By: Linda Chase | South Florida Sun Sentinel | January 2, 2024
Yael Lerman is the director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. During our conversation Yael explained how the Israel/Hamas war has affected StandWithUs’s mission and goals.
“The escalation of misinformation and antisemitism since October 7 has underscored the critical nature of StandWithUs’s dual mission of combating antisemitism and educating about Israel. Although the last few months have seen a similar rise in hateful rhetoric that occurred during the Second Intifada, which inspired StandWithUs’ founding in 2001, the landscape has evolved significantly over the past 22 years, particularly with the advancements of social media and information overload. These changes highlight the increased importance of our work and we have significantly risen to meet them. For students facing concerns and threats from anti-Israel activity on campus, it is crucial that they know their legal rights and learn how to assert them. Jewish students are protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and school policies. Learning how to hold schools accountable for this protection is essential. Many students also grapple with feelings of isolation in the face of antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric. Establishing a network of support is vital. Organizations like StandWithUs are here to help students connect, plan events, learn together, and celebrate their Jewish joy and pride. And, if they should need legal help, we are here to educate them about their rights and support them with all the legal tools at our disposal. Most importantly, we want students to feel proud of their Jewish and/or Zionist identities, we want them to feel courageous and empowered in the face of bigotry”.
Yael expressed how she manages students’ fears.
“Fear can be debilitating, but empowerment is a powerful antidote. Equipping students with the tools to protect themselves and educating them on when such protection is needed is crucial in combating fear. Encouraging students to identify when they are unsafe versus when they feel unsafe is also key. Identifying feelings while refusing to allow those feelings to dictate our lives is part of the process of resilience. Additionally, it is important that students recognize that they are not alone. Connecting them with others facing similar issues has proven highly effective. StandWithUs is here to help students navigate all of this. StandWithUs actively provides educational resources to college administrators through the Center for Combating Antisemitism (CCA). This StandWithUs department offers workshops, educational booklets and individual meetings to ensure administrators have the tools to support their students. Additionally, we work directly with students, ensuring that they know their rights and have the tools to assert them. Most critically, we ask administrators to be familiar with their own policies and to enforce them to protect Jewish students. One of the biggest challenges on campuses today is the failure of administrators to enforce their own policies equally for Jews. It is vital for administrators to stay informed on current events and manifestations of antisemitism, and for them to utilize both educational and legal tools to address such bigotry on their campuses. Understanding students’ challenges, promoting a safe and inclusive environment, and actively combating antisemitism contribute to fostering a campus atmosphere that prioritizes education, compassion and intellectual integrity”.
Yael addressed specific SWU programs that empower and build student leaders.
“StandWithUs offers several programs dedicated to empowering and building student leaders. The Emerson Fellowship and First Year Leadership Initiative focus on campus leadership and engagement, educating the student community and building community. Importantly, engagement in these issues can begin long before college. We have educational programming specifically designed for students as young as middle school. Our Kenneth Leventhal High School Internship also helps students build confidence through critical tools that help them combat antisemitism and misinformation. SWU aims to build student leaders from middle school through college, encouraging a lifelong commitment to Israel and to combating antisemitism”.
Yael shared details of her role as legal representative for college students.
“The StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department is unique as a one-stop shop with resources to help college students in a vast variety of ways. StandWithUs has student representatives in hundreds of U.S. colleges working directly with community members and students on the ground. Our staff hears of potentially actionable matters and brings them directly to the Saidoff Legal Department’s attention. We are often the first responder on any issue. Typically, an antisemitism legal complaint involves the college’s failure to adhere to applicable laws, regulations, and/or school policies on discrimination or harassment. But since the exponential rise in antisemitism since October 7, we also are seeing a rise in intake involving criminal threats and physical assaults. Our first step has become to evaluate the need for the police versus the need for a lawyer and to direct students accordingly. If the student’s personal safety is not an immediate issue, Saidoff Legal navigates complaints to identify violations of laws and school policies and reaches out to hold the school accountable. We send legal letters to universities, help students file discrimination or bias complaints, and sit with students in hearings, meetings or proceedings as their advocate. We use every legal means at our disposal at the federal, state, and local levels through demand letters, targeted campaigns, lawsuits, reports to states’ Attorneys General, and Title VI filings that threaten the college’s receipt of federal funding. We also have an army of over 350 pro bono attorneys across the country offering free legal help. Through it all, the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department makes it a point to support students legally and encourage them to be courageous and proud. Our goal is for anyone who comes to us to walk away feeling empowered even if there isn’t necessarily a legal solution. In these cases, Saidoff Legal Department may call on our Center for Combating Antisemitism or campus teams to help find alternative solutions. No one walks away feeling empty handed just because their case may not rise to a legally actionable standard. And if there is a legal case to be made, we will use all the resources at our disposal to take action”.
Yael explained that she works directly with parents as well.
“StandWithUs works with parents of K-12 students. We often communicate with administrators to hold them accountable when children are bullied or harassed by other students for being Jewish or Zionist. We also demand that schools address antisemitic behavior by teachers, administrators, and even insidious class curriculum that is likely to increase antisemitic sentiment within the school community. When we need to take legal action, we do not hesitate to work in partnership with parents to bring about the best possible outcome for their children”.
Yael shared her thoughts regarding freedom of speech on college campuses.
“Freedom of speech on college campuses is a cornerstone of academic discourse and fosters a diversity of ideas that is crucial to intellectual growth. However, as the First Amendment recognizes, not all speech is free, and limits are not only permissible at times but necessary. Speech perpetuating discrimination, encouraging harassment, or inciting violence against Jews or Israelis violates most universities’ discrimination and harassment policies and is not protected by academic freedom”.
Yael shared examples of StandWithUs’s response to antisemitism on college campuses.
Urging Proactive Steps to Protect Jewish Students at U Michigan
“In light of a campus-wide election on two resolutions, StandWithUs sent a legal letter to the University of Michigan, noting that recent events, culminating in the storming of the President’s office, left us deeply concerned about the safety of Jewish students on campus and the university’s commitment to ensuring their safety as required under federal and state laws and university policies. On November 30, the university canceled the election due to unlawful use of the university listserv by students and due to pressure from groups that monitor rising antisemitism on campus, including StandWithUs”.
Police Misconduct in Addressing Antisemitism at UC Berkeley
“StandWithUs Legal sent a demand letter to UC Berkeley urging an investigation into the campus police’s negligent misconduct in failing to investigate and arrest after an antisemitic hate crime against a Jewish student. This is part of a shocking pattern of deliberate police inaction on campuses nationwide when Jewish students are attacked. Until campus presidents and police departments begin enforcing their own rules and state criminal law, Jew haters will feel emboldened to commit crimes against Jewish targets”.
Holding Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Accountable
“StandWithUs wrote to Montclair State University about SJP’s recent violation of the new “Expressive Activity” policy. We request immediate administrative action to enforce their own policy and hold SJP accountable for violating it. Also, StandWithUs and the Tufts University chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness wrote to the President about the recent activities of Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP’s explicit violations of the Tufts Student Code of Conduct have stoked the flames of antisemitism and created a hostile environment for Jewish students. We urge Tufts to follow in the footsteps of peer institutions by sanctioning TUFTS SJP”.