Private New York school accused of ignoring antisemitic harassment and failing to support Jewish students in crisis
By Beth Harpaz
November 2, 2023
A Hillel chapter in suburban New York has accused Sarah Lawrence College of violating Jewish students’ civil rights by failing to address “persistent and pervasive” antisemitism on campus.
In the letter sent Monday, Hillels of Westchester describe a “campus culture” where “Jewish students are harassed, intimidated, bullied, and ‘canceled’ for simply expressing themselves as Jews, or discussing or identifying with Israel.”
The organization said that while “recent events in Israel and Gaza have fueled this discrimination, it has persisted over many years, and complaints lodged with the administration by HOW and SLC’s Jewish students have mostly been dismissed or ignored.”
The organization cited examples going back to 2014 and said the school’s “hostile learning environment” violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by any entity receiving federal funds. (Private colleges typically receive federal funding for student loans, grants and research.)
The letter was sent Monday to Cristle Collins Judd, president of the progressive liberal arts college located in Bronxville, in Westchester County, about 20 miles north of New York City.
Sarah Lawrence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘People called me genocidal’
Rachel Klein, executive director of Hillels of Westchester, said the Sarah Lawrence student body is between 20 and 30% Jewish and “multiple students” have transferred out as a result of antisemitism.
One who chose to stay despite repeated harassment is Sammy Tweedy, who said in a phone interview that he “became persona non grata” on campus after going on a Birthright trip to Israel. He describes himself as a “progressive” Jew who is sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis, “obviously not a right-wing Zionist,” yet he “was excommunicated for just going to Israel.”
“It had nothing to do with my beliefs,” he added. “If you’re Jewish and you have an identity where Israel is a part of it, you are dehumanized. People called me a Nazi. People called me genocidal.”
He said he has filed bias incident reports with the school along with more than 100 screenshots of online harassment, including students identified by name saying “they want me to die,” but the school has taken no action.
After he posted a photo of a Students for Justice in Palestine rally on campus honoring a Palestinian who killed seven people at a synagogue in Israel, Tweedy said he was treated “like a complete outcast.”
“I thought of transferring,” he said, “but this is not a problem unique to Sarah Lawrence.” Tweedy was supposed to spend this semester at Tel Aviv University but he flew back a week after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. “This was supposed to be my last semester but it’s up in the air now,” he said.
No support for Jewish students after Oct. 7 attacks
Among the examples of bias cited by HOW was a message sent Oct. 9, two days after Hamas’ attacks on Israel, by Briana Martin, Sarah Lawrence’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. That message, according to HOW, referred to the Oct. 7 attacks as “disheartening and tragic,” noted that many students “are deeply impacted by this,” but made no mention of Israel. Instead, the letter promoted a Students for Justice in Palestine “Hour of Solidarity with Palestine,” inviting students to “join us to unpack the ongoing events in Palestine, understand the mainstream narrative, and take action!”
HOW said “the anguish experienced by Jewish students” over that message was exacerbated by the fact that the college president did not make a statement addressing Hamas’ attacks until Oct. 12, one day after a professor of politics, Samuel J. Abrams, slammed the college’s “disgraceful silence” in an op-ed.
“Even if the school does not want to denounce terrorism and murder and speak the truth, Sarah Lawrence could at least offer support and various services to the many students who are struggling, scared and worried,” Abrams wrote in the op-ed published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and the Jewish Journal. “But the College has opted do absolutely nothing; this inaction was an explicit political choice.”
Abrams said that while the college routinely offers support to students after events like Hurricane Idalia hitting Florida and the Supreme Court ending affirmative action, and to groups like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, “it obviously feels differently when it comes to Jewish community members and Israel even when innocent Jews have been massacred by a terrorist group.”
Jewish students meeting in secret
The complaint by Hillel also described Jewish students holding an “invitation-only, campus safety-protected vigil” in secret after the Hamas attacks because they “feared disruption” by Students for Justice in Palestine. In contrast, HOW said, “Students for Justice in Palestine received public support” from the school’s diversity director and routinely holds public events.
HOW also described repeatedly requesting training in 2022 for resident advisers in handling antisemitism. The session was “accidentally” omitted from its scheduled August slot and was rescheduled for December but never took place. Requests for “a semi-permanent safe space” for Jewish students to hold events have been ignored as well, HOW said, noting that Jewish students have faced online harassment and protests against events like a Passover seder.
Klein said the group is asking the school to “remedy the issues on campus,” and if it does not, “we will pursue a Title VI complaint.” But she added: “The goal is change, not punitive. I want to see colleges stand up for every student on campus, Jews included.” She said the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division is “inundated with these complaints from colleges around the country.”
HOW’s proposed remedies include investigating harassment of Jewish students, instituting bias training to specifically recognize and curb antisemitism, and reviewing the college’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter “to confirm fitness within the College’s mission.”
SJP chapters have been shut down in recent days, for instance at the University of Florida, which accused the organization of supporting Hamas in violation of Florida law. The Anti-Defamation League made a similar charge against SJP, which the American Civil Liberties Union disputed, saying that SJP activities are protected by the First Amendment.
Hillels of Westchester represents Jewish students at five schools besides Sarah Lawrence: Westchester Community College, Pace University, Manhattanville College, Iona University and the State University of New York at Purchase.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the professor’s name to Samuel Abrams.
Beth Harpaz is a reporter for the Forward. She previously worked for The Associated Press, first covering breaking news and politics, then as AP Travel editor. Follow her @literarydj or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on the Forward.