'Only the Jewish students are being investigated'

Federal complaint filed against American U. for allowing ‘persistent’ antisemitism

Suit alleges ‘disparate’ treatment of Jews and Muslims: ‘AU has ignored the discrimination and harassment that Jewish and Israeli students have endured’

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Glover Gate at the American University in Washington, DC. (Samschoe/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
Glover Gate at the American University in Washington, DC. (Samschoe/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

A federal complaint was filed Wednesday with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging rampant and pervasive antisemitism at American University.

The complaint, filed by The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus, alleges that American University was not only fully aware of the pervasive and hostile environment for Jewish students, and ignored it, but that in some cases, it also chose to subject Jewish whistleblowers to harassment and disciplinary proceedings.

American University is a four-year private university in Washington, DC. Over 20 percent of the undergraduate student body is Jewish, according to American University.

Pamela Nadell, the chair of the Jewish Studies program at American University, testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on December 5, 2023, alongside the then-president of Harvard University Claudine Gay, then-president of the University of Pennsylvania Elizabeth Magill, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth.

The fourth witness at the hearing, Nadell testified that the evident Jew-hatred on campus is “part of a long history of American antisemitism. “The “antisemitism igniting on campuses today is not new,” Nadell stated.

The federal complaint alleges that antisemitic acts at American have been “persistent and threatening,” especially since October 7’s Hamas onslaught against Israel. These acts include frequent swastikas on campus and active marginalization of Jewish students by peers and faculty.

Dr. Claudine Gay, then-president of Harvard University, Liz Magill, then-president of University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 5, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

One complainant, an unnamed Jewish American Israeli who is a junior at American, claimed that, while walking home on campus after a pro-Israel vigil, he was yelled at by protestors who called him a “Zionist pig,” and two individuals on scooters wearing keffiyehs and face masks spat at him as they passed by.

Student 1 reported the assault and filed a Title IX report, but contends the school did not respond. The complaint also states that the student, a pianist, was depicted in posters advertising an upcoming piano recital; these posters were vandalized with his face crossed out, a swastika was drawn on the poster, and the words “Death to the Zionists Hitler was right” written on it.

“The University failed to call out and condemn the public antisemitic targeting of a Jewish Israeli student, but did not hesitate to publicly condemn an anti-Muslim message found on campus” the complaint alleges. “This disparate treatment of Jews and Muslims is discriminatory. It sends a message to the AU community that Jewish and Israeli students are not entitled to the same consideration and protections afforded to others on the basis of their shared ancestral and ethnic heritage and national origin.”

The complaint states that first-year dormitories have been repeatedly vandalized with swastikas, that American University allows rallies in support of Hamas, and that Jewish students have been screamed at and marginalized in classroom and dormitory contexts.

On October 20, 2023, American University President Sylvia Burwell sent a letter out to the student body noting an incident of graffiti of swastikas and a Nazi slogan, saying “This hateful act of antisemitism is reprehensible,” adding that “[h]ate speech will not be tolerated. It violates the values that define our community.”

Illustrative: Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson receives an honorary degree from American University President Sylvia Burwell, left, and American University Washington College of Law Dean Roger Fairfax at the commencement ceremony for American’s Washington College of Law, May 20, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The complaint also states that five American University students are under investigation by the university for filming of students tearing down posters of Israeli hostages.

“The vandalizers themselves, meanwhile, are not being held accountable,” the complaint states. “Only the Jewish students are being investigated.”

“AU has ignored the discrimination and harassment that Jewish and Israeli students have endured on its campus,” the complaint alleges, by not investigating antisemitic conduct or taking steps to curb mistreatment of targeted Israeli and/or Jewish students.

“The University has failed to meet its legal obligations or enforce its own rules of conduct to protect these students, which, if enforced, would make AU’s campus a safer and more welcoming environment for its Jewish and Israeli students,” the complaint contends. “Even worse, the University has chosen to further harass and discriminate against several of these students by subjecting them to a baseless disciplinary hearing for alleged harassment.”

The complaint seeks remedies including but not limited to dismissal of disciplinary hearings against the Jewish students who filmed the vandalism, equal enforcement of the university code of conduct, and active education on antisemitism.

Matt Bennett, AU’s Vice President of Communication, said in a statement that American has not yet received any complaint from the Office of Civil Rights, but that “[w]e take these issues and any concerns in AU’s Jewish community seriously, and we review and address them. We will cooperate with any inquiries regarding our work to combat antisemitism.”

“American University supports the safety, well-being, and sense of belonging for our Jewish students, a community which has been and remains an important part of the fabric of our university,” Bennett added. “We have taken decisive action to address antisemitism, including working with the FBI on investigations, enforcing our student conduct code, incorporating antisemitism into our curriculum and inclusive excellence work, and engaging with Jewish groups including ADL and Hillel. While we have made progress in combatting antisemitism, we know we have more work to do.”

The complaint is the latest legal onslaught against an American university for alleged antisemitic environments, including but not limited to Wellesley College, the University of Southern California, Brooklyn College and the University of Illinois.

Private lawsuits have been filed against schools including Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University alleging antisemitism.

This story has been updated to include a statement by American University.

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