US feds open probe into alleged antisemitism at University of Vermont

Complaint claims college turned blind eye to discrimination as support groups barred Zionists, students vandalized Hillel building, and teaching assistant reveled in cyberbullying

Luke Tress is an editor and a 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)

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened a formal investigation into alleged anti-Jewish discrimination at the University of Vermont, the latest in a series of high-profile antisemitism investigations against US colleges.

A complaint against Vermont’s flagship university alleged a “campaign of intimidation, harassment and discrimination” against Jewish students, and said the university’s administration turned a blind eye to antisemitism.

“This has created a hostile environment on campus in which Jewish students are being excluded from university clubs and support groups,” said the complaint. The groups that filed the complaint announced the investigation on Tuesday.

The alleged discrimination at the University of Vermont included barring Jews from a campus sexual assault support group, harassment by a teaching assistant and vandalism of the campus Hillel building.

The Department of Investigation’s probe came in response to the complaint filed last year. 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.

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.

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

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights only pursues investigations into complaints it deems worthy of a thorough investigation, meaning the probe into the University of Vermont is a significant step. 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 complaint was filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights group that focuses on Jewish and Israel-related issues, and the Jewish on Campus advocacy group.

The Brandeis Center has filed other antisemitism complaints that led to action against Brooklyn College, the University of Southern California, Stanford University and the University of Illinois.

The complaint says anti-Jewish harassment has been present on the campus for years but escalated last year, around the same time Israel waged a military campaign against Gaza terrorists.

In May 2021, a major movement on the campus began protesting against the university’s handling of sexual assault, with thousands of students staging a walkout in protest.

A group called UVM Empowering Survivors was set up to support sexual assault victims. Its Instagram account, with thousands of followers, then announced that Zionist students would be “blocked.” The account falsely claimed Israelis “put so many Palestinians” through “disgusting sexual abuse.”

Jewish students reached out to the organization, which told them, “We are an anti-Zionist group.” The account now has over 6,700 followers and the post is still visible.

An Instagram post from a University of Vermont sexual assault survivors support group announcing the exclusion of Zionists. (Courtesy)

The account later said it was “deeply sorry there are survivors in our community who identify as Jewish and believe our stances and opinions to be harmful and anti-Semitic,” but said, “What we cannot stand with is Israel and Zionists,” and attacked the campus Hillel branch. It also said Jews were over-represented on campus compared to other minorities.

In a similar case, Jewish students at the State University of New York at New Paltz said they were kicked out of a sexual assault survivor support group last year.

After the incidents at the University of Vermont, the campus’s branch of Hillel, a leading Jewish college group, said dozens of Jewish students came to the center as “they had nowhere else to go.”

A book club called UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union also said Zionists would be excluded, equating Zionism with homophobia, transphobia, bigotry and hate speech. The club is eligible for college funding, the complaint said.

Months later, in September 2021, a group of intoxicated students pelted the campus’s Hillel building with rocks for over 30 minutes. The building includes dormitories. One of the residents asked the attackers to stop the rock throwing, and the attackers shouted back, “Are you Jewish?” The assailants then hurled an unidentified “sticky substance” against the building’s rear door. The university has refused to recognize the attack as a bias incident.

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

Also last year, a resident adviser and teaching assistant repeatedly lashed out at Jewish Zionist students by threatening to lower their grades and encouraging others to bully them.

The teaching assistant said on Twitter it was “good and funny” to “not give Zionists credit.” Reducing grades due to religion or ethnicity is a violation of the university’s anti-discrimination policy and state and federal laws, the complaint said.

The individual also said on Twitter, “I get the indelible surge to cyber bully” Zionist students, and “serotonin rush of bullying Zionists on the public domain.” At another point she said she was attempting to make Zionism “worthy of public condemnation” and praised vandals who stole an Israeli flag.

The alleged harasser, a graduate student, is also serving as a teaching assistant this school year, the complaint said.

The incidents were brought to the administration’s detention, but “the university has taken no steps to rectify the situation,” according to the complaint.

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

Some Jewish students have expressed fear about identifying as Jewish and hide their identity, for example, by not hanging mezuzahs at their doors, due to the threatening atmosphere.

“I had to learn what it means to stop expressing my identity and to live in fear because I’m Jewish,” one student said. “I’ve heard my classmates yell slurs at other Jews and I’ve seen them march through downtown chanting antisemitic things. I’m terrified of what would happen if they knew more about me.”

“I wore a Jewish-identifying necklace every day until I began to feel unsafe at UVM due to antisemitic rhetoric on campus and on social media as well as personal antisemitic messages I received,” another student said. “Antisemitism on campus has caused my mental health to decline.”

The complaint calls on the university to eliminate the antisemitic atmosphere on campus; ensure that student clubs welcome all students; investigate discrimination; adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Zionism; issue a statement denouncing antisemitism; conduct training to prevent antisemitism; and create a task force to improve Jewish life on campus.

The university said Tuesday it was aware of the investigation and was “looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations, each of which was reported to the university in 2021 and investigated by campus officials.”

“UVM seeks to foster a culture of inclusiveness for all students, faculty, and staff, including members of our Jewish community and does not tolerate acts of bias or discrimination related to religion, race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation on our campus,” a spokesperson said.

A report by Jewish on Campus released earlier this year found that the University of Vermont had the most reported antisemitic incidents of any US campus.

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