NEW YORK — US federal authorities have launched an investigation into alleged antisemitism at a public college in New York State, lawyers for the complainants said Thursday, as campus battles over Jewish identity and discrimination rage at American universities.
The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said it has opened a formal investigation into allegations against the State University of New York at New Paltz, better known as SUNY New Paltz.
The allegation centers on claims two Jewish students, one of whom is Israeli, were ejected from a sexual assault awareness group and subjected to antisemitic harassment and threats due to their identity.
The complaint against the college, filed in August, alleged 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 claims 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 order opened a new front for Jewish groups in their opposition to campus discrimination.
The complaint said 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. Much of the wider campus debate centers on the limits of free speech, and when anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism.
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.
SUNY New Paltz said in response, “We unequivocally condemn any attacks on SUNY students who are Jewish, and we will not tolerate anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on campus. We do not comment on pending investigations.”
Two advocacy groups, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus, filed the complaint on behalf of the students. The federal office informed the Brandeis Center of the investigation earlier this week.
The center tied the federal probe to the Biden administration’s new initiative to counter antisemitism.
“The opening of this investigation by the Department of Education, the very first since President Biden announced his national strategy to combat anti-Semitism, sends a clear and unequivocal signal to SUNY New Paltz as well as universities across the country that they take anti-Zionist discrimination and harassment seriously and they expect universities to take it just as seriously,” said Denise Katz-Prober, the Brandeis Center’s director of legal initiatives.
SUNY New Paltz is a well-regarded public college north of New York City with around 7,500 students.
The Brandeis Center has filed several other similar complaints against US universities, leading to federal probes, including at New York City’s Brooklyn College — part of the City University of New York (CUNY) 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 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.
The issue of antisemitism at CUNY came to the fore in the past month after a graduate of the city’s law school gave a commencement speech that demonized the Jewish state.
The speech caused a national uproar, including calls to strip the college of public funding from US lawmakers.
Jewish advocates have also called for a response at the national level.
The head of the advocacy group the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, said Thursday that the “administration has to take action,” including the Department of Education.
He said the administration and education department should fully endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which covers some forms of anti-Israel rhetoric. The definition is opposed by progressive groups, who say it stifles legitimate criticism of the Jewish state.
Cooper said, “Job No.1 for CUNY is to adopt IHRA.”
The White House’s antisemitism plan released last month, and the CUNY college system, have both hedged on embracing the IHRA definition.
“The broader issue, and it’s not just CUNY, is that there are efforts all over the place to purge Jewish students from positions of responsibility,” said Cooper, who was appointed this week to chair the administration’s Commission on International Religious Freedom and has discussed the CUNY controversy with city lawmakers.
“In order to have accountability you have to have to be able to have a definition of antisemitism,” he told The Times of Israel. “That’s step number one of being able to understand the problem and hold people accountable.”