‘Victim blaming’: University of Vermont assailed for denying antisemitism charges

Over 20 Jewish groups, including the ADL, Hillel and Jewish Federations, decry college for calling allegations of discrimination ‘patently false’

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)

Leading US Jewish groups condemned the University of Vermont on Friday, after the university issued a firm denial of antisemitism on campus in response to a federal investigation into alleged anti-Jewish discrimination by students and faculty.

The US Department of Education investigation into a series of alleged antisemitic incidents at the university was announced on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the flagship Vermont state university in Burlington, commonly referred to as UVM, denied the allegations as “patently false.

“The uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM,” university president Suresh Garimella said in a message to the university community. “Equally importantly, it is harmful to our Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“There is no doubt that antisemitism exists in the world and, despite our best efforts, in our community,” he said. “Exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims that UVM failed to respond to complaints of antisemitic behavior creates confusion and a sense of insecurity for the entire community.”

The university said it believes the investigation will clear it of any wrongdoing. The blistering denial was a more strident response to antisemitism allegations than those issued by other US universities also under investigation.

“While common wisdom dictates remaining patiently silent as we cooperate diligently with an agency’s investigation, I simply cannot do so. These public allegations and our community’s deeply held values call for a strong and immediate response,” Garimella said.

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella speaks with reporters on Monday, July 1, 2019, in Burlington, Vermont. (AP/Lisa Rathke)

Jewish organizations said the flat-out denial of a problem amounted to blaming Jewish students for raising the issue, and may further alienate Jews and stoke more antisemitism on campus.

Twenty prominent Jewish organizations said they were “alarmed, disappointed and troubled by the response,” which they said “further legitimized” antisemitism.

“Instead of summoning the courage that other university leaders across the country have shown in acknowledging the problem or offering support for Jewish students who are fearful about identifying publicly as Jewish, the UVM President’s statement doubles down and refuses to take responsibility,” said a letter signed by groups including the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel International, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish on Campus, the Jewish Federations of North America and the University of Vermont Chabad chapter.

“The university has denied support to a targeted community, and, in suggesting that Jewish students need to learn how to better protect themselves, has essentially chosen to blame the victims,” the letter said.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which helped file the complaint against the university, said its response was “astonishingly inadequate and offensive.”

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

“Garimella’s statement shows neither reflection, nor understanding, nor remorse,” the Brandeis Center said.

“Garimella demonstrates only the dismissive attitude that has left Jewish students vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, blaming the victims who blew the whistle,” the center said.

The American Jewish Committee said Garimella’s denial “has negatively impacted Jewish students who have experienced antisemitism on campus, making Jewish students and groups feel less included, valued, and protected.”

“We are deeply disappointed that the university chose to speak on behalf of Jewish students, rather than stage a more robust and much-needed conversation with them,” the committee said.

The World Jewish Congress said it was “troubled” by Garimella’s response.

“His statement is far more equivocal than the reactions by other university and college presidents and administrations to manifestations of antisemitism on their campuses,” the group said.

The allegations against UVM said Zionist students had been barred from student clubs, including a sexual assault support group; that a teaching assistant had threatened to lower Zionist students’ grades and reveled in cyberbullying them; and that students threw rocks at a Hillel student dormitory for Jews and vandalized its doors.

Garimella said the university promptly and thoroughly investigated the allegations outlined in the complaint.

After investigating groups that excluded Zionist students from membership, the university determined the groups were not recognized student organizations, received no university support and were not bound by the university’s policies governing student organizations.

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

The university determined that no grades were lowered by the anti-Zionist teaching assistant, despite her threats, and no student reported they had been discriminated against.

Finally, after learning that rocks had been thrown at a campus Hillel building where Jewish students lived, police determined small rocks were thrown at the building to get the attention of a resident, and there was no evidence it was motivated by antisemitic bias, Garimella said.

The Brandeis Center said the defense was “wholly inadequate.”

A student book club that banned Zionists is actually sponsored by the university, the Brandeis Center said, also claiming that the two groups’ discriminatory conduct is not covered by free speech protections.

The sexual assault support group that banned Zionists was a major student organization that engaged with the administration as if it were a recognized club, making the university responsible for its discrimination, the Brandeis Center argued.

The teaching assistant had been “inciting hostility” toward Jews by saying it was “good and funny” to bully them, and encouraged her followers to do the same, in addition to threatening their grades, the center said. The university did not address her cyberbullying or encouraging antisemitism in its response, or dispute that she was still employed.

The students who threw rocks at the Jewish dormitories asked residents who confronted them if they were Jewish, threw the stones for at least 30 minutes and vandalized the doors to the building, according to the complaint, which does not jibe with the university’s explanation of the incident.

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

The complaint against the university alleged it 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.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights only pursues investigations into complaints it deems worthy of a thorough investigation.

Before the federal investigation, Jewish students at the flagship Vermont state college reported widespread discrimination. A report by Jewish on Campus released earlier this year found that the University of Vermont had more reported antisemitic incidents than any other campus in 2021.

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