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September 16, 2022 3:52 pm

‘Blames the Victims’: US Jewish Groups Denounce Vermont University’s Response to Antisemitism Allegations

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

The Williams Science Hall at the University of Vermont Photo. Kaya/Flickr.

Jewish groups across the US are calling on the University of Vermont (UVM) to acknowledge Jewish students’ concerns that antisemitism on its campus is harmful and pervasive.

In August, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened a civil rights investigation into UVM based on a complaint filed last year by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus (JOC).

The complaint included allegations that no university employees were punished after Jewish students were harassed by a teaching assistant for embracing Zionism and claimed that UVM’s Hillel Center was pelted with rocks in an act of vandalism.

On Thursday, University of Vermont president Suresh Garimella called the allegations “false claims” and accused media outlets that reported on them of propagating an “uninformed narrative.”

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In response, twenty-one American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Hillel International, charged in a joint statement that Garimella “has essentially chosen to blame the victims.”

“Simply put, President Garimella fails to condemn the existence of significant antisemitism on UVM’s campus,” the statement said. “Instead of summoning the courage that other university leaders across the country have shown in acknowledging the problem or offering support for Jewish students who are fearful about identifying publicly as Jewish, the UVM President’s statement doubles down and refuses to take responsibility.” 

Garimella maintained that no students reported being harassed by an anti-Israel teaching assistant and that the university “took prompt action to ensure that the objectionable statements did not adversely impact students.” He also claimed that students threw rocks at the windows of UVM Hillel to awake a sleeping friend, and that the university was powerless to punish two student clubs for restricting membership from self-identified Zionists because the groups were unrecognized.

Other groups, such as the World Jewish Congress, Camera on Campus, as well as the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus issued statements too. All argued that Garimella’s lack of accountability betrays an indifference to the experiences of Jewish students.

“His statement is far more equivocal than the reactions by other university and college presidents and administrations to manifestations of antisemitism on their campuses,” WJC said.

During a conversation with The Algemeiner, Brandeis Center president Alyza Lewin, a co-litigant in the complaint filed against the university, on Thursday criticized Garimella for “refusing to recognize that Jews on his campus are being systematically targeted, marginalized, and harassed.”

“Say something that recognizes the impact of that discriminatory treatment,” she said. “Instead of issuing support, which he’s done for other communities on campus that have been targeted, he had the audacity to accuse the students who were trying to raise awareness of the problem of fear mongering and creating a hostile environment.”

Hillel at University of Vermont executive director Matt Vogel, while declining to comment at length on OCR’s investigation, expressed support for Jewish students at UVM.

“We stand unequivocally with our Jewish students, allies, friends, and family and are committed to helping them bring their voices to the table and be heard by the university,” he said.

The opening of an OCR investigation is not an implication of guilt but an acknowledgement that civil rights violations are alleged to have been committed by an educational institution.

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