August 3, 2020
RE: How to Respond to Campus Antisemitism and Potential Title VI Violations
Dear University Presidents,
We write on behalf of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department and the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism, divisions of StandWithUs, an international, non-profit education organization supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. The purpose of this letter is to address the important and timely issue of ensuring protection of Jewish students against a hostile climate, especially in light of an increase in antisemitic activity as a result of the current pandemic.
COVID-19 and the Rise in Antisemitism
As you may be aware, a surge of antisemitism has occurred alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the dangerous, antisemitic allegations being promulgated are claims of Jews engineering COVID-19 in an attempt to establish their supremacy and that Jewish companies patented a COVID-19 vaccine with the hopes of profiting from it. 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 Jewish 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.
Likewise during this pandemic, synagogues throughout the country have been vandalized, including in Alabama, Florida, Maryland, and Connecticut. At the University of Massachusetts, activists vandalized the campus Hillel building by spray painting “Palestine” in Arabic on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Campuses, even with virtual learning since March, have not been spared. At the beginning of the pandemic, anti-Israel activists regularly infiltrated and disrupted Zoom meetings with bigoted, antisemitic messaging, a term dubbed “Zoom-bombing.” These Zoom-bombers interfered with both online schooling and community gatherings to spread their hateful messaging. This summer, antisemitic social media posts by student government leaders surfaced at Pomona College and Florida State University.
Now more than ever is a time for a cohesive and unified campus environment, enabling the free exchange of ideas from students of all backgrounds in respectful discourse. This objective makes your role as college administrators even more critical in speaking out clearly against all forms of hate and bigotry and ensuring they do not become the new normal.
Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism, Title VI, and the Definition of Antisemitism
As you are also undoubtedly aware, Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. The Department of Education has made clear that this includes protection against discrimination based on “a person’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, including membership in a religion that may be perceived to exhibit such characteristics (such as Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh individuals).” In furtherance of this, the President signed an Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism (“Executive Order”) on December 11, 2019, formally recognizing that Jewish students facing antisemitic discrimination on campuses enjoy protection under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI).
If discrimination based on race, color, or national origin occurs in a program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, the institution receiving the funds has an obligation to take proactive, corrective measures to protect its constituents or else risk losing its federal funding altogether. Because nearly all U.S. universities receive some form of federal financial assistance, it is vital that university administrators understand the implications of the Executive Order and take the necessary measures to protect their Jewish students, thereby minimizing the risk of losing federal funding.
Recommended Action Items to Curtail the Spread of Antisemitism on Campus
In light of the foregoing, we are deeply concerned about the treatment of Jewish students, both remotely and when your school reopens for in-person learning. We therefore urge you to proactively take appropriate steps now to ensure that all students, including Jewish students, are treated as valuable members of your campus community, free from bigotry and discrimination, and with the full support and protection of the administration. At a minimum, this includes thoroughly reviewing existing university policy—in particular, harassment and discrimination policies—and modifying those policies as appropriate to strengthen protections for your Jewish campus community. Doing so protects your students against antisemitic discrimination and, if enforced properly, lessens your risk of Title VI infractions.
The following suggested action items, if properly implemented and enforced, will help provide a safe and equitable campus community in compliance with Title VI:
(1) Adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism—which has been adopted by the U.S. Department of State, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and used as a template for an antisemitism law passed by the Florida state legislature in June 2019—and utilize this definition as a guide when addressing potential incidents of antisemitic discrimination;
(2) Issue an official statement recognizing that, for many individuals, Zionism is an integral component of Jewish identity;
(3) Issue an official statement expressing zero tolerance for antisemitic or any harassment based on identity, and encouraging administrative reports of such harassment;
(4) Institute new (or modify existing) policies to provide sufficient oversight and accountability when students allege antisemitism. Such policies should ensure that incidents of alleged antisemitism are handled as prescribed by applicable policies for reporting and responding to other forms of discrimination on campus;
(5) Issue an official statement affirming commitment to protecting the rights of Jewish and Israeli students on campus to freely express Jewish and Zionist viewpoints and to participate in all aspects of campus life, free from harassment and discrimination as a result of those viewpoints;
(6) Review existing diversity programming and expand it to include crucial aspects of students’ identities that transcend political views and religious beliefs—including Jewish students’ connection to Israel and how that informs their own Jewish identity and that of the majority of Jews;
(7) Institute (or modify already existing) mandatory bias and sensitivity training for all faculty and staff (including teaching assistants, resident assistants, campus security, and campus police) that specifically includes tools for defining, identifying, and working to eliminate antisemitism from all aspects of campus life. Such mandatory training should include familiarity with the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism as well as identification of applicable procedures for responding to incidents of antisemitism and reporting such conduct to campus administrators;
(8) With the advice and consent of, among others, Jewish Zionist student leaders, select students and faculty to be part of an antisemitism task force, whose responsibilities may include some or all of the following:
a. Meet with Jewish and Israeli students to learn about their experiences on campus, listen to any concerns they may have related to being Jewish or Israeli on campus, develop suggested remedies for antisemitic incidents that occur on campus, and issue a report to campus administrators addressing these issues;
b. Work with appropriate administrators to create programs and activities to improve the campus climate for the benefit of all students, faculty, and staff, including, specifically, Jewish members of the campus community; and
c. Work with appropriate administrators and faculty to create educational programs addressing the nature, history, and dangers of antisemitism in all its forms; and
(9) Enforce all school policies when violated and apply appropriate disciplinary measures where appropriate.
