Photo Credit: Screenshot from Brooklyn College website.
Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY)

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced it has opened a formal investigation into a complaint alleging Jewish students at Brooklyn College have been subjected to severe and persistent anti-Semitic harassment from both professors and peers. OCR evaluates all complaints it receives, but it only pursues investigations in those it determines to warrant a more thorough investigation.

The complaint OCR will investigate was submitted on behalf of Jewish students in the Mental Health Counseling master’s program at Brooklyn College and alleges that Brooklyn College has allowed a hostile environment to proliferate on its campus in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was prepared by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.


The OCR complaint outlines how professors have maligned Jews based on race and ethnic identity, advancing age-old anti-Semitic tropes concerning Jewish power, conspiracy, and control, and endorsing the narrative that Jews are “white” and privileged and therefore contribute to the systemic oppression of people of color. For example, in one class a professor stated that Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to America have become part of the oppressors in this country. In another instance when students were asked to rank their identities, and a Jewish student ranked Jewish identity before white identity, the Jewish student was berated and told they are part of the dominant culture that does not understand oppression. Relegating Jewish students into white-only categories occurred multiple times in the program.

Fellow students also bullied and harassed Jewish students in classes and on social media using the same ethnic stereotypes, tropes, and divisive concepts that faculty promoted in their courses. For example, in a WhatsApp student group chat, a student expressed her desire to strangle a Jewish student and others showed support. When another Jewish student came to the victim’s defense, the student who made the attack accused the Jewish student of being racist, claiming they were “part of the dominant culture” of “white people” who “continue to perpetuate power structures.” When the Jewish students asked college administrators to intervene and establish ground rules against threats and bullying, fellow students objected that ground rules do not apply when racism needs to be called out, assigning Jews the role of racist oppressors.

“By advancing the racist and ethnic stereotype that all Jews are ‘white’ and ‘privileged’ and therefore oppress people of color, faculty members, students and course assignments in the [Mental Health Counseling] program thereby invoke the classical anti-Semitic trope that Jews possess disproportionate power and influence in society, which they use for nefarious purposes against non-Jews, while also subjecting them to racial stereotypes about ‘whites,’” explained the Brandeis Center in its complaint.

Jewish students who challenged these divisive narratives or shared their distress about the anti-Jewish hostility in the program were met with further harassment and intimidation from faculty and administrators, who told students to “get your whiteness in check” and to “keep your head down” rather than challenge the status quo. For example, when one of the Jewish students tried to explain to an administrator that Jews should not have to identify as white, the administrator told the student that was a foregone conclusion. When another Jewish student explained they are in fact a Hispanic person of color, an administrator implied being Jewish automatically supersedes Latin descent and makes one white and privileged.

The severe and persistent harassment of Jewish students in the program based on their race and ethnicity has created a hostile climate. In this hostile environment, Jewish students are afraid that if they express their views in class or to their peers, they will be further disparaged and harassed by their professors and other students. Class participation is not only a requirement in many first-year courses but is also an important opportunity for budding mental health counselors to develop their interpersonal and professional communication skills. According to the Brandeis Center complaint, despite repeatedly being placed on notice of the developing hostile environment on Brooklyn College’s campus, the administration failed to take the measures necessary to provide Jewish students with a discrimination-free academic setting.

“Fighting bigotry should not be a competition between minority groups; it’s not a zero-sum game,” stated Denise Katz-Prober, Brandeis Center Director of Legal Initiatives. “Yet, once again, in a university program for mental health professionals, Jews are told they must identify as white, are called privileged, and are accused of being oppressors. This runs completely counter to Jewish history. It utterly ignores centuries of Jewish discrimination and murder, which we are frighteningly seeing resurface, and it promotes dangerous age-old anti-Semitic tropes concerning Jewish power, conspiracy, and control. Training mental health professionals to oppose racism is a laudatory and important endeavor, but you can’t erase, let alone promote, anti-Semitism in the process.”

A similar complaint, filed by the Brandeis Center alleging anti-Semitism at Stanford University, is currently being reviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). It alleges that Stanford’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) division created and fostered a hostile and unwelcoming environment for Jewish mental health professionals in its DEI program by advancing the same narrative — that all Jews are white and privileged and therefore contribute to the systemic oppression of people of color. EEOC Commissioner Andrea Lucas recently called those allegations, “deeply troubling.” Lucas specifically highlighted serious concerns about the “segregation of Jewish employees in white affirming and white-passing affinity groups, separated from other individuals of color” that took place at Stanford during CAPS DEI training.

In announcing it will investigate the Brandeis Center’s allegations of discrimination and harassment by faculty and students, OCR clarified that course assignments and instructional materials will not be considered, as they fall outside the Department’s purview. Those were included as background materials to support the allegations, and the Brandeis Center did not expect OCR to investigate them separately.

Numerous universities, including the University of Illinois, Williams College, the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and NYU, have agreed to implement steps to combat rising anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination threatening Jewish students on their campuses. In addition, the University of Southern California recently announced measures to combat anti-Semitism that has created a hostile environment for many Jewish students, including the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Jewish Life and ensuring Jewish representation in DEI efforts.

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