With college campuses across the country hotbeds of antisemitism as the current war between Israel and Hamas adds fuel to an already raging fire, the situation at New York University (NYU) is the subject of a new lawsuit filed in federal court last week.
Three Jewish students have brought an action in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York claiming that the school has “created a hostile educational environment in which plaintiffs and other Jewish NYU students have been subjected to pervasive acts of hatred, discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.” The 83-page complaint by juniors Bella Ingber, Sabrina Maslavi, and Saul Tawil alleges violations under Title VI of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act and comparable New York State and City human rights statutes as well as for breach of NYU’s contractual obligations. While Title VI does not explicitly address religion, a 2019 executive order by President Trump made clear that discrimination against Jews can give rise to a Title VI claim.
The plaintiffs claim that NYU is “among the worst campuses for Jewish students” and that, while the problem is not new, the events and aftermath of October 7, when Hamas invaded Israel in the most brutal and deadly massacre against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, have led to the “latest and worst outbreak of antisemitism at NYU.” According to the complaint, “Mobs of students, often accompanied and encouraged by professors, have been given carte blanche to harass and intimidate NYU’s Jewish population… Nearly every day since the attack, plaintiffs and other Jewish students have been forced to run a campus gauntlet of verbal and physical harassment, threats, and intimidation. Moreover, Jewish students’ complaints are ignored, slow-walked, or met with gaslighting by NYU administrators.”
In addition to asserting civil rights violations, the lawsuit claims that NYU has failed to follow through on obligations it undertook in the settlement of an earlier case. In 2019, a Jewish student filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which is tasked with enforcing Title VI. The complaint asserted that NYU had failed to take appropriate action to address antisemitic incidents (like the current lawsuit, that complaint contained a litany of horrifying examples) which created a hostile environment for Jewish students.
In 2020, before the government had completed its investigation, NYU settled that complaint by undertaking several commitments, including adding explicit mention of antisemitism to its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies; conducting outreach to the university community publicizing its stance against antisemitism; and addressing antisemitism in student clubs. According to the new lawsuit, however, NYU has “continued to fail and to refuse to take any meaningful actions to combat, address, and ameliorate antisemitism” as required by the settlement, and when it comes to Jewish students, it has not enforced its own anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
The complaint contains an accounting of numerous incidents creating a hostile – at times dangerous – environment for Jewish students over the years, which has only worsened since October 7. According to plaintiff Ingber, “students are horrified and frightened as chants of ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘Hitler was right’ ring out on campus, and students and professors serve up a ‘constant contextualization and justification of Hamas’s brutal terror attack at NYU,’ both in the classroom and around the school.”
Since the war in Israel started, NYU’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the organization leading the witch hunt against Jewish students on campuses across the country, has been joined at NYU by a new group – Faculty for Justice in Palestine, with over 225 members. Among the most shocking incidents described in the complaint was a vicious, hate-filled October 20th protest in which students and faculty commandeered the school library, normally a quiet study space, to celebrate Hamas’s “bold” resistance against “colonial fascism” and demonize Israel for “genocide,” violating several university policies in the process.
The plaintiffs repeatedly reached out to the dean of students and other administrators expressing their concerns about the escalating antisemitism, all to no avail. Maslavi, who is vice president of the NYU chapter of Students Supporting Israel, emailed the university president, Linda Mills, directly, “asking her to ‘take a strong stand against acts of violence and terror’ and ‘create an atmosphere where all students can feel safe, regardless of their background or beliefs.’ Mills did not respond.
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief prohibiting NYU from maintaining practices, policies, or procedures which penalize or discriminate against Jewish students and requiring it to take remedial and preventative measures against such conduct, including terminating members of the administration and faculty and expelling students who have participated in or facilitated “the antisemitic abuse permeating the school.” The plaintiffs, represented by the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, are also seeking monetary damages.
On November 15 – the day after the lawsuit was filed – NYU announced the formation of a new academic research department, the “NYU Center for the Study of Antisemitism,” to be funded by a recent seven-figure donation to the school. In announcing the news, NYU’s President Mills acknowledged an uptick in antisemitism since the start of the Hamas-Israel war. The Center is expected to open in fall 2024.
Meanwhile, other universities across the U.S. are belatedly addressing their increasingly antisemitic climate, which the Simon Wiesenthal Center has called “a clear and present danger.” Columbia University has suspended (until the end of the current semester, anyway) its chapters of SJP and the inaptly named Jewish Voice for Peace, the groups behind the most threatening campus protests; George Washington University also suspended its SJP club, while Brandeis University has banned the group indefinitely.
Last week, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, who studied at NYU and Cornell, published an open letter to the presidents of American universities, calling on them to take action against antisemitism on their campuses. “Students and faculty…need a clear voice saying that free speech is of the highest value,” he wrote, “but speech promoting violence against individuals or groups and calls for the elimination of a whole country, Israel, are unacceptable on campus and should not be tolerated.”