Feds launch civil rights investigation into antisemitism allegations at UVM

  • FILE - A bicyclist is seen on the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt., Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating allegations of antisemitism at the University of Vermont, including that some Jewish students were excluded from campus clubs and a teaching assistant threatened to reduce the grades of students who support the state of Israel. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) ap file photograph

Published: 9/14/2022 12:22:00 AM
Modified: 9/14/2022 12:21:30 AM

BURLINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into a complaint alleging incidents of antisemitism at the University of Vermont.

The complaint — filed by two nonprofit advocacy groups, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish On Campus — details alleged vandalism of UVM’s Hillel building, online harassment of Jewish students by an unnamed teaching assistant and exclusion of Jewish students supporting Israel from a sexual assault survivors’ group.

The complainants argue that the incidents and inaction by the university represent a denial of benefits by UVM in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin” in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.

The nonprofits filed the 34-page complaint in October 2021 and the Department of Education began investigating last month, according to the department’s website.

UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said campus officials had previously investigated the complaints and that the school is “looking forward to providing the agency with a full response to the underlying allegations.”

“UVM seeks to foster a culture of inclusiveness for all students, faculty and staff, including members of our Jewish community and does not tolerate acts of bias or discrimination related to religion, race, culture, gender or sexual orientation on our campus,” Corredera said in a statement.

In a news release about the investigation on Tuesday, Matt Vogel, executive director of UVM Hillel, said the college has much more work to do to make Jewish students feel safe and welcome.

“Hillel at UVM and Hillel International have been fighting antisemitism and creating space for Jewish students to be Jewish in the way they want to be since our founding in 1923,” he wrote.

“Our campus and our community should be a safe space for all students — including Jewish students,” he continued. “There is no place for hatred at the University of Vermont, and we look forward to continuing working together as a UVM community toward a campus climate that makes all students feel safe and welcome on campus.”

Vogel declined further comment on the investigation.

The complaint asserts that “for many Jewish students at UVM, Zionism is an integral component of their Jewish identity. … The Jewish people’s history, theology and culture are deeply intertwined with the Land of Israel.”

According to the complaint, the unnamed teaching assistant allegedly threatened to lower the grades of Zionist students, and UVM Empowering Survivors — a campus sexual assault and abuse survivors group — announced on Instagram that Zionist students were not welcome.

In a series of tweets from April 2021 included in the complaint, the teaching assistant wrote hypothetically about docking points from Zionist students. Later, the assistant described wanting to cyberbully students with family in Israel.

The complaint also details a night in September 2021 when intoxicated students allegedly targeted UVM Hillel, throwing small rocks at the building.

“When one student living in the dormitory portion of the building called out to the perpetrators and asked them to stop throwing things, one of the students responsible for the rock-throwing responded, ‘Are you Jewish?’ The incident reportedly lasted approximately 30-40 minutes,” the complainants wrote.

Students have met with college administrators “on multiple occasions,” sharing stories “of how the students have been personally harassed and harmed by the hostile anti-Semitic environment on campus,” the complaint reads. “To date, however, the university has taken no steps to rectify the situation.”

Alyza Lewin, president of the Brandeis Center, condemned what she described as UVM’s inaction in addressing the allegations of antisemitism. “The administration at the University of Vermont steadfastly and stubbornly refused to even acknowledge the problem,” she said.

The incidents in the complaint go beyond matters of speech to matters of conduct, Lewin contended. “What’s happening now on campus is conduct when students are actually being excluded from communities on campus, from opportunities on campus, from clubs on campus from programs on the basis of their identity,” she said. “That’s not a speech issue anymore.”

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