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September 13, 2022 6:00 am
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Department of Education Launches Investigation into Antisemitism Allegations at University of Vermont

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Landscape shot of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. Photo: AlexiusHoratius/Wikimedia Commons.

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened a formal civil rights investigation into allegations of antisemitism at the University of Vermont (UVM).

According to a complaint filed by the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus (JOC) in October 2021, UVM’s Hillel Center was vandalized and Jewish students who embrace Zionism were harassed by a teaching assistant and expelled from student clubs, including UVM Empowering Survivors, a sexual assault awareness group. Hostility toward Jews, the groups said, was so severe that Jewish students concealed their identities and weighed leaving the university altogether.

“All of these incidents — the exclusion of Jewish Zionist students from UVM student groups, the targeting of the Hillel building, and the TA’s social media posts — have been reported to the UVM administration,” the complaint said. “To date, however, the university has taken no steps to rectify the situation.”

Ultimately, the complaint continued, the exclusion of Jewish students based on the Zionist element of their identity has denied them “equal access to educational opportunities and services,” violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Responding to The Algemeiner’s request for comment on what is alleged, a University of Vermont spokesperson said, “The university is aware of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigation and is looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations, each of which was reported to the university in 2021 and investigated by campus officials.”

“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,” he continued.

The incidents OCR will review go back to 2021, when a teaching assistant wrote that she considered penalizing students who embraced Zionism and called on other students to desecrate the Israeli flag and cyberbully them.

“Is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give zionists credit for participation???,” the teaching assistant wrote to an unnamed recipient.

Later, on Twitter, she said “serotonin rush of bullying Zionists on the public domain…next step is to make zionism…worthy of public condemnation.”

That same spring, administrators of UVM Empowering Survivors’ Instagram page  “blocked” Jewish students to, it said, “hold our peers accountable for their pro-Israel or Zionist stances.”

The group’s action triggered a cascade of bigoted events. The UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union (RSU) later announced that it would not accept Zionists and amended its constitution to require students to denounce Zionism as a condition of membership in the group. Just months later, a mob of students hurled stones and doused with a sticky substance the university’s residence for students enrolled in the Exploring Jewish Culture Program, which is located in UVM’s Burack Hillel Center.

“Are you Jewish?” one rock throwing student yelled at a Jewish student who peered out a window that had been struck to ask the group to end the attack.

“Jewish students were being told they’re not welcome, and the university just refused to listen, causing the students to feel ignored and shunted aside,” Brandeis Center president Alyza D. Lewin told The Algemeiner on Tuesday. “It didn’t matter how many times they tried to explain that Judaism is more than a religion and that the discrimination targeting them is based on their ancestry and ethnicity.”

OCR’s investigation, which started in August, is the latest high profile investigation of antisemitism at an American university. That same month, the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus requested another civil rights inquiry into SUNY New Paltz’s handling of a case in which two Jewish women were kicked out of a sexual assault awareness group because they are Zionists.

“This investigation is going to go a very long way toward raising awareness and educating the public, and particular, university administrators, to see this kind of antisemitism and realize that they must take steps to address it,” Lewin said.

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