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US Education Department investigating SUNY at New Paltz over alleged antisemitism

No matter what happens, SUNY “did not serve us in time, or it did not consider our well-being and the urgency of the matter,” one of two student complainants told JNS.

The campus of SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, N.Y. Credit: crz4mets2 via Wikimedia Commons.
The campus of SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, N.Y. Credit: crz4mets2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into allegations of antisemitism at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights will formally examine complaints that two Jewish students were booted from a sexual-assault awareness group at the university, according to materials reviewed by JNS.

The two were then allegedly bullied, harassed and threatened due to their Jewish, Israeli and Zionist identities, according to their complaint, which was filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Ofek Preis, an Israeli who is one of the student complainants, told JNS that she is very grateful to know that the federal investigation is happening. “I’m so thankful to have found a light in the darkness that is this case,” she said. “It was definitely a heartbreaking and traumatizing incident.”

Preis and Jewish-American student Cassie Blotner allege that a student-run sexual-assault survivors’ support group on the New Paltz campus harassed and kicked them out of the group.

That followed a social-media post of Blotner’s in December 2021, in which she expressed her Jewish identity. Preis reposted the message. Blotner is a co-founder of New Paltz Accountability, the group in question, but both her and Preis’s posts were on personal social-media handles.

The student group stopped contacting Preis about organizational activities and blocked her access to shared organizational documents, according to the complaint. The group then published statements on social media stating that it was open only to those who reject Zionism, the complaint added.

Those posts fueled more antisemitic online comments directed at her, Blotner alleges.

Ofek Preis, graduating from SUNY New Paltz. Credit: Courtesy.

Blotner and Preis allege that the university violated their rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, including discrimination against Jews. That includes marginalizing, demonizing and excluding Jewish students for their identity as Zionists or Jews.

The two students say that SUNY officials failed to protect them, as it is required, so that they could attend classes without fear for their safety.

SUNY officials only decided to take action after the Department of Ed complaint was filed, which was “too little, too late,” Preis told JNS.

The university held focus groups, soliciting input from Jewish students and the Jewish community about improving the campus environment. SUNY issued a report with recommendations, including adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

The report made no recommendations about addressing ongoing harassment and discrimination, particularly against Zionists.

In so doing, the university gave a green light to campus antisemitism with its “half-measures and empty rhetoric,” per a letter that the school’s Jewish Student Union wrote to the campus community.

The Academic Spine at SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, N.Y. Credit: crz4mets2 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Sends a clear and unequivocal signal’

The federal investigation follows a settlement, this April, with the University of Vermont over allegations of antisemitism.

The university was found to have failed to address serious allegations of harassment, including a teaching assistant bragging about penalizing Jewish students, exclusion of Jews from campus organizations and rocks thrown at Jewish housing.

As part of the settlement, the university agreed to revise its policies to ensure its response to discrimination is consistent with federal law. It will also train leaders, staff and students not to harass people based on national ancestry.

Denise Katz-Prober, director of legal initiatives at the Louis D. Brandeis Center, filed the complaint against SUNY New Paltz.

That the Education Department opened this investigation first, after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the national strategy to combat antisemitism, “sends a clear and unequivocal signal to SUNY New Paltz, as well as universities across the country, that they take anti-Zionist discrimination and harassment seriously and they expect universities to take it just as seriously,” Katz-Prober stated.

The department is broadcasting that it will address anti-Zionist discrimination “with the same intensity and vigor, as they do all other forms of harassment and discrimination,” she added.

Jewish on Campus was also named as a complainant along with Preis and Blotner.

“No student should ever be excluded from campus because of facets of their Jewish identity, let alone survivors of sexual assault,” wrote Julia Jassey, the nonprofit’s co-founder and CEO.

“By launching an investigation into SUNY New Paltz’s actions, or lack thereof, in the face of this blatant antisemitism, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is taking a necessary step toward accountability,” she added. “As Jewish students on campuses across the country are forced to confront similar discrimination in their classrooms and student organizations, today’s announcement is a beginning, not an end.”

Preis and Blotner have since graduated from SUNY New Paltz.

“Regardless of what steps were taken or what the university thinks were adequate reactions, it did not serve us in time, or it did not consider our well-being and the urgency of the matter,” Preis told JNS.

SUNY New Paltz did not reply to a JNS request for comment. A Department of Education spokesman told JNS he could not immediately provide information about the scope of the investigation, timeline or other details.

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