The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced this week it is launching a formal investigation into a complaint alleging two Jewish students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz were kicked out of a sexual assault awareness group and then bullied, harassed and threatened over their Jewish and Israeli identities.
Just as with the landmark resolution recently reached with the University of Vermont (UVM), the Department of Education is investigating anti-Zionist-motivated antisemitic discrimination and harassment as a potential violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Biden Administration is signaling with this investigation that it is not sufficient to protect Jews solely based on their religious practice. Just as they did in the precedent-setting UVM resolution, the Department of Education is recognizing that Jewish students must be given the same protections as any other group and that antisemitism needs to be addressed with the same rigor as other forms of discrimination.
“This is truly a monumental day for Jewish students across the US facing record levels of antisemitism,” said Denise Katz-Prober, director of legal initiatives for the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law which filed the complaint on behalf of the SUNY New Paltz students and Jewish on Campus.
“The opening of this investigation by the Department of Education, the very first since President Biden announced his national strategy to combat antisemitism, sends a clear and unequivocal signal to SUNY New Paltz as well as universities across the country that they take anti-Zionist discrimination and harassment seriously and they expect universities to take it just as seriously, and address it with the same intensity and vigor, as they do all other forms of harassment and discrimination,” Katz-Prober said, adding, “In this case, students were excluded and harassed based on their Jewish identity connected to Israel, and just like the recent and also landmark resolution reached with UVM, the Department of Education’s commitment to investigate what transpired at SUNY New Paltz signifies it recognizes this form of harassment and discrimination as national origin discrimination based on shared ancestry.”
The SUNY New Paltz complaint, featured in Dana Bash’s CNN Special Report “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America,” (see video below) alleges the university, in violation of Title VI, allowed a hostile environment to proliferate on campus for Jewish survivors of sexual assault, to the point where both students felt unsafe to attend class and Jewish and Israeli survivors of sexual assault at SUNY New Paltz felt “shunned,” “isolated,” and “fearful.”
The issues began in December 2022, as first reported by The New Paltz Oracle, when Cassandra Blotner posted an infographic on her personal Instagram that read, “Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical, and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”
Members of New Paltz Accountability (NPA), which Blotner and another student founded to combat sexual assault, kicked Blotner out of the group and later canceled, stalked, and harassed her. Ofek Preis, another NPA member who is a Jewish Israeli student, shared on her personal Instagram the same post that Blotner had posted. Soon after, NPA stopped contacting Preis about the organization’s activities and blocked her access to shared organizational documents. The NPA then made clear to Preis, and through numerous posts on its Instagram, the group was only open to those who reject Zionism.
NPA went on to publish numerous statements doubling down on its stance that Zionists are not welcome in NPA, extending its exclusionary and discriminatory stance to all Jewish Zionist and Israeli sexual assault survivors at SUNY New Paltz, and advancing the anti-Semitic narrative that Zionism is a form of racism and white supremacy. These NPA posts fueled further harassment on social media directed personally toward Blotner. Some posts threatened to spit on her, others stated “Cassie needs to go…” and called her a “dumb b*tch” that supports “mass genocide !!!!!!!” (sic.)
Blotner and Preis reported to the university that they felt unsafe on campus. The university declined Blotner’s request for a security escort to accompany her to class and advised her not to attend. Unable to attend class safely, Blotner left campus to be with her family. The hostile antisemitic atmosphere for Jewish Zionist sexual assault survivors brewing on campus after NPA’s posts caused Preis, publicly identified and spurned by NPA as a Zionist and an Israeli, to feel so anxious about her safety she was also unable to attend class.
NPA’s behavior and the harassment that ensued had a harmful impact and resulted in a hostile environment for the larger community of Jewish and Israeli survivors of sexual assault at SUNY New Paltz. In a letter to the campus community, the Jewish Student Union explained how the university’s “half-measures and empty rhetoric” signaled that antisemitism is acceptable on campus and that the university’s values of tolerance and inclusivity don’t apply to Jewish sexual assault survivors.
After the complaint was filed, SUNY New Paltz held focus groups to get input from Jewish students and the Jewish community about what could be done to improve the campus climate for Jewish students. Based on these meetings the university issued a report with recommendations, including adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. However, aside from recommending the adoption of IHRA, the report primarily focused on religious accommodations and exemptions, failing to acknowledge or address the pervasive and ongoing anti-Zionist harassment and discrimination.
“The SUNY New Paltz focus groups and report were a nice idea in theory, but, in practice, they completely missed the mark,” stated Katz-Prober, stressing that “Just as with UVM, the Department of Education’s investigation, involvement, and guidance is critical.”
Title VI 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. Title VI protects individuals from exclusionary conduct that denies them the ability to participate in or benefit from university programs and activities, including joining a student club and feeling safe enough to attend class, as well as from harassment that creates a hostile environment. Marginalizing, demonizing, and excluding Jewish students based on the Zionist component of their Jewish ethnic and ancestral identity, and discriminating based on national origin identity, violates Title VI.