A Battle of ‘Good Versus Evil’: Legal Issues Mount for Universities Accused of Cultivating Antisemitism

Top universities, including three Ivy League institutions, are under investigation by the Department of Education for cultivating antisemitism on campus.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The education secretary, Miguel Cardona, at the White House on June 30, 2023. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Schools failing to protect their students from antisemitic behavior on campus are finding themselves mired in legal troubles, in what might just be the beginning of a battle between “good versus evil.”

That’s what the founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Kenneth Marcus, tells the Sun. He says that legal issues will “absolutely” erupt for universities appearing to side with antisemitism at a time when Israel’s war with Hamas has inflamed left-wing, antisemitic organizations that have quietly flourished on college campuses for years. Jewish students are already suing New York University over the issue, while the Department of Education is investigating schools that allegedly cultivated antisemitism in violation of civil rights protections. 

“The widespread fear among Jewish students is unprecedented in our lifetimes,” Mr. Marcus, who has testified before Congress three times in the last two weeks on the issue of campus antisemitism, says. “We really need to think about this as a violent wake-up call that our society isn’t what we thought it was, and we need to take a very strong action.”

Some students are taking that action themselves. In a lawsuit, Bella Ingber, Sabrina Maslavi, and Saul Tawil are accusing NYU of refusing to enforce its anti-discrimination policies and violating federal civil rights law. In a complaint filed at the Southern District of New York on Tuesday, the students allege that the university has cultivated a campus simmering with antisemitic hatred, discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.

The abuses in question include faculty and student members of pro-Palestinian groups at NYU crashing a pro-Israel silent vigil, burning an Israeli flag, and making “slit-your-throat” gestures toward Jewish students. The school also allowed chants on campus, the students allege, such as “gas the Jews” and “Hitler was right.”

“NYU’s deliberate indifference toward the plight of its Jewish students under siege by egregious antisemitism has been outrageous,” a lawyer for the three students, Marc Kasowitz, said in a statement. The complaint asks that NYU fire employees, suspend or expel students responsible for antisemitic behavior, and pay compensatory and punitive damages.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education is undertaking the first of its kind investigation since Hamas’s attacks, probing seven schools following complaints about incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. Such abuse is unlawful, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

The universities under scrutiny are Cornell University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Wellesley College at Massachusetts, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art at New York, and one K-12 school in the Maize Unified School District in Kansas. 

The turmoil on college campuses in the wake of Hamas’s attacks on Israel has been characterized as a tug-of-war between defending free speech and ensuring student safety. To Mr. Marcus, though, the issue is a moral one. Hamas’s brutality “should be shocking to all Americans,” he says. “The fact that university administrations have been utterly incapable of responding effectively to this suggests deep rot within higher education.”

The campaign for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in higher education appears to have inflamed antisemitism on campus. That’s what a former Harvard president, Larry Summers, argues in an essay this week, which assigned the blame for anti-Israel rhetoric to “identity politics.”

“Universities, through their curricula as well as through their DEI, are fermenting the sort of hatred we’re seeing on college campuses,” Mr. Marcus asserts. The problem, he says, is that “DEI is based on dichotomies between oppressor and oppressed, between white and BIPOC. Jewish identity and antisemitism do not fit within those dichotomies.”

The Brandeis Center, which engages in research, education, and legal advocacy to combat antisemitism in higher education and the workplace, is now working on complaints filed by students from a number of academic institutions. Mr. Marcus anticipates that the Office of Civil Rights will open more investigations in the coming days. 

Washington, meanwhile, has been stepping up to fill what appears to be a void in leadership at schools across the country. The department issued guidance to colleges and K-12 schools earlier this month on addressing discrimination against those who are Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian. The secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, threatened to pull federal funds from schools that do not comply with this legal obligation. 

“My hope,” Mr. Marcus says, “is that universities will settle many of these cases on reasonable terms from the universities’ perspective.” He says that not only might they face legal issues, but also a potential loss of donors as well as public embarrassment as damning accusations of antisemitism mount. 

Cornell’s press office declined to comment on the department’s investigation. Columbia’s press office also declined to comment but pointed to the school’s new task force on antisemitism as well as a doxing resource group launched earlier this month.

A spokesman for Penn told the Sun the university will be “cooperating fully with the department” and developing an action plan based on the White House’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, announced last May. “President Magill has made clear antisemitism is vile and pernicious and has no place at Penn,” the spokesman said. “The university will continue to vigilantly combat antisemitism and all forms of hate.”

The New York Sun

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