With antisemitism on the rise at an alarming rate, this is a critical opportunity for your administration to show leadership, provide moral clarity to your campus community, and convey to your students, faculty, and alumni that antisemitism has no place at your university.
In addition to a statement condemning antisemitism generally, it is also crucial to the experience of Jewish members of the campus community that you use your own free speech rights to unequivocally condemn each instance of antisemitism that may occur within your campus community in the same manner you would condemn instances of discrimination based on sex, race, religion, etc. Absent such administrative responses to antisemitism, Jewish students, faculty, and alumni understandably question their equal standing and value within the campus community. Even protected speech has its moral boundaries, and when those lines are crossed, students, faculty, and alumni alike look to you, as leaders of your campus, for meaningful guidance and clarity. It is important that you speak out forcefully and in a timely manner. The longer it takes your administration to address the issue at hand, the less value your actions have and the more threatened your Jewish and Israeli students feel.
To be clear, as imperative as such statements are, speech alone is insufficient to satisfy your administration’s obligations under Title VI when antisemitic harassment occurs. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has explained that, where discriminatory harassment has occurred,
“a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring. . . .
In addition, depending on the extent of the harassment, the school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the perpetrators, but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond. A school may also be required to provide additional services to the student who was harassed in order to address the effects of the harassment, particularly if the school initially delays in responding or responds inappropriately or inadequately to information about harassment. An effective response also may need to include the issuance of new policies against harassment and new procedures by which students, parents, and employees may report allegations of harassment…Finally, a school should take steps to stop further harassment and prevent any retaliation against the person who made the complaint (or was the subject of the harassment) or against those who provided information as witnesses.”
We encourage you to review carefully the examples of discriminatory harassment provided in the above-mentioned OCR letter, including the discussion of the types of action necessary for adequate response from administrators. As this letter hopefully demonstrates, an administration’s treatment of each individual discriminatory incident as an isolated event can constitute a failure to recognize an overall hostile environment. This is particularly important in light of repeated antisemitic activity at some universities by student groups and even faculty members. Such incidents, when they recur with the regularity that is currently occurring, create precisely the type of hostile environment recipients of federal funding are required to correct in order to satisfy their Title VI obligations.
We also refer you to a recent Title VI complaint we filed regarding the failure of UCLA’s administration to correct a hostile environment for Jewish members of its campus community. This complaint is illustrative of the types of activities that the OCR has determined warrant a full investigation on the merits. Consequently, to the extent any of these things have happened or are happening on your campus, we urge you to take appropriate, corrective action immediately. We are happy to make ourselves available to assist you in those efforts based on our extensive experience addressing antisemitic activity on campuses across the country.
We recognize that you may have existing policies that resemble our suggestions above. In light of the Executive Order, we encourage you to take the time to exhaust all available options to ensure that your campus is positioned properly, both to guard proactively against antisemitic activity and adequately to remedy it—and its effects—when it occurs. Just as all students and faculty are bound by university codes of conduct and other governing policies, you similarly owe it to your students to protect and ensure their safety and well-being.
On behalf of StandWithUs, we thank you for your time and consideration of this very important issue. We would appreciate a response to this letter by August 31, 2020. We are available for consultation regarding these matters. We look forward to adding your university to a forthcoming published list of campuses taking concrete actions to protect Jewish students as they return to campuses.
CEO and Co-Founder
COO and Co-Founder
StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism
StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department
StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department