A federal investigation has been launched following complaints by two Jewish students at Brooklyn College that they have been subjected to “severe and persistent harassment” on a Masters’ programme.
The ten-page complaint was filed on behalf of the students by the Louis D. Brandeis Centre for Human Rights Under Law. A senior figure at the Brandeis Centre described the alleged harassment campaign against the unnamed students as “part of an effort to erase and misunderstand Jewish identity.”
The Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education has confirmed that it is investigating. Part of the City University of New York, Brooklyn College has 2,841 graduate students on its roll, of whom around 500 identify as Jewish. The case could cost the college its federal funding if the allegations are confirmed.
The complaint alleges that Jewish students on the Mental Health Counselling course had been “bullied and harassed in class discussions and on social media” and that Jewish students were targeted using the same “ethnic stereotypes, antisemitic tropes and divisive concepts that faculty members promote in their courses.”
The complaint cites examples such as a professor who claimed that Ashkenazi Jews in America had become “oppressors”, while another professor allegedly rebuked a Jewish student for ranking his/her Jewish identity before his/her white identity, suggesting that the student “did not understand oppression.”
After telling The New York Jewish Week that the harassment was “part of an effort to erase and misunderstand Jewish identity,” Denise Katz-Prober, the Director of Legal Initiatives at the Brandeis Centre said that this was “dangerous” because of the misunderstanding demonstrated by the recent comments made by with Whoopi Goldberg. She added: “It is an attempt to whitewash the Jewish historical experience, which results in the downplaying of antisemitism.”
Ms Katz-Prober said that colleges and universities had an obligation under the Civil Rights Act 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, colour or national origin in any programme or activity that receives federal financial assistance.
The complaint, specifically citing the actions of two unnamed professors and two unnamed administrators, alleges that since the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, professors “maligned Jews on the basis of race and ethnic identity” by advancing the narrative that “all Jews are white and privileged and therefore contribute to the systemic oppression of people of colour.”
When the Jewish students complained to administrators, they were allegedly told to “get your whiteness in check” and to “keep your head down.”
The complaint also asserts that Jewish students were bullied on a WhatsApp chat group and that after a female student expressed a desire to “strangle a Jewish student” and others showed support, a Jewish student who objected was accused of being racist.
One of the students who filed the complaint told The New York Jewish Week it was “the hardest thing” that they had ever done and that they would not be doing it “if it wasn’t so blatant.”
The student said that this was “a very Jewish school” and that Jews should not “have to be scared; this shouldn’t happen.”
They added that class participation was “a very big part of your grade and the fact I have been told by a white teacher to keep my head down and to ‘get your whiteness in check’… really upset me.”
The student added that in a classroom discussion on how people of colour feel vulnerable in public, fellow students downplayed the accounts of Jews who expressed fear of being targeted.
They also said that two other Jewish students had dropped out of the programme – including one due to stress.
In a statement Brooklyn College said that it “unequivocally denounces antisemitism in any form” and does not tolerate it on its campus. The College said it could not comment on ongoing investigations, but was “committed to working cooperatively and fully with the US Department of Education.” The statement also noted its “We Stand Against Hate” initiative, which features lectures, workshops, concerts and other events “that reflect the school’s ongoing commitment to celebrate the voices that make up our diverse campus community” and also served as a “platform to denounce antisemitism.”
The Office of Civil Rights has investigated several complaints against universities alleging antisemitic harassment following which all have entered resolution agreements promising to take steps to combat antisemitic harassment and discrimination against Jewish students on campus.