Inside Story

US Education Department opens new antisemitism probes into universities, schools

Investigations also launched into two largest public school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jewish anti-Zionist professor who praised Hamas

Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel supporters gather for a rally at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel supporters gather for a rally at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

JTA – Complaints about anti-Israel protests at Temple University and Brown University filed by a Jewish right-wing activist who attends neither university are among the latest round of antisemitism investigations opened by the US Department of Education.

The department’s civil rights office is also looking into a series of University of Minnesota faculty statements condemning Israel, following a complaint by a prominent Republican on the law school faculty.

In addition, as of this week, the civil rights office has opened investigations at the two largest Bay Area public school districts, where some families have cited antisemitism concerns in applying to transfer out. And it is scrutinizing a private college where a Jewish anti-Zionist professor has publicly supported Hamas.

The investigations are among a new batch announced Wednesday as the department hastens to use its leverage to get universities and school districts to tackle antisemitism on their campuses.

With this latest round, the department’s Office of Civil Rights has now opened more than 50 Title VI “shared ancestry” investigations in the months since the October 7 Hamas onslaught in southern Israel — in which some 1,200 people were slaughtered and around 240 others were seized as hostages — triggered a wave of campus anti-Israel activism. The department does not comment on its ongoing investigations, which range from the most prestigious Ivy League schools to tiny rural K-12 districts, but says that opening a probe does not mean the case necessarily has merit.

“I think it’s about time,” Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who filed the antisemitism complaint that triggered the school’s Title VI investigation, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Universities all over America are dealing with this.”

A pedestrian passes by on the University of Minnesota campus on April 11, 2019. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Painter, a former George W. Bush administration official, filed his complaint in December alongside Michael Hsu, a former regent; the department opened its investigation Tuesday. The complaint alleges that the university should have done more to rebut three different liberal arts faculty groups that published statements condemning Israel after the October 7 Hamas attacks.

In a statement, the university said, “The University stands firmly in support of speech and actions that provide an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from any form of prejudice and intolerance, as our Board of Regents policies state.”

Previously, upon news of Painter and Hsu’s initial Title VI filing, the school had told local media, “The letter’s broad characterizations of the University are inaccurate and are fundamentally contrary to our mission and values.”

One such faculty statement, by members of the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, reads in part, “We assert that Israel’s response is not self-defense but the continuation of a genocidal war against Gaza and against Palestinian freedom, self-determination, and life.”

This statement was especially galling, Painter felt, because a department with a focus on women, gender and sexuality didn’t mention the crimes of sexual violence committed by Hamas during the onslaught, which are currently being investigated by Israeli and international bodies.

His efforts to have the college’s dean intervene have been unsuccessful, Painter said. The other statements he objected to came from professors in the American Indian studies and Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature departments.

“Henry Ford was putting this kind of crap in newspapers back in the ’30s,” Painter said, referring to the auto mogul’s antisemitic newspaper The Dearborn Independent.

Neither Painter nor Hsu are Jewish, and while he was a regent in 2019, Hsu opposed university efforts to rename campus buildings named after antisemites. (Painter’s wife Karen, who is also not Jewish, is an academic who studies the antisemitism of Nazi-era music.) But Painter said he still sees the fight against campus antisemitism as one he can lead.

“This is a critical issue not just for the Jewish community, but for our democracy,” he said. And he believes his efforts at the university have already borne fruit: After a candidate to lead the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office recently hedged in an interview on whether Hamas had assaulted Israeli women during its attack, he and other like-minded critics mobilized against the potential hire. Following the resulting bad press, the person is no longer a candidate for the job.

“We did win,” Painter said about the DEI fight. “That went all over.”

Two other new antisemitism investigations, at Temple University and Brown University, both stem from one complainant: Zachary Marschall, a professor at the University of Kentucky and editor-in-chief of the right-wing college advocacy site Campus Reform.

A participant holds a placard as students gather during a ‘Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine’ at Bruin Plaza at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in Los Angeles on October 25, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

Marschall is Jewish but has no connection to either school. He told JTA he independently filed those complaints, and 18 others, after interviewing “Jewish and pro-Israel students across the country who are too afraid to speak out.”

On Campus Reform, he published partial copies of letters from the Department of Education confirming that it had opened the investigations based on his complaints; a statement from a Brown representative also noted that the investigation stemmed “from beyond Brown’s campus” and named Marschall’s publication as its source.

