By: Jarrad Saffren | Philadelphia Jewish Exponent | January 17, 2024
StandWithUs, a pro-Israel nonprofit that works to combat antisemitism on campus, and Alums for Campus Fairness, which has a similar mission, sent a legal letter to Lehigh University outlining incidents of antisemitism on campus since Oct. 7.
“The purpose of this letter is twofold: (1) to express serious concerns about recent antisemitic incidents on the Lehigh University campus; and (2) to urge you to take immediate concrete action to address these incidents and the overall hostile climate for Jewish and Israeli students at Lehigh in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7th invasion,” it read.
The incidents include the taking down of a student’s mezuzah from his dormitory door, a rally with more than 200 students and community members calling for the elimination of Israel and the posting of signs and flyers asserting that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a “Nakba,” or catastrophe, among other messages.
A legal letter is not a lawsuit. It is a strong assertion that Lehigh President Joseph Helble and other Lehigh officials should address these issues.
“We strongly dispute the interpretations presented, which are based on erroneous and incomplete information,” said a statement provided by the university. “Although we cannot comment directly on matters which involve individual complainants because of privacy concerns, we can assure you that we handle all reports promptly and with the utmost care and professionalism.”
“We are hoping there will not have to be a next step because the university will see how egregious the situation is and will choose to remedy it on its own without further legal intervention,” said Roz Rothstein, the CEO of StandWithUs.
StandWithUs was notified of these incidents by Lehigh students, according to Rothstein. Lehigh has an Office of Jewish Student Life on campus. Rabbi Steve Nathan, who leads that office, is not sure which students reached out to StandWithUs.
Nathan also said, “I have not heard anything about most of the incidents described.” The rabbi did hear of the “rally/walkout” in November because it was public.
“Though I did take issue with and express concern with some of what took place at the rally, I still feel that Lehigh is a safe and comfortable place for Jewish students,” he added.
In 2008, the Office of Jewish Student Life became an official university organization. In November 2022, it moved from a twin house off campus to a bigger home at the top of the university’s hill. Almost 20% of the more than 7,000 students at the Bethlehem school are Jewish.
On Oct. 9, the Office of Jewish Student Life, AEPi and other Jewish organizations held a vigil to support Israel.
“I feel that the Jewish community is supported by the administration,” Nathan said. “I have been in frequent contact with the president and other administrators.”
Nathan was made aware by students of some of the antisemitic flyers posted around Lehigh’s campus. He responded by reaching out to his colleagues at the library and other departments to “let them know,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it is difficult to stop something like that,” Nathan added. “However, I know that the university is working on a way to respond to the flyers that will be more effective.”
The most detailed incident described in the letter was the one in which a student’s mezuzah was torn down on Oct. 27. The student “immediately reported this to the Lehigh University Police Department,” said the letter. The LUPD found that there was an “anti-Jewish bias/motivation” but “could not identify the perpetrator.”
“Moreover, the LUPD classified the incident as a mere theft of the mezuzah rather than harassment of the student and ethnic intimidation under Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes,” the letter explained.
On Nov. 28, the same student found a “Stand with Palestine” sticker on his doorframe, according to the letter. The LUPD closed its investigation after two days and concluded that the incident qualified as “harassment with no anti-Jewish bias or motivation.” Later, the Jewish student identified the perpetrator, and the perpetrator admitted his guilt.
“There is no indication that either Lehigh or the LUPD has taken, or intends to take, disciplinary action for anti-Jewish harassment against that student,” the letter stated.
“Your administration’s failure to remedy the hostile environment for Jewish students on campus may be in violation of Lehigh’s obligations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” said the letter.
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
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