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dear colleague

Education Dept. pens letter to universities urging them to address antisemitism, Islamophobia

The letter comes as Jewish advocates have sought additional action from federal officials in light of a dramatic rise in antisemitism on campuses

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Catherine Lhamon, nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

The top civil rights official at the Education Department sent a letter to leaders of American colleges and universities on Tuesday to remind them of their obligations to provide a discrimination-free learning environment for all students. 

The letter, authored by Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, cited “a nationwide rise in reports of hate crimes and harassment, including an alarming rise in disturbing antisemitic incidents and threats to Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students on college campuses and in P-12 schools.”

The Dear Colleague letter comes as Jewish advocates have sought additional action from federal officials in light of a dramatic rise in antisemitism on campuses following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. 

Last week, the Education Department released an updated version of the complaint form, making it easier to identify religious discrimination, for students alleging that their civil rights had been violated. Such discrimination falls under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires any programs receiving federal assistance “to provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” 

Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 7, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights received 12 complaints of discrimination on the basis of “shared ancestry,” a department spokesperson told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. Seven of the complaints involve antisemitism, two involve Islamophobia, two involve anti-Hindu discrimination and one is broad-based. (The spokesperson noted that some complaints may allege actions prior to Oct. 7, and that there may be additional complaints that haven’t yet been logged by regional staff.)

The “key paragraph” in Tuesday’s Dear Colleague letter, according to Mark Rotenberg, vice president for university initiatives and general counsel at Hillel International, is one that describes what counts as “harassing conduct.” 

“Harassing conduct can be verbal or physical and need not be directed at a particular individual,” the letter said. “OCR interprets Title VI to mean that the following type of harassment creates a hostile environment: unwelcome conduct based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics that, based on the totality of circumstances, is subjectively and objectively offensive and is so severe or pervasive that it limits or denies a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s education program or activity.”

The letter said schools are obligated to “take immediate and effective action to respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment.”

Ken Marcus, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Trump administration, praised the Biden administration for sending the letter but called it “something of a missed opportunity” for its lack of specificity about recent antisemitic incidents at U.S. colleges.

“They should get credit for sending a letter, but they could have sent something much stronger,” Marcus, the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told JI. “I was also hoping that the administration would communicate publicly more of the concern that they are sharing privately.” 

The letter earned praise from Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), the co-chair of the Senate bipartisan task force for combating antisemitism. 

“I’m glad to see the U.S. Department of Education is taking action at my urging to remind school administrators of their legal responsibility to keep students safe from antisemitism and other forms of discrimination – or face consequences,” Rosen said in a statement. “I’m continuing to urge the Department to form a task force to counter campus antisemitism.”

Last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and White House domestic policy chief Neera Tanden visited the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University in Baltimore to talk with Jewish students about antisemitism on their campus. 

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