Legal group hails ruling as a 'milestone'

US federal probe finds University of Vermont mishandled antisemitism allegations

Flagship state university resolves complaint with Office for Civil Rights after investigation says the school did not properly look into harassment of Jewish students

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

Illustrative: The campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Illustrative: The campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A federal investigation found that the University of Vermont mishandled allegations of antisemitism on its campus, the US Department of Education said Monday, the first time the Biden administration issued such a ruling against harassment of Jewish college students.

The state’s flagship public university in Burlington, also known as UVM, and the education department’s Office for Civil Rights announced a settlement of the complaint that will see the school take a number of steps to address the issue.

Jewish groups hailed the announcement, saying it set a precedent in the struggle against antisemitism on US college campuses, and shored up claims that anti-Zionist college activities often amount to antisemitism.

The Office for Civil Rights said the university’s affirmative action and equal opportunity office had failed to investigate the complaints of antisemitism from Jewish students as it was required to do, even though the university office notified the school administration of “serious allegations of harassment.”

The federal office also said the university’s response to antisemitism allegations was delayed, was “not designed to rectify concerns communicated to the university,” including Jewish students’ complaints about a hostile environment, and may have discouraged students and staff from raising other concerns.

The university response “may have allowed a hostile environment for some Jewish students to persist,” the education department said.

“Everyone has a right to learn in an environment free from antisemitic harassment. We will be watching to be sure these students are safe,” said US Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon.

Some of the complaints the university ignored were regarding antisemitic social media posts by a teaching assistant, the federal office said. The instructor said online that she was withholding course credits from Jewish students, subtracting points from Jewish students, celebrated the theft of an Israeli flag from a Jewish student’s residence, and wrote the word “Kristallnacht” above a photo of a damaged storefront with Hebrew writing on it.

The campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The teaching assistant said in online posts that it was “good and funny… to not give zionists credit for participation,” and said she would deduct points from Jewish students for “going on birthright” and because “I hate ur vibe in general.”

She also celebrated “bullying Zionists” online in multiple posts and said whoever stole the Israeli flag was “cool and special.”

The university also disregarded complaints that campus groups, including a sexual assault support group and a book club, excluded Jewish students, and that students threw rocks at a Hillel building that also had dorms for Jews. When one of the residents asked the assailants to stop throwing stones, they responded, “Are you Jewish?”

The university did not properly investigate the incidents, interview the teaching assistant, inform students who may have been affected by her posts, apply discrimination policy to the incidents, or determine whether the effects of the incidents created a hostile environment for Jews, the Department of Education said.

The federal office also said the university’s response “may have perpetuated a hostile environment.” After the federal investigation began, the university president in a combative response called the allegations “patently false,” harmful to Jewish students, and said it believed the investigation would clear it of any wrongdoing.

The statement was widely condemned by leading US Jewish groups.

The University of Vermont agreed with the federal office to a number of steps to combat antisemitism, including revising its discrimination policies, developing new protocols for the affirmative action office, training staff and leadership on harassment, and issuing a statement on antisemitism within 30 days.

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

“UVM unequivocally condemns, and will not tolerate, antisemitism in any form. With today’s resolution agreement, UVM is redoubling its efforts to ensure this commitment is as tangible to the campus community as possible moving forward,” university president Suresh Garimella said in a statement, in a change of tack from his previous statement about the allegations.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which helped file the complaint against the university, called the Department of Education’s announcement a “milestone.”

“It demonstrates that OCR takes seriously a prevailing form of antisemitism on campus, antisemitism that masks as anti-Zinoism,” said Alyza Lewin, the center’s president.

The university’s Hillel center said, “The President and senior leadership’s new statements today represent tangible and accountable steps forward. We hope this ensures that no Jewish student or any student at UVM experiences discrimination or harassment because of their identity.”

The Department of Investigation’s probe came in response to the complaint filed in 2021. The complaint alleged that the university allowed a hostile antisemitic environment on campus in violation of 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, opening a new legal battlefield for Jewish advocates alleging antisemitism on campuses. This week’s announcement affirmed the use of Title VI in combating anti-Zionist activities on campus for advocacy groups.

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

Many progressive groups in the US are highly critical of Zionism, an attitude that opponents say veers into antisemitism, or is a disguise for Jew-hatred. The complaint against the University of Vermont, and other similar complaints, say that a connection to Israel is integral to Jewish religion and identity, so anti-Zionist discrimination amounts to antisemitism. Anti-Zionists say the belief in a Jewish homeland in Israel discriminates against Palestinians.

The university overlooking the picturesque city of Burlington and Lake Champlain is considered a prestigious public institution and one of New England’s top public colleges. It has around 12,000 students and boasts a reputation as a liberal, progressive bastion.

The Brandeis Center has filed other antisemitism complaints that have led to probes against a number of other universities including Brooklyn College, the University of Southern California, Stanford University and the University of Illinois.

The Anti-Defamation League reported over 350 anti-Israel incidents on US campuses in 2021 in a survey released last year, saying the activities had negatively impacted Jewish students and were part of a growing trend to ostracize Zionists.

An ADL report released last month tallied 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the US last year, a record.

US President Joe Biden said in a Passover message on Wednesday that he would be releasing a “comprehensive” strategy to combat antisemitism across the political spectrum, including on campuses, in an apparent acknowledgment of concerns from the Jewish community that the focus should not be solely on the far right.

The Department of Education has opened a probe into antisemitic discrimination at George Washington University in Washington, DC, the advocacy group StandWithUs said on Tuesday. The university said last week that its internal probe into a complaint filed by StandWithUs found no evidence of discrimination, but did not release the report.

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