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Michigan, CUNY failed to protect Jewish students, Education Department investigation finds

“This is a time to say Jewish lives matter,” Rabbi Asher Lopatin, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, told JNS.

Miguel Cardona, the U.S. education secretary, speaks at the 2024 Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on Feb. 5, 2024. Credit: U.S. Department of Education.
Miguel Cardona, the U.S. education secretary, speaks at the 2024 Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on Feb. 5, 2024. Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. Department of Education released a pair of agreements on Monday with the University of Michigan and the City University of New York to address their failure to protect the civil rights of Jewish students.

The resolution agreements are the outcome of civil rights investigations by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights into complaints that the universities violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students.

“In OCR’s review of university documentation of 75 reports the university received alleging shared ancestry harassment and/or discrimination from the 2022-23 school year through February 2024, OCR found no evidence that the university complied with its Title VI requirements,” the Department of Education stated of its investigation of University of Michigan.

Title VI prohibits discrimination based on “race, color or national origin,” and the Education Department notes that bias based on “shared ancestry” includes religion. 

As part of the resolution agreements, the universities have agreed to review or re-open investigations of alleged Jew-hatred on campus and report to OCR about the actions they’ve taken to remedy