Complaint against Middlebury College alleges discrimination aimed at Jewish students

Title VI civil rights grievance filed by the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice says Vermont school retaliated against those who claimed to suffer antisemitism on campus

Reporter at The Times of Israel

This August 31, 2017, file photo shows a sign for Middlebury College on the campus in Middlebury, Vermont. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)
This August 31, 2017, file photo shows a sign for Middlebury College on the campus in Middlebury, Vermont. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)

Jewish students were told it would be too controversial to hold Israeli flags at a vigil to mourn the victims of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught and were instructed to remove the word “Jewish” from any literature affiliated with the event, being strongly urged to instead call it a “Vigil for Lives Lost,” according to a recently filed civil rights complaint filed against Middlebury College in Vermont.

The allegations are just some of those contained in the Title VI complaint filed on February 16 by the non-profit StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, which includes claims of institutional discrimination and antisemitism.

And while the charge focuses solely on the Vermont college, it stands as yet another instance where a university is under fire for its handling of antisemitism, particularly in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

According to the complaint, the administration denied antisemitism exists on campus and retaliated against Jewish students who claimed otherwise. It also instructed Jewish students to downplay and hide symbols associated with their Jewish identity, failed to enforce existing policies to protect Jews, and was complicit in the discrimination, said Yael Lerman, director of the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, which filed the grievance.

“Middlebury College has failed egregiously to provide adequate protection for Jewish students seeking to remedy persistent antisemitic bigotry on campus,” Lerman said. “In doing so, the college has violated its obligations under Title VI and must be held accountable.”

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, colleges and universities receiving federal money must protect students from discrimination based on race, color or national origin. This includes Jews, Muslims and other ethnic or religious groups with “shared ancestry.”

A statement issued by Middlebury College does not address the specific points of the complaint. “We are aware of a complaint filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights [OCR],” the college wrote. “If OCR contacts us, we will of course fully cooperate. In the meantime, the important work of education — historical awareness, engaging across differences, groundbreaking initiatives in the area of conflict transformation and ensuring our students are supported — continues every day. We are proud of how our students, faculty, and staff engage peacefully, openly, constructively, regularly, and rigorously on deeply concerning issues such as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the Israel-Hamas war.”

The ongoing conflict broke out on October 7 when some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists stormed the border with Israel, murdering about 1,200 people — most of them civilians — and abducting another 253 in an orgy of violence that included acts of rape, mutilation, torture, and other war crimes.

On February 20, Middlebury College launched a new webpage titled “Educational Approaches to the War in Israel and Gaza.” It outlines the college’s community standards, and lists available education and support services to those impacted by the Israel-Hamas war, including the Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation, the Coalition for Dismantling Antisemitism at Middlebury and the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.

Additionally, Middlebury College said it continues to hold long- and short-term dialogues “between our vibrant Jewish and Muslim communities, intensive and regular training for community members on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian bias, active engagement through our Conflict Transformation Initiative and many other venues.”

Yael Lerman, director of the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice. (Courtesy)

“We will not tolerate and have not tolerated discriminatory behavior on our campus,” it said.

Because Middlebury College receives federal funding, it is legally obligated to ensure that Jewish students are treated equally to all other students, according to Title VI. That means ensuring Jewish students have the right to access all aspects of the campus and also that the university will protect that right.

However, according to Jewish students who contributed to the complaint, on October 12, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine organized a “Day of Resistance” during which members of the group blocked doors to a Middlebury dining hall.

“Despite receiving reports of this harassment, Middlebury’s administration did not enforce its own policies barring behavior that impedes another student’s ability to communicate or move freely and offered no alternative support to the impacted students. Instead, the administrator denied any wrongdoing by SJP and took no action against the offenders,” reads the complaint.

It additionally claims a double standard was applied to student events, with Jewish students barred from holding the aforementioned October 7 vigil indoors and told that administrators would neither speak at the event nor attend. In contrast, when the Muslim Student Association organized a “Vigil for Palestine” specifically focused on those killed in Gaza, there was a visible police presence and it was allowed to be held inside the Middlebury Chapel.

The Muslim Student Association did not respond to requests for comment.

The complaint also alleges that a resident assistant in a Middlebury dormitory posted a sign on the outside of their dorm room door with the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” widely recognized as a call for the genocide of Jews. When a Jewish student who resided on that floor reported it to Middlebury president Laurie Patton, the university said it was instituting disciplinary proceedings against the Jewish student, ostensibly for reporting it.

It also takes issue with the repeated rejection of Jewish students’ requests for recognition of a Chabad House as a second Jewish student organization on campus. Currently, Hillel is the only officially recognized Jewish student group on Middlebury’s campus. Without official club status, students affiliated with Chabad can’t get funding or host Jewish events on campus such as Shabbat dinners and holiday services.

With a presence on nearly 900 college campuses worldwide, most Chabad Houses in the US are officially recognized as campus student groups.

Aside from the complaint, StandWithUs recently posted a public petition to encourage Middlebury to protect its Jewish students. The petition asks the school to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and refer to it when addressing possible incidents of antisemitic discrimination and when training staff tasked with reviewing discrimination and harassment complaints.

In the meantime, Jewish students won’t have any protections beyond the policies already in place, Lerman claimed.

“That is why we filed the Title VI — to bring change to the school and force them to protect Jewish students. The recourse is for students to continue to document and report complaints of antisemitic harassment and discrimination to the university and to also report to StandWithUs, so we can provide support and help them navigate an indifferent administration,” Lerman said.

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