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Jewish sexual assault survivors rejected by NY campus support group, complaint says

2 students request US Department of Education investigation of New York’s university at New Paltz, saying they were discriminated against with the administration’s knowledge

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

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists in New York City, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Flash90)
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists in New York City, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

NEW YORK — Two Jewish students at a public New York college have filed a formal federal complaint alleging they were kicked out of a student sexual assault support group due to their identity and were subjected to antisemitic harassment and threats.

The complaint announced Wednesday against the State University of New York at New Paltz alleges the university’s administration was aware of the discrimination but allowed the antisemitic environment to fester.

The discrimination and the school’s alleged negligence made the two students, both sexual assault survivors, feel unsafe on campus and made Jewish and Israeli survivors feel shunned, according to the complaint.

The complaint filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleges the university violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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 with an executive order from former US president Donald Trump. The complaint says Zionism and a connection to Israel are an integral part of faith and identity for many Jewish students, so harassment and demonization of Zionism amounts to discrimination.

The complaint requests the federal office open an investigation into the university at New Paltz, a well-regarded New York public college north of New York City with around 7,500 students. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights only pursues investigations into complaints it deems worthy of a thorough investigation. It has opened several investigations in response to similar complaints.

Jewish and Israeli students on the campus “have been vilified, marginalized, harassed, and excluded” from the campus support group, called New Paltz Accountability, the complaint said.

“The exclusion of Jewish and Israeli students from [New Paltz Accountability] on the basis of their ethnic and national origin identities has left survivors of sexual assault without a place” to receive services on the campus, it said.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the two students and the Jewish On Campus advocacy group by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights group that focuses on Jewish and Israel-related issues. The center has filed several other similar complaints against US universities, including at Brooklyn College, part of New York City’s public university system.

The university at New Paltz said in response to the complaint, “SUNY New Paltz has provided access to resources and support for those impacted by the events of this past year and we continue our active engagement to support our Jewish students and employees around the rise of antisemitism, to address antisemitism and bias concerns when they arise, and to continue dialogue and educational efforts.”

“As a public institution, we value the First Amendment and uphold the free exchange of ideas,” the university said.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The New Paltz incident began in December 2021, when one of the students, Cassandra Blotner, posted on social media that Jews were “an ethnic group who come from Israel.”

“Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from,” she said.

The sexual assault awareness group, New Paltz Accountability, which Blotner co-founded, denounced the post and lashed out at Blotner. Four other leaders of the group sent Blotner text messages, saying, “We feel like we should address this… Israel is a settler colonial state.”

They said the post made claims “none of us feel comfortable with” and “concerns the organization as a whole.”

“As a group focused on combating oppression, we simply cannot stay silent when it appears that a member may be condoning imperialism and settler-colonialism,” they said.

Blotner initially refused to defend the post, saying she was being singled out as the only Jew in the group, and no other ethnic groups were subject to such scrutiny about their beliefs. She then offered to meet with the group with representatives from the campus’s Jewish Student Union. She said she saw the potential meeting as an opportunity to educate others about Jewish “history, theology and culture.”

New Paltz Accountability refused and told her Zionists were not welcome in the group.

“We, as a group focused on combating oppression, can only consist of members who stand against all forms of oppression. We believe that having a member that does not share this viewpoint is not conducive to ending all forms of oppression and thus is not the right fit,” they told Blotner, according to the complaint.

Another member of New Paltz Accountability, Ofek Preis, who is Jewish and Israeli, shared the same Instagram post as Blotner in a show of support. The sexual assault awareness group cut her off and made clear to her on social media that the group was closed to Zionists. She resigned from the group.

“I should not have been asked to choose between being Israeli or being a survivor,” Preis said in a statement. “NPA is no longer a safe space for all survivors.”

New Paltz Accountability continued to post statements making clear that all Zionists were unwelcome, contending that Zionism is a form of racism and white supremacy, blaming the two students for actions by the Israeli government and accusing Jewish students of supporting “colonization and violent and oppressive occupation of Palestine.”

The group’s leadership “publicly vilified” the students, posting a statement on social media denouncing their Zionist views. The group also published private text message exchanges with Blotner and Preis about their removal.

“To fight against sexual violence, we must oppose all forms of oppression. This includes the ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians,” the statement said. “Supporting a settler-colonial state goes against what we stand for.”

The online campaign spurred harassment against Blotner, including posts threatening to spit on her and calling her a “dumb b*tch.” The harassment also triggered anxieties stemming from the Jewish students’ trauma as sexual assault survivors, the complaint said.

“Expressing support for the Jewish homeland is core to my Jewish identity,” Blotner said. “I shouldn’t have to shed that piece of my Judaism in order to advocate for survivors of sexual assault.”

“To then get canceled, stalked and harassed, well I can’t even put into words what a horrific and frightening experience this all turned into,” she said.

Blotner and Preis appealed to the university’s administration, saying they felt unsafe on campus. Blotner requested security to protect her on her way to class, but the university declined, instead advising her to not attend class. Campus police also said they could not investigate. Both students stopped attending class due to anxiety and safety concerns. Title VI bars universities from allowing a “hostile environment” that interferes with a student’s ability to participate in services, activities or opportunities at a school.

The school’s president, Donald Christian, said New Paltz Accountability’s actions were discriminatory and antisemitic, but the university said it could not intervene because the group was not a recognized student organization. The complaint argues the university treats the group as a de facto recognized group, and it operates as one by providing services to students and using university resources.

The president’s statement indicated the administration was aware of the situation, but the school took no measures to discipline the offenders, provide services to Zionist sexual assault survivors or assuage the complainants’ safety concerns. The university still accepts the group excluding Zionist students, the complaint said.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The New Paltz complaint marked the latest in a series of legal battles over antisemitism at US colleges, as Jewish students have recounted harassment from their peers and indifference from administrators on a number of campuses.

Trump’s inclusion of antisemitism in Title VI protections opened a new front for Jewish advocacy groups. The Department of Education has in the past year opened formal investigations into the University of Southern California and Brooklyn College, both in response to complaints from the Brandeis Center.

Brooklyn College is a part of the City University of New York public college system, which has been embroiled in allegations of antisemitism by students and faculty and claims of inaction from its administration.

New Paltz is also a New York public college, but is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which is under a different umbrella than the City University of New York (CUNY) system in New York City. There have been ongoing allegations of antisemitism at CUNY colleges, but far fewer at SUNY, the largest public college system in the US.

Jewish students and faculty have also taken legal action over alleged antisemitism in recent years against other universities, including Stanford University and New York University.

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