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Administration officials receive lukewarm reception from Jewish leaders on campus antisemitism

Administration officials receive lukewarm reception from Jewish leaders on campus antisemitism

Colin Myers/Claflin University/HBCU via Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Top officials from the Department of Education met virtually with Jewish community leaders on Monday to discuss the agency’s actions to combat rising antisemitism on American college campuses. But several of the attendees left the meeting concerned that the department is not responding with the urgency they feel the antisemitism crisis deserves. 

“​​We’ve repeatedly communicated that this crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen before, so it requires a response that is unlike what we’ve seen before, in terms of resources, guidance and — if necessary — direct pressure on schools to ensure their students are safe,” said Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “It is entirely possible to both protect speech and address increasingly overt antisemitism.”

Monday’s meeting came two weeks after Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, met with a small group of Jewish leaders and pledged to make a plan within two weeks to address the wave of antisemitism on campuses. 

“They did not give us a plan to deal with an unprecedented surge in antisemitic activity,” said Ken Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. Instead, Marcus said, the Education Department leaders on the call — Deputy Secretary Cynthia Marten and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon — touted steps already taken by the Biden administration and expressed concern about the problem without offering many new approaches. 

“It’s notable when two such high officials of the Education Department are present,” Marcus continued. “But beyond that, I would say that the meeting was most notable for the absence of a significant plan for addressing this extraordinary problem.” 

Cardona kicked off Monday’s meeting with a brief message of support for Jewish students who have faced threats or harassment on campus.

“There were a lot of broad comments about how fighting antisemitism on campuses is a priority for the department, and they’re really committed,” said a lobbyist at a Jewish advocacy organization who attended the meeting.

Late last month, the White House spoke out against an “extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages being conveyed on college campuses,” according to Andrew Bates, the White House deputy press secretary. “Delegitimizing the State of Israel while praising the Hamas terrorist murderers who burned innocent people alive, or targeting Jewish students, is the definition of unacceptable, and the definition of antisemitism.” 

The comments were followed by a series of actions meant to combat antisemitism at American universities, which have seen Jewish students assaulted and threatened in recent weeks. The Education Department updated the complaint form for students reporting civil rights violations to now make it easier to identify anti-Jewish hate, and Lhamon wrote a “Dear Colleague” letter to American universities urging them to respond to rising antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

But some Jewish advocates worry these actions are not enough.

“I think the set of tools and the mode of thinking that they have is not matched to the moment of crisis, and they need to shift,” said the lobbyist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about a closed-door meeting. For instance, senior Education Department officials had pledged to make visits to universities to discuss antisemitism, according to guidance in the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism that was released in May. Last week, Cardona and Emhoff visited Cornell, where an undergraduate was arrested last month for making violent threats against Jewish students. Earlier this month, Cardona and Neera Tanden, the White House’s domestic policy advisor, met with Jewish students at Towson University.

“We said, ‘Hey, you should be making some high-profile site visits for universities that are doing a terrible job,’” the lobbyist said, pointing to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Jewish students reported being shut out of classes last week by pro-Palestine protesters. “Those university administrations need to be made to feel uncomfortable themselves.” 

An Education Department spokesperson declined to comment when asked about the Monday meeting. 

The Education Department officials pointed to a number of complaints recently filed with the department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging antisemitic discrimination at American universities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But according to attendees on the call, the officials did not say whether the department will be able to expedite these complaints, which sometimes take years to resolve. 

Lhamon “shared her strong commitment to using Title VI to hold university administrations accountable for responding swiftly and effectively to harassment of Jewish students creating a hostile environment,” said Adam Lehman, CEO of Hillel International. But “there was general agreement that the department and others will need to invest toward additional interventions that can even more quickly guide universities toward changes in policy and practice.”

Other organizations represented on the call included the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Bend the Arc and T’ruah.

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