Record-Breaking Surge in Civil Rights Complaints of Campus Antisemitism Swamp Education Department, the Sun Has Learned

Schools are accused of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as ex-official says colleges have become ‘among the primary superspreaders for the antisemitism virus.’

AP/Michael Liedtke
A protest at the University of California, Berkeley's Sather Gate on October 16, 2023. AP/Michael Liedtke

A record-breaking surge in the number of civil rights complaints about antisemitism is being filed at the United States Department of Education as what’s being called the “antisemitism virus” spreads across college campuses and shows no signs of abating. 

Some 42 higher education and K-12 institutions have been put under investigation by the department’s Office for Civil Rights since October 7, more than double the number of cases that were opened last year before Hamas’s attacks at Southern Israel on that date. Between January 1, 2023, and October 7, 2023, according to the Office for Civil Rights, there were 19 open cases, and 17 in all of 2022, and only two in 2021.  

The schools are accused of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. This includes harassment based on a person’s shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in which the cases of antisemitism fall. The prestigious schools put under scrutiny in recent weeks include Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Cornell, and Columbia. 

“We’re seeing a surge like never before,” attorney Kenneth Marcus told the Sun of the complaints of antisemitism filed to his civil rights organization, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. “We’ve received as many calls for help in the three weeks following October 7 as we had during the twelve months preceding, and those were record-breaking months.”

Given that nearly three-quarters of Jewish college students have experienced or witnessed antisemitism so far this school year, the number of potential federal investigations is much higher than the data suggest. “College campuses,” Mr. Marcus, who led the OCR under President Trump, said, “have been among the primary superspreaders for the antisemitism virus.” 

Given this trajectory, “there’s no reason to think that what we’ve seen on our college campuses in 2023 is the worst it’s going to be,” Mr. Marcus said. “The real problem is not how bad it’s gotten, but how bad it can be.” The problem arises from “a perfect storm of extremist ideologies” taking hold over the classroom and the quad, Mr. Marcus said. “Feckless administrators,” foreign funds, and the far left at prestigious universities have contributed to the storm.

Not all of the Department’s new investigations are focused on antisemitism. A few schools are being scrutinized for perceived islamophobia, the latest being San Diego State University following a complaint that the school “promoted hate and racism against Arabs and Muslims” by condemning Hamas’s attacks on Israel in a university-wide email sent two days after October 7. 

Just because the OCR opens an investigation into a civil rights complaint does not mean the office believes it has merit. Rather, the department is obliged to pursue complaints that fall under its purview. Such probes seek to determine whether administrators responded appropriately to allegations of student discrimination. 

Antisemitism is even trickling down from the hallowed halls of Ivy Leagues into high school classrooms and even onto the playground. “As horrifying as the current college campus situation has been,” Mr. Marcus said, “what may be worse is that high schools are emerging as the next battleground, while even elementary schools are not safe.” 

Highschoolers across America are replicating the anti-Israel rhetoric touted by their older peers. “They’re actually using the same chants and the same taunts, verbatim, that their siblings are using in colleges and universities,” Mr. Marcus said. High school curricula, such as the state of California’s ethnic studies, exacerbate what he calls the return of “old fashioned antisemitism, whether based on the notion of Jews as greedy and conspiratorial or as Christ-killers.”

While the Biden administration announced a national strategy to counter antisemitism last May, Mr. Marcus said it has failed to deliver on this promise at a time when students need it most. 

December of 2023 was “a high watermark in antisemitism,” Mr. Marcus said, referencing the painful testimonies of three university presidents before Congress early that month. December also marked the deadline to issue formal regulations on college and highschool antisemitism, but the White House announced that it needed another year to codify them. 

Yet President Biden already has a blueprint for such regulations — Mr. Trump’s 2019 executive order, which asserted that Title VI should protect against antisemitism as “vigorously” as it does against all other forms of discrimination. That “game-changing” policy apparatus, Mr. Marcus said, was “the most important advance that we’ve seen in the federal government’s efforts to address antisemitism on college campuses.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has insisted that “hate has no place in our schools, period,” as he put it in a November statement disclosing the schools under investigation for alleged shared ancestry violations. “When students are targeted because they are — or are perceived to be — Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn.”  

While pledging to promote students’ safety and inclusivity, though, Mr. Cardona “has been more reactive than proactive,” Mr. Marcus said. “He has the power to initiate investigations rather than wait for complaints to come in, and yet he has not initiated any of them.” After the Congressional testimonies, “universities are rethinking their approach to this issue, which means that now is the perfect time for the federal government to provide clarity about what the rules are.”

Harvard offers a salient example of this “rethinking.” The resignation of its president, Claudine Gay, on Tuesday is but the beginning of tackling antisemitism at the school. As Mr. Marcus said, “We can’t simply let a couple of heads symbolically roll and think that the problem has been dealt with.”

The solution involves serious introspection on behalf of higher education institutions. Training faculty, reforming curriculum, and revamping disciplinary measures are the necessary next steps, Mr. Marcus said. “If one student acts out, you might consider disciplining the student,” he suggests. “When 30 student organizations embrace historic atrocities, you might fire the admissions department.”


This dispatch has been expanded and clarified from the bulldog edition.

The New York Sun

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