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Saidoff Legal Department and Center for Combating Antisemitism letter to Santa Monica College

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

April 22, 2020

Kathryn E. Jeffery, Ph.D.

Superintendent and President

Santa Monica College

1900 Pico Boulevard

Santa Monica, California 90405

Michael Tuitasi

Vice President of Student Affairs

Santa Monica College

1900 Pico Boulevard

Santa Monica, California 90405

Dear Dr. Jeffrey and Mr. Tuitasi,

We write on behalf of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department and the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism, divisions of StandWithUs (SWU), an international, non-profit education organization supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. We are concerned about a series of recent social media posts targeting Jewish and Israeli students at Santa Monica College (SMC). These posts allege that Jewish and Israeli students are likely responsible for the spread of the deadly Coronavirus, or COVID-19, at SMC because of their attendance at the 2020 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, an annual conference held in Washington, D.C.

The social media posts single out SMC Zionists and members of the SMC student organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI), and repeatedly place blame on Zionists and SSI members for the spread of COVID-19 on your campus. This effectively discriminates against Israeli students at SMC on the basis of their national origin and against many Jewish students at SMC, as Zionism is the centuries-old desire of the Jewish people to return to their indigenous homeland of Israel and exercise their right of self-determination there. The recent social media statements referenced above seek to denigrate this vital aspect of identity for many Jewish students.

These posts are flagrantly antisemitic as they attribute the spread of COVID-19 at SMC to these students, and only these students (who attended AIPAC), despite the facts that AIPAC is a conference with an attendance in excess of 18,000 people, and SMC is a campus with an enrollment of over 30,000 students. The discriminatory and antisemitic undertones create a hostile environment for Israeli and Jewish students at SMC and indicate a reprehensible effort by those responsible to marginalize and stigmatize Israeli and Jewish students on campus. Screenshots of various posts targeting SMC students are attached in the document titled “Exhibit A.”

We encourage your administration to take all necessary steps to ensure that all SMC students, including Israeli and Jewish students, are treated as valuable members of the campus community, free from bigotry and discrimination, and with the full support of the administration. This includes, at a minimum, using your free speech to denounce these social media statements for the bigotry and antisemitism contained therein.

COVID-19 and the Rise in Antisemitism

As you may be aware, the rise in COVID-19 has been accompanied by a surge in manifestations of antisemitism. Among the dangerous allegations being spread throughout the internet are claims of Jews engineering COVID-19 in an attempt to establish their supremacy, that Jewish companies patented a COVID-19 vaccine with the hopes of profiting from it, and false reports of Orthodox Jews breaking social distancing mandates to engage in prayer. In March, a Jewish man was allegedly denied service from a Toyota service station in New Hampton, New York by an employee who claimed that the customer was responsible for spreading the virus. This incident is under investigation by the local District Attorney’s office and was deemed discriminatory in violation of state law by the New York Attorney General.

In addition to an increasing use of these classic antisemitic tropes, a recent FBI report stated that Neo-Nazis are encouraging dangerous and potentially deadly harm to Jews and police through intentionally spreading COVID-19 germs. The report claims that infected members are asked to fill spray bottles with body fluids and attack police and “spread to Jews by going to ‘any place they may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.’” These, along with countless examples of increased antisemitism, highlight the importance of college administrators speaking out clearly against such hate and bigotry, and denounce incidents like these wholly when they occur within the campus environment to make sure it does not become the new normal on campus.

SMC’s Not On Our Campus Campaign

We commend your administration for initiating a “Not On Our Campus” campaign. We agree that among the principle tenets of any university should be dedication to a campus climate that is safe, inclusive and leaves “no room for hate against any member of the college community based on actual or perceived race, nationality, religion…” We note your March 6 letter in which you reaffirmed SMC’s policies prohibiting unlawful discrimination and harassment and verified that COVID-19 is no excuse for this type of abhorrent conduct. Your administration has sent a clear message that discrimination toward students on campus will not be tolerated and that such behavior will be met with serious consequences.

However, we remain concerned that your administration has not publicly commented on the blatant antisemitism in these social media posts – posted after your March 6 letter – targeting SMC students. It has come to our attention that a current SMC student who attended AIPAC and was therefore a target of these posts, brought the posts to the attention of at least two administrative departments, the SMC Care & Prevention Team and the SMC Department of Human Resources. In both cases, the student was told that SMC could not investigate any further based on free speech considerations.

To be clear, we firmly believe that free speech, even offensive speech, should be cherished and respected as a fundamental principle of democracy and is paramount to the dignity of your campus community; however, so, too, is the responsibility of university leaders to use their own First Amendment rights to condemn hate and promote a truly comprehensive learning environment for SMC’s entire community. Failure to do so, intentional or not, sends a message to your campus community that SMC’s administration turns a blind eye to discriminatory antisemitic conduct in the name of free speech and may, however inadvertently, encourage similar conduct in the future.

Title VI and the Definition of Antisemitism

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has made clear that there are times when speech constitutes harassment and invidious discrimination. Harassment can be verbal if it is severe, persistent, or pervasive enough to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) prohibits discrimination in federally assisted programs and activities on the basis of race, color or national origin. A violation of Title VI may be found if discrimination is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by administration. Complaints alleging a violation of Title VI may be filed with OCR or in the federal district courts.

Although Title VI does not use the word “religion,” the December 11 Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism confirms Title VI protection for Jewish students facing discrimination. OCR has long deemed that some cases of religious discrimination may involve discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender, such that Title VI protection may be warranted . Jewish students, as well as Arab Muslim and Sikh students, are thus protected under Title VI from discrimination based on their perceived ethnic, racial or ancestral background.

Importantly, the U.S. Department of Education adopted the U.S. Department of State’s working definition of antisemitism, which states that “[a]ntisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity and is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It can be expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and almost always employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. The December 11 Executive Order directs any agency responsible for enforcing Title VI to consider this working definition of antisemitism in determining whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

College administrators must be vigilant in ensuring that hateful antisemitic speech does not lead to Jewish students being improperly singled out for disparate treatment and limited in their ability to participate fully in educational and other campus opportunities. Otherwise, those institutions risk losing their funding for violations of federal law. We urge your administration to swiftly take any additional proactive steps necessary to ensure that your Jewish and Israeli students are properly protected and supported. Now, more than ever, is a time for us to pull together, not needlessly create division. Your prompt attention to this matter and public condemnation of antisemitism are important steps toward this end.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter further and look forward to hearing from your office by Monday, May 4, 2020.

Jonathan Bell

Associate Director

StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department

Carly F. Gammill

SWU Center for Combating Antisemitism

Counsel for Litigation Strategy

StandWithUsSaidoff Legal Department

Download the letter HERE.


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