Marschall said his Temple complaint was related to pro-Palestinian protesters in Philadelphia recently targeting an Israeli-owned falafel shop, as well as “From the river to the sea” chants at rallies by the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. The department opened its Temple investigation on Tuesday.

In a statement about the investigation, a Temple spokesperson said, “Temple University unequivocally condemns hate and discrimination against any person and will always strive to ensure that all of our students, faculty, and staff feel welcomed and safe in our community and throughout our campus.”

Marschall’s Brown complaint was also tied to that university’s SJP chapter, which released a statement shortly after the October 7 attacks holding “the Israeli regime and its allies unequivocally responsible for all suffering and loss of life, Palestinian or Israeli.”

His complaint also quotes from campus vigils held by the chapter in the days after the attacks, at which students reportedly chanted, “Glory to our martyrs.” The department opened its Brown investigation on January 9; universities elsewhere have banned or suspended their SJP chapters since the war began.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Columbia University on November 20, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Information on the reasons for the other new Title VI investigations was not immediately available, but several of the schools in question have made headlines recently for antisemitism-related reasons.

Two large Bay Area public school districts, San Francisco Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District, are the sites of two of the remaining investigations. Oakland’s was opened on Tuesday and San Francisco’s was opened on January 12.

Both districts have experienced a rash of controversy over Israel in recent months: Jewish parents in Oakland have begun pulling their students out of public schools after incidents including the local teachers union voting on a measure calling for an end to US aid to Israel, while San Francisco’s district recently reviewed a contract with a local anti-Zionist group that had organized a walkout for Palestinians and another protest.

The San Francisco teachers union also passed a resolution in November calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which prompted the head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council to label the union “bigoted.”

In response to queries, a representative for Oakland’s district said it does not comment on pending legal matters but added, “OUSD is a sanctuary district, inside Oakland, a sanctuary city, inside California, a sanctuary state, which means we support all students, families and staff, regardless of religion, heritage, ethnicity, where they came from, or how they got here. We protect all students, and harassment of anyone is never acceptable.”

“In this time of heightened tensions because of what’s happening in the Middle East, we are regularly communicating to our community, reminding them of our core values of love and support, so it should be clear that everyone is welcome and valued in our schools,” the statement continued.

Representatives for the San Francisco district and both teachers’ unions did not return requests for comment.

In response to a query about an investigation at Ohio State University opened Tuesday, a spokesperson for the school did not say what the investigation concerned. “Ohio State has never – and will never – tolerate discrimination or harassment of anyone based on their religious beliefs, nationality or identity,” the spokesperson wrote.

OSU had recently been the site of two reported incidents at which Jewish students and buildings were targeted: one in which two Jewish students were punched in the face after a “verbal altercation” outside a bar, and another in which trespassers to the campus Hillel stole Israeli flags and yelled insults at staff.

Although the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, which is active in campus antisemitism matters, had sent a stern letter to university leadership the same day the investigation opened, a representative for the group told JTA it was a “crazy coincidence” and that it wasn’t behind the investigation.

Meanwhile, Jewish alumni at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, told JTA that multiple Title VI antisemitism complaints had been filed against the school in recent weeks.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators rally near Columbia University in New York on November 15, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images via AFP)

More than 7,700 people have signed an online petition urging administrators to remove a Jewish anti-Zionist anthropology professor who has published opinion pieces supporting Hamas and questioning whether it can be blamed for the violence on October 7. The Department of Education opened an investigation into the college on Tuesday, but the specific trigger for the investigation could not be verified.

In a statement, a Muhlenberg spokesperson said, “We do not tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia or any other form of harassment, bigotry or abuse nor any incitement to violence or calls for genocide. If/when there are accusations of conduct violations, these are thoroughly investigated with appropriate actions taken based on the findings.”

Finally, the Department of Education announced a new investigation at the University of Illinois Chicago on January 10, which it listed as the second such investigation at the university in the past month. The first concerned a complaint brought by Palestine Legal, a pro-Palestinian legal group that alleged the university had discriminated against Arab and Palestinian students by kicking them out of a 2021 webinar about the Israeli healthcare system.

But the second investigation might in fact be a correction of the first investigation. A spokesperson for Palestine Legal told JTA that the education department told the organization on the same day that it had revised the discrimination claim in its initial investigation from “shared Muslim ancestry” to “shared Palestinian ancestry,” as one of the complainants is Christian. UIC representatives and the Department of Education did not return requests for comment.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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