in a library during a pro-Palestinian protest, Oct. 26, 2023.
Photo: Luke Tress

By Andrew Lapin
November 18, 2023

(JTA) – The U.S. Department of Education announced that it has opened five new investigations into the handling of antisemitism and two into the handling of Islamophobia on college and K-12 campuses.

The announcement on Thursday was a show of force from the department, which said the flood of investigations represented “part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s continued efforts to take aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination and harassment on college campuses and in K-12 schools since the October 7 Israel-Hamas conflict.”

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began when the terror group invaded Israel on Oct. 7. Since then, Jewish groups and law enforcement agencies have reported a spike in antisemitism, and at a meeting in late October, the White House warned of “an alarming rise of reported antisemitic events”  on college campuses since Oct. 7. 

The investigations announced Thursday are being handled by the department’s civil rights office under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination based on race or shared ancestry at federally funded institutions. An executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2019 included some anti-Israel activity in the definition of antisemitism that falls under Title VI’s purview. 

Jewish leaders at three recent House hearings on the subject called on the Education Department to use its resources to protect Jewish students, and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has tasked the department with moving swiftly to do so. Last week, he warned schools that they could lose their federal funding if they failed to properly investigate antisemitism on campus. 

“Hate has no place in our schools, period. When students are targeted because they are—or are perceived to be—Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn,” Cardona said in a statement about the new investigations. “These investigations underscore how seriously the Biden-Harris Administration, including the U.S. Department of Education, takes our responsibility to protect students from hatred and discrimination.” 

Opening an investigation does not mean the department believes the complaint’s claims are true, only that it has determined the complaint falls under its civil rights purview. Investigations look at whether the school in question took adequate measures to protect students from discrimination. Several of the schools on the list have issued responses in the wake of headline-grabbing instances of antisemitism.

The department declined to comment on the details of the investigations to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and would not disclose which were related to antisemitism and which to Islamophobia. 

But three of the colleges on the list, all in New York state, have made headlines because of antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7. At Cornell University, one student sent death threats to Jewish students on campus after a professor said at a rally that he was “exhilarated” by the Oct. 7 attack; at Columbia University an Israeli student was assaulted amid what Jewish students have said is an increasingly antisemitic environment; and at Cooper Union, Jewish students barricaded themselves in a library during a pro-Palestinian protest

The presidents of all three schools have since issued statements condemning antisemitism, and Columbia’s president has announced the formation of an antisemitism task force. The school has also suspended its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, citing violations of university rules, following a call by Jewish leaders to crack down on the group.

In addition, two of the new investigations appear to line up with recent civil rights complaints brought by the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a pro-Israel legal group. Kenneth Marcus, founder and chair of the group, and a former Trump administration official, took credit for the “swift” opening of the two investigations in a statement to JTA, and a Brandeis Center spokesperson said the group had been informed that the investigations were in response to its complaints.

One of those complaints was about reported instances of antisemitic graffiti and a trespasser on the property of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with a “Palestine Writes” festival held on campus prior to Oct. 7. The school has already pledged to review its event policies as a result of these incidents. The Brandeis Center’s Penn complaint also includes references to purported antisemitism taking place on campus since the attacks, citing chants referencing the “intifada” and “From the river to the sea” at campus rallies.

The second Brandeis Center complaint is about Wellesley College, where, the center alleges, dorm residential staff sent out an email after Oct. 7 saying that there should be “no support for Zionism within the Wellesley College community.” That complaint was brought jointly with Jewish on Campus, a student antisemitism watchdog group. 

The other two schools with new investigations are Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Maize Unified School District in Kansas, a suburb of Wichita. Maize Unified School District said in a statement Friday that the Department of Education did not provide it with a copy of the complaint, so the district couldn’t respond to it.

It was not immediately clear what may have prompted these final two investigations, but an Oct. 25 statement from the president of Lafayette College references a student holding up “a poster bearing words with antisemitic meaning” during a pro-Palestinian walkout, and notes that the incident would be addressed “through our bias accountability process.” An account from pro-Palestinian students in the campus paper said that the student in question had held a poster reading “From the river to the sea,” which the writers did not believe was antisemitic. In addition, administrators at the college this spring rejected a request to form a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, with the dean of students suggesting the group could target Jewish students. 

Previous antisemitism-related investigations in the department have resulted in schools including the University of Vermont and the University of Illinois pledging to put new resources in place for Jewish students, including new campus facilities and antisemitism awareness training for staff.

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