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April 3, 2023 3:53 pm

‘Historic Victory’: US Gov’t Rules That University of Vermont Failed to Address Campus Antisemitism


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

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

The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has ruled that the University of Vermont (UVM) failed to respond to numerous complaints of antisemitism and anti-Zionist harassment and discrimination, according to a press release issued on Monday.

The announcement marks the first time the Biden administration has resolved a complaint of campus antisemitism and the first time ever that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has been applied to anti-Zionist discrimination.

OCR began investigating the university in Oct. 2021 after the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus filed a complaint alleging that a teaching assistant harassed UVM students who embraced Zionism and that student clubs, including UVM Empowering Survivors — a sexual assault awareness group —  expelled them from their groups. Additionally, UVM’s Hillel Center was vandalized and no one was punished.

OCR said on Monday that the university did not investigate “serious allegations of harassment” and that “responsive steps” were “delayed,” effectively “discouraging” students and staff from coming forward in the future. Among the complaints the university left unaddressed was an allegation that an anti-Zionist teaching assistant bragged about giving Jewish students zero credit for class participation. In another complaint, the same professor allegedly celebrated when someone stole an Israeli flag from a Jewish student’s residence and captioned “Kristallnacht” on a post showing damage to a Jewish-owned business.

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OCR announced that the complaint is resolved, with UVM agreeing to implement several reforms, including a top down review of its procedures for assessing discrimination complaints, new training for Bias Response Team members that emphasizes civil rights laws’ protections for national origin and shared ancestry, and a formal statement affirming its commitment to address antisemitism on campus.

“I am grateful for the University of Vermont’s commitment to addressing antisemitic harassment that violates federal civil rights law,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a press release. “Everyone has a right to learn in an environment free from antisemitic harassment. We will be watching to be sure these students are safe.”

In a statement to The Algemeiner, the University of Vermont said it assumes “responsibility to provide equal opportunity to all members of its community to fully express their identity in an environment free from discrimination and harassment.” The university also pledged to “use all tools at its disposal to eliminate the hostile behavior and enable each member of the community to learn and work in an environment unfettered by discrimination and harassment.”

On Monday, Kenneth D. Marcus, former Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at OCR and founder of the Brandeis Center, told The Algemeiner that OCR’s ruling is a “historic victory” for Jewish students.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this agreement is that OCR is very explicit in describing the anti-Zionist allegations made in the complaint,” he said. “There are a number of problems that relate to the Zionist aspect of Jewish communal identity. OCR is explicit about those in the letter, which said that the University of Vermont’s investigation of these issue raises civil rights concerns.”

Marcus noted that OCR’s acknowledgement of anti-Zionist discrimination is precedent setting.

“That the Biden administration is conceding that civil rights concerns can arise from mistreatment of Zionists is immensely important,” he continued. “This will be very important for Jewish students facing similar kinds of harassment across the country.”

Alyza Lewin, president of the Brandeis Center, told The Algemeiner that OCR’s resolution of the case is timely.

“It’s particularly appropriate that this comes down right before Passover, when Jews articulate their shared collective memory and people-hood and remember that we were all once slaves in Egypt and experienced the Exodus,” Lewin said. “This ruling is saying that universities must take it seriously when Jews are targeted, harassed, or shunned based on their peoplehood, ancestry, and connection to the land of Israel. That has to be included and recognized in your anti-discrimination policy as antisemitic harassment and discrimination.”

UVM Hillel also welcomed OCR’s announcement, saying, “We are grateful to the many students, alumni, families, friends, and organizations who spoke out when Jewish students at UVM needed their support.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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