Federal probe to investigate alleged antisemitic harassment at Brooklyn College

Title VI civil rights complaint claims Jewish students in graduate program were harangued by peers and faculty, told to ‘get your whiteness in check’

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

NEW YORK — The US Department of Education has opened an investigation into alleged harassment of Jewish students at a New York college by both faculty and other students.

Professors at Brooklyn College accused Jewish students of perpetrating racial oppression, and other students openly discussed violence against them, according to the complaint that led to the investigation.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed the initial complaint to the US Department of Education last year. The center filed the complaint on behalf of two Jewish students at Brooklyn College’s Mental Health Counseling master’s degree program.

The Brandeis center on Thursday said the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had opened a formal investigation, and noted that the office only investigated certain cases.

The initial complaint, filed last February, said the college had violated Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 by allowing antisemitic harassment. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal funding. Antisemitic discrimination was included as a Title VI violation in 2019.

The complaint focuses on allegations from the 2020-2021 academic year.

The Brandeis Center said Brooklyn College professors advanced antisemitic tropes about Jewish power, including by telling Jewish students they were “white” and “privileged” and therefore oppressed other minorities.

A professor said Ashkenazi Jews in the US were oppressors, and denigrated a Jewish student in front of a class for being “white and privileged,” the complaint said.

In another class, students were asked to rank their personal identities. A Jewish student was berated for identifying as more Jewish than white, the complaint said.

One of the two Jewish complainants is a Hispanic woman and was told multiple times that she was not a minority because she is Jewish.

Students at the college also bullied and harassed Jewish students over their race, the complaint said. In a group chat, one student said they wanted to strangle a Jewish peer, and two other students supported the statement. One of the Jewish complainants came to the threatened student’s defense, and was branded a racist.

Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Jewish students who brought up the issue with faculty were told to “get your whiteness in check” and “keep your head down,” the Brandeis Center said.

One of the Jewish students brought up the harassment to the college’s counseling center, and was told to “keep quiet,” the complaint said.

The administration said at the time it was aware of “ongoing frictions” in the program, and expressed support for other minority groups, but ignored the claims of harassment against Jews.

The complaint describes multiple other instances of students, administrators and professors disparaging Jewish students as “white” and “privileged.” The college said at one point it planned to limit “inappropriate, intimidating behavior,” but didn’t follow through.

The Jewish students said they felt unsafe expressing their viewpoints in class, despite grading rules that required them to do so.

The complaint said the harassment violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars allowing a “hostile environment” that is “sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent so as to interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or opportunities offered by a school.”

The law requires federally funded schools to promptly end and prevent harassment, including by other students.

The Brandeis center called on the school to “eliminate the hostile environment,” condemn antisemitism, revise its nondiscrimination policies, hold training sessions to combat antisemitism and set up a task force to improve conditions for Jews.

“In a university program for mental health professionals, Jews are told they must identify as white, are called privileged, and are accused of being oppressors,” Denise Katz-Prober, the Brandeis Center’s Director of Legal Initiatives, said in a statement.

“This runs completely counter to Jewish history. It utterly ignores centuries of Jewish discrimination and murder, which we are frighteningly seeing resurface, and it promotes dangerous age-old anti-Semitic tropes concerning Jewish power, conspiracy and control,” she said.

“Fighting bigotry should not be a competition between minority groups; it’s not a zero-sum game,” she said.

The issue of whether Jews are white has come to the fore in recent days after Whoopi Goldberg described the Holocaust as two groups of “white people” who were “fighting each other.” Her comments sparked an uproar; she has since apologized.

Brooklyn College on Thursday said, “Brooklyn College unequivocally denounces antisemitism in any form and does not tolerate it on its campus. While the College cannot comment on ongoing investigations, it is committed to working cooperatively and fully with the US Department of Education.

“The College appreciates the important role Jewish Americans have played in the rich history of the country, the city, and the campus. The College’s ‘We Stand Against Hate’ initiative features lectures, workshops, concerts, programs, and other events that reflect the school’s ongoing commitment to celebrate the voices that make up our diverse campus community.”

The Brandeis Center has filed similar complaints at other US colleges, including Stanford University.

In 2013, the Brandeis Center represented three Jewish Brooklyn College students who complained after being forcibly removed from an anti-Israel event sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine. Brooklyn College apologized following an investigation and pledged to amend its policies.

Last month, six professors from the City University of New York, the public university system that Brooklyn College belongs to, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against their union, calling it “antisemitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.”

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