Fighting for Jewish Students at Hunter College
When a discriminatory incident occurs on a college campus, it should be met with swift and unequivocal condemnation by the school’s leadership. Targeting and mistreating students based on an aspect of their identity — race, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc. — is never acceptable. When members of a campus community experience identity-based attacks, it is imperative that administrators make it a top priority to unambiguously — and publicly — communicate this message.
That can happen in the form of a public statement in which the administration uses its own voice to acknowledge the incident and condemn the bigotry that’s occurred. It can take the form of an administrative-led investigation into the incident, in which administrators afford the targeted student(s) the opportunity to be heard, and then impose appropriate sanctions for any violations that may be discovered.
Administrators can also take the initiative to offer training and education to relevant stakeholders — faculty, staff, and students — about various types of discrimination, the ways they can manifest, and the campus resources available to anyone affected by them. Ideally, university administrations would undertake some combination of these efforts in the wake of a discriminatory incident affecting their students.
Too often, however, when an antisemitic incident occurs on campus, none of these things happens.
A general, “boilerplate” statement condemning antisemitism might be issued (and even this, sadly, is not a given), but an administration’s general statement that fails to acknowledge and condemn antisemitism that has occurred on its campus leaves students, as well as the broader community, with the sense that the issue is not an administrative priority.
Unfortunately, this can have the effect of further emboldening those who perpetrate anti-Jewish bigotry. When repeated pleas for administrative action receive little more than lip service in response, it should come as no surprise when impacted students look elsewhere for a remedy.
This is precisely why students, current and former, at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, along with StandWithUs, recently filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging administrative failure to remedy a pervasively hostile antisemitic climate in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Title VI is a Federal law that conditions the receipt of Federal funds on the recipient university preventing discrimination, including harassment, based on race, color, or national origin, which includes groups, like Jews, who have a shared ancestry or ethnicity).
Our complaint details a years-long pattern (going back to 2015), in which students and alumni have attempted to address concerns about antisemitism with administrators, but failed to see any concrete administrative action in response. These concerns came to a head at the end of the Spring 2021 semester, when a group of students, and at least one professor, took over two Zoom class sessions to deliver an anti-Jewish, anti-Israel hate diatribe demonizing and delegitimizing the State of Israel and Jews generally.
Despite meeting with administrators and asking for administrative action in response, including, at the very least, a Silberman statement condemning antisemitism, these concerned students and alumni never saw the administration take any such action.
That the administration told a journalist — after the filing of the Title VI complaint — that it had conducted a full investigation and made reprimands — but never communicated this to the very students who were directly affected by the incident and had repeatedly requested corrective action — only exacerbates the problems detailed in the complaint.
Like the students who filed the Title VI complaint, other Hunter students’ own statements paint a clear picture that they have been targeted on campus for aspects of their Jewish identity, and that administrative responsive action is sorely lacking.
When the campus environment is such that students are saying, “I feel like, as a Jew, if I don’t share my political stance, I’m usually OK,” and they “don’t know if [administrators are] doing anything about [antisemitism on campus],” the administration has failed to satisfy its obligation to ensure that Jewish students are able to fully participate in campus life — including voicing their ideas about Israel, the one Jewish country in the world, without being vilified for it.
This is why Title VI exists — to make sure taxpayer dollars don’t fund such an environment — and it is why Title VI has been utilized to seek appropriate corrective action on behalf of the Jewish community at Hunter and its Silberman School.
Carly F. Gammill is director of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism