The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened a Title VI civil rights investigation of the University of Vermont, following a complaint that Jewish students are facing “a hostile environment on campus” by being excluded due to their Jewish background and identity.
The complaint, brought by the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Jewish On Campus, raises allegations of antisemitism going back to 2021, which includes students being discriminated against by school groups.
“Jewish students at the University of Vermont (“UVM”) have been subjected to a campaign of intimidation, harassment and discrimination targeting them on the basis of their Jewish ethnic identity,” the complaint says. “This has created a hostile environment on campus in which Jewish students are being excluded from university clubs and support groups.”
This includes, the complaint says, a sexual assault survivor support group called UVM Empowering Survivors, which rose to prominence itself when students felt the school was not responding to sexual assault in a satisfactory fashion. In May 2021, the group, which at the time of the complaint had more than 4,000 followers – more than a third of the total students at the school – said that Zionist students were not welcome and would be “blocked.”
When Jewish Zionist students reached out to address the issue, the group turned them away, the complaint says.
Not long after, the book club “UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union” allegedly said on social media that Jewish Zionists were not welcome.
Months later, in September 2021, students targeted the campus Hillel building, throwing rocks at windows in a part of the building where students lived. When one resident told them to stop, one allegedly asked them, “Are you Jewish?”
Another allegation in the complaint was a situation where a teaching assistant (TA) “repeatedly sought to marginalize and ostracize those Jewish students who demonstrate pride in their shared Jewish ancestry and ethnicity by expressing support for a Jewish homeland.” The TA allegedly made a number of social media posts hostile to Israel and students who support the Jewish state. In one, she allegedly said it would be “good and funny” for them “to not give zionists credit for participation,” suck as “-5 points for going on birthright,” referring to free trips to Israel offered to Jewish college students and young adults.
“Threatening to reduce the grades of any student due to their religion, race, national or ethnic origin, is a violation of UVM’s anti-discrimination policy and the state and federal laws upon which that policy is based,” the complaint states. The complaint says the TA also allegedly “repeatedly encourages her followers to cyber bully Jewish students for whom Zionism is integral to their Jewish identity.” One tweet from May 11, 2021, included via screenshot in the complaint, referred to a “serotonin rush of bullying zionists[.]” That same day, she allegedly said that the “next step is to make Zionism … politically unthinkable, worthy of private and public” condemnation,” noting even statements like “my family lives in Tel Aviv.”
“This is not about speech. We’ve gone way beyond speech,” Louis D. Brandeis Center president Alyza Lewin told Fox News. “This is about conduct. This is about publicly shaming and shunning Jews who feel connected to their Jewish heritage.”
Lewin said that as a result of the above incidents, “Jewish students feel like they have to hide the fact that they’re Jewish” or be marginalized.
Lewin said that when students went to the UVM administration and explained that they were being targeted on the basis of their sense of Jewish peoplehood, the school “ignored them,” and some in the administration even “mocked them.”
A problem, Lewin said, is that there are those who simply view being Jewish as a religion and therefore do not understand the claim of ethnicity or national identity that Jewish students are making in relation to Zionism.
“Judaism is more than a religion,” Lewin said. “Jews share not only a common faith, but they share this sense of Jewish peoplehood. And what makes them the Jewish people is they have this shared history, this shared ancestry, and that history and that ancestry is deeply rooted in the land of Israel.”
In a statement, University of Vermont said they are aware of the Department of Education’s investigation and “looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations,” which they said they investigated after they were reported in 2021.
“UVM seeks to foster a culture of inclusiveness for all students, faculty, and staff, including members of our Jewish community, and does not tolerate acts of bias or discrimination related to religion, race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation on our campus,” the university said.