Ivy League universities and others face inquiries into anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Investigations are part of President Joe Biden's effort to take 'aggressive action' against discrimination, US Department of Education says

Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been on the rise since the Israel-Gaza war broke out last month. EPA
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The US federal government has opened civil rights investigations into seven schools and universities over allegations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Three Ivy League institutions – Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania – along with Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, were named on the list, the Associated Press reported. The list also includes one K-12 system, the Maize Unified School District in Kansas.

Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been on the rise since the Israel-Gaza war broke out last month.

The Education Department announced the inquiries on Thursday, calling it part of efforts by US President Joe Biden administration to take “aggressive action” against discrimination.

Educational institutions have a legal duty to act “when students are targeted because they are – or are perceived to be – Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry”, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a written statement.

Schools found to have violated civil rights law can face penalties up to a total loss of federal money, although the vast majority of cases end in voluntary settlements.

Mr Cardona told CNN on Friday that he expects more investigations are coming.

Five of the investigations are in response to allegations of anti-Semitic harassment, while two are in response to allegations of anti-Muslim harassment, the department said. The agency did not disclose which schools faced which accusations.

The schools are being investigated for possible discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, which violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal law requires schools to protect students from discrimination and respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment. Anyone can file a complaint alleging such discrimination.

Penn and Wellesley were accused of anti-Semitism in federal complaints filed last week by the Brandeis Centre, a Jewish legal advocacy group.

In a November 9 letter to the Education Department, the centre says Penn professors have made anti-Semitic statements in the classroom and on social media and that many Jewish students are afraid to be on campus during pro-Palestinian rallies.

University President Liz Magill “has made clear anti-Semitism is vile and pernicious and has no place at Penn”, the school said.

“The university will continue to vigilantly combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”

A separate letter from the Brandeis Centre said Wellesley has failed to address anti-Semitism. It cites an email that some dorm advisers sent to residents saying “there should be no space, no consideration and no support for Zionism” at Wellesley. Advisers later apologised for the message.

Officials at Lafayette said it was unclear to them why their school was being investigated.

“The college maintains a firm stance against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hate speech of any kind. The College is co-operating and will continue to co-operate fully with the DOE in their investigation,” the college said in a written statement.

Maize Unified, a district of about 8,000 pupils outside Wichita, said it did not receive a copy of the complaint but that the district “takes allegations of discrimination seriously and is committed to co-operating fully with any investigation”.

Over the past weeks, the Biden administration has been holding meetings with members of the Jewish as well as Arab and Muslim-American communities to discuss discrimination that has been on the rise since the beginning of the Israel-Gaza war.

“The level of intensity is really high,” Mr Cardona told CNN. “We need to match it with a level of response that meets the moment. We need to be listening to our students; we need to let them know that they will be safe in our schools – that we’re not going to tolerate hate or threats on campus.”

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Updated: November 17, 2023, 6:04 PM