The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus on Wednesday filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of numerous Jewish students at American University (AU) who have been assaulted, threatened, harassed and intimidated in dormitories, classrooms, and campus spaces.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, including discrimination against Jews based on their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Under the law, harassing, marginalizing, demonizing, and excluding Jewish students based on the Zionist component of their Jewish identity is just as unlawful and discriminatory as attacking a Jewish student for observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher.
AU is a private federally chartered research university in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Northwest Washington DC. AU was chartered by an Act of Congress in 1893, at the urging of Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst who sought to create an institution that would promote public service, internationalism, and pragmatic idealism.
A lot of water has flown in the Potomac since. The complaint details how dormitory doors and posters of Jewish and Israeli students were vandalized with swastikas and threats; out-of-control anti-Israel protests were permitted to disrupt classes and block Jewish students’ access to dining halls, classrooms, and student spaces; posters of Israeli hostages were repeatedly torn down; and Jewish students have been harassed, targeted and discriminated against by peers and faculty. Jewish students report feeling fearful, anxious, shunned, isolated and marginalized.
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One of the incidents included in the complaint describes how a Jewish Israeli student was repeatedly spat on by fellow students and his piano recital flyer was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas and “DEATH TO THE ZIONISTS HITLER WAS RIGHT.” The complaint also documents how dormitory doors of Jewish students were marked with swastikas. One of those same students later received a text from an unknown number that said, “I know who you are, Jew.” Numerous dormitory bathrooms have been vandalized with swastikas and Nazi images and slogans. Obscenities were yelled at Jewish students, including “Zionist killer,” “Zionist pig” and “You have blood on your hands,” and Jewish students were accused of supporting “apartheid” and being “responsible for genocide.”
In a particularly egregious example involving AU faculty, one of AU’s professors chose to devote official classroom time to the sharing of photos from pro-Palestinian protests, which she projected onto a large screen. The professor exalted the protests, sharing how meaningful and powerful they were for her. When one of the photos showed a sign of a Star of David in a trash can with the caption, “Keep the world clean,” in a very deliberate and noticeable way the professor stared at a Jewish student in the class to the point that many of the other classmates turned around to also stare at the student. The Jewish student left the class in tears. In another classroom incident, “I do not want to sit on the same side of the room as this Zionist,” and “You have blood on your hands. You are responsible for genocide,” was screamed at the only Jewish student in the class by a peer. Neither the professor nor the administration addressed the conduct.
As documented in the complaint, while the university took prompt and effective action in response to incidents of Islamophobia, AU officials repeatedly ignored the anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment Jewish students reported to them. The university neglected to investigate anti-Semitic conduct or take the necessary steps to eliminate the mistreatment Jewish students endured.
Even worse, however, the complaint describes how the university chose to further harass and discriminate against several Jewish students by subjecting them to a baseless disciplinary hearing for using their phones to record individuals tearing down posters of Israeli hostages. The students filmed those tearing down the posters because when they first reported the infraction to university officials they were told the school required documentation to take action. Yet, once in receipt of that proof, the university launched an investigation against the Jewish students for harassment and disorderly conduct and threatened them with disciplinary action. Some of the students were even told their study abroad programs could be revoked. The vandalizers, meanwhile, have yet to be held accountable.
“Shamefully AU has repeatedly chosen to turn a blind eye to the anti-Semitism snowballing on its campus,” stated Brandeis Center founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under the George W. Bush and Donald Trump Administrations. “Not only has the university failed in its legal obligation to protect Jewish students from illegal targeting and harassment, it is attempting to bully those brave enough to speak up. The university’s delinquency is reprehensible, and it only signals to the AU community there are no consequences for those who harass, threaten, assault or shun Jewish and Israeli students, emboldening those hostile to Jews even further.” Marcus testified recently before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and the Workforce as well as before a Senate roundtable on the need for decisive action by universities to combat rising campus antisemitism.
Julia Jassey, co-founder and CEO of Jewish on Campus, said, “Jewish students deserve consistent support from their university administrators, not harassment for standing up against anti-Semitism. Where the law is clear, AU officials have failed. On campuses across the country, Jewish students have faced an unprecedented level of antisemitism since October 7, including at AU. Ignoring these experiences is tantamount to tolerating them. We urge a swift investigation and a campus climate where no student has to endure such harassment.”