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Jewish students file complaint against American University over handling of campus antisemitism

On campus, pro-Palestinian protestors have blocked Jewish students’ access to dining halls and classrooms, while dorms have been vandalized with swastikas

Robert Knopes/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Library and Learning Resources Center, American University, Washington, D.C.

One Jewish student at American University was screamed at in class by a fellow student, “You are responsible for genocide.” Another was hauled in to the administration and is being investigated for filming students ripping down posters of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. And in one AU class, a professor allegedly drove a Jewish student to leave in tears with her emotional praise of pro-Palestinian protests, turning a hard stare to her that other students parroted.

In response to these and other other incidents targeting Jewish students at AU, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus on Wednesday filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the university, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

“AU is a hostile environment in every aspect of the campus for Jewish students,” Deena Margolies, the Brandeis Center lawyer who is overseeing the complaint, told Jewish Insider. 

“There are no places on campus that aren’t hostile for Jewish students. They’re harassed in their bedrooms. They’re harassed in classrooms. They’re harassed when attending a vigil [for Oct. 7 victims]. There were already a number of problems on campus for Jewish students prior to Oct. 7, however it has since exacerbated greatly.” 

“We’re not asking that Jewish students be given extra protection, we’re asking that they be treated equally at AU and they’re not. They are discriminating against Jewish and Israeli students,” Margolies continued.

The 26-page complaint, which was shared exclusively with JI, details how since Oct. 7, pro-Palestinian protestors have blocked Jewish students’ access to dining halls and classrooms, dormitory doors and posters have been vandalized with swastikas and posters of Israeli hostages have been repeatedly torn down. It claims that the university “chose to further harass and discriminate against several Jewish students by subjecting them to a baseless disciplinary hearing for using their phones to record individuals tearing down posters of Israeli hostages.” 

Lauren Cayle, a junior who is majoring in sociology and minoring in Jewish studies, is one of the students under investigation by the university for recording individuals tearing down hostage posters. “We were being followed and harassed by people ripping down the posters as we went,” she recalled. “It was very upsetting. Now we’re being investigated for standing up for ourselves. We’re potentially facing disciplinary action.” 

Margolies said disciplinary proceedings would be “further evidence of harassment for Jewish students by the university. Because instead of addressing harassment they are facing by other students, they are allowing these students to continue to harass Jewish and Israelis students by investigating perfectly lawful recordings that were taken in public.” 

Cayle described the climate on campus for Jewish students as “scary, tense and very hostile.” She told JI that a pro-Palestinian protest on campus on Nov. 10 “was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

“Policies were not enforced,” she said. “Students were using megaphones and purposefully trying to disrupt classes. It was completely out of control. Police did not intervene. There’s a double standard that is being held. I’ve previously hosted [Israel events] on the quad and we were told to keep the volume down… these protestors were not held to the same standard. I couldn’t focus in class. It was scary and overwhelming, I was shaking,” Cayle continued. “Jewish students do not feel safe on campus. I’m constantly checking my surroundings and the administration has completely abandoned us. There has been no condemnation.” 

Among incidents cited in the letter includes one in which an AU professor devoted class time to sharing photos from pro-Palestinian protests, which she projected onto a large screen. The professor allegedly praised the protests, sharing how meaningful and powerful they were for her — including a photo that showed a sign of a Star of David in a trash can with the caption, “Keep the world clean.” According to the complaint, the professor stared at a Jewish student in the class to the point that many of the other classmates turned around to also stare at the student, resulting in the Jewish student walking out of the class in tears. 

In another alleged classroom incident, a peer screamed at the only Jewish student in class, “I do not want to sit on the same side of the room as this Zionist,” and “You have blood on your hands. You are responsible for genocide.” Neither the professor nor the administration addressed the conduct, according to the complaint.

The complaint notes a double standard, writing that “while the university took prompt and effective action in response to incidents of Islamophobia, AU officials repeatedly ignored the antisemitic discrimination and harassment Jewish students reported to them. The university neglected to investigate antisemitic conduct or take the necessary steps to eliminate the mistreatment Jewish students endured.” 

Julia Jassey, co-founder and CEO of Jewish on Campus, said in a statement, “Where the law is clear, AU officials have failed… Ignoring these experiences is tantamount to tolerating them. We urge a swift investigation and a campus climate where no student has to endure such harassment.”

Cayle expressed hope that filing the complaint will allow Jewish students at AU and other schools “to never have to deal with what I am dealing with.”  

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” she said. “I don’t want to have to hide my Jewish pride, but this is our reality.” 

As a response to the rise in antisemitism on campuses following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, the Education Department released an updated complaint form in November, making it easier to identify religious discrimination for students alleging that their civil rights had been violated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VI 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 OCR received 12 complaints of discrimination on the basis of “shared ancestry,” a department spokesperson told Jewish Insider in November, noting 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. Seven of the logged complaints involve antisemitism.

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