Dept. of Education to investigate antisemitism on at least 5 more campuses including Rutgers and Tulane
Freret Street near the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, November 22, 2021. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating an October 2023 pro-Palestinian rally that occurred on this street and resulted in several arrests and injuries.
(Photo: Infromation of New Orleans via Creative Commons)

By Andrew Lapin
December 15, 2023

(JTA) – The U.S. Department of Education has opened 12 new investigations into the handling of discrimination at colleges and school districts since Thanksgiving, in the latest expansion of the department’s scrutiny of civil rights issues since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

At least five — and almost certainly more — of the new investigations are related to antisemitism, which the department vowed in October to combat on college campuses using all of its available tools.

Rutgers University, Tulane University, Santa Monica College, Union College and Montana State University are all facing allegations that they failed to respond adequately to antisemitism, spokespeople for each of the schools confirmed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency or other outlets. 

A K-12 school district in Georgia said its investigation was not related to antisemitism, while two other schools declined to say what their investigations concerned. Several major institutions including Stanford University and the University of California-Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.

The department’s civil rights office has made a point of focusing on antisemitism- and Islamophobia-related complaints that allege violations of Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on several categories including “shared ancestry.” More than two dozen such cases have been opened since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, amid political pressure in the face of rising concerns about campus antisemitism.

Many such Title VI cases involving allegations of discrimination toward Jews are brought by pro-Israel advocacy groups, including the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Lawfare Project, which often seek to define anti-Zionist speech in university spaces as antisemitic. 

The department has previously initiated investigations at schools including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania — whose president Liz Magill recently resigned from her post following blowback from her handling of a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. Opening an investigation does not mean that the department believes a complaint has merit.

The agency does not disclose specifics about the investigations it initiates, leaving the schools and advocacy groups that may be involved in the cases to fill in the details. But even the schools themselves say they are not always immediately aware of why they are being investigated. An education department spokesperson pointed to a November press release about antisemitism- and Islamophobia-related investigations as “context” for the latest round.

A spokesperson for Rutgers University in New Jersey, which had an investigation opened into it on Monday, told JTA it was over “alleged incidents of harassment in October and November 2023 of students on the basis of their national origin (shared Jewish ancestry and/or Israel).” The spokesperson said the school was given no further details.

Rutgers this week announced it was suspending its campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine following allegations of disruptive protests. The school also briefly suspended its law school’s Student Bar Association last month after it tried to impeach a Jewish member over a message-board battle about Israel and Hamas. 

A spokesperson for Tulane University in New Orleans, which had an investigation opened Dec. 5, also told JTA that its inquiry was tied to antisemitism concerns — specifically over an Oct. 26 pro-Palestinian rally held near the university at which four individuals not affiliated with Tulane were arrested and several people, including Jewish students, were injured.

“Antisemitism and other forms of hate have no place at Tulane University,” spokesperson Michael Strecker said in a statement. “The incident at the center of this investigation took place at a rally organized by a group that is not recognized by Tulane. The rally was deliberately staged on public property contiguous to our campus but over which we have no control.” 

Strecker added that the university increased security on campus and increased its own antisemitism training, among other measures, following the incident, and that it would “fully comply” with the investigation. A lawyer for one of the Jewish students assaulted at the rally told Tulane’s student newspaper they “had no idea” about the investigation.

A trustee for Santa Monica College told a local newspaper that its own investigation, opened Dec. 4, was also related to antisemitism, as a student club council had briefly denied recognition to a local chapter of Students Supporting Israel in late October. University administrators reversed the decision the next day, saying there was “no lawful basis” to deny the club; in a statement, the college told the Santa Monica Daily Press, “This prompt action demonstrates the college’s commitment to a discrimination-free environment for all students.”

And a statement from Union College in Schenectady, New York, reveals that its own investigation opened Dec. 5 also involves allegations of “a claim of discrimination toward Jewish students.” 

“Specifically, the unnamed complainant alleges that Union College failed to respond appropriately to incidents of harassment in October and November 2023,” the statement reads. It goes on to say that the school “stands against hate in all forms, including antisemitism,” and “has seen no violence, or threats of violence, on campus since the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas on Israel.”

In a statement, Montana State University told JTA its investigation is also related to antisemitism.

The education department “states that the issues of investigation are relative to national origin (Jewish ancestry), without any specific details,” the university’s statement reads, adding that the university will “fully cooperate” and that the school “has not received reports of any threats of violence” related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Representatives at two other universities, the University of Washington-Seattle and the University of California-San Diego, told JTA they would cooperate with their investigations but did not say whether the inquiries involved antisemitism. Cobb County School District in Georgia told a local reporter that the investigation opened into it on Dec. 5 was not related to antisemitism.

Requests for comment to the other colleges that have also had recent discrimination investigations opened were not returned. The other schools are UCLA; Stanford; Whitman College; and the University of Cincinnati.

Recent news reports from some of these colleges indicate that they, too, have been the sites of conflict involving Jewish concerns. A conservative radio station has reported that staff at a University of Washington diversity and inclusion office emailed students Oct. 25 to call Israel “oppressors and colonizers, while Palestine stands as the oppressed and colonized.” The letter also accused Israel of “genocide” and said, “We firmly support the cause of Palestinians and their fight for freedom from the unlawful and oppressive settler colonial apartheid state.” The letter was reportedly unsanctioned by the school and staffers who sent it were disciplined.

A video shared on social media from UCSD in November claimed that the university had evacuated a building in which Jewish students were discussing antisemitic threats against them; the university denied the allegations. The video showed pro-Palestinian protesters gathering outside an area where Jewish students were congregating.

At UCLA, administrators last month condemned antisemitic language spoken by students at a pro-Palestinian protest at which students bashed a piñata with an image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while yelling through a microphone, “Beat that f–king Jew.” 

And at the University of Cincinnati, the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was admonished shortly before Halloween for a social media post that promoted a “Spooky Zionist” meeting theme, according to local reports.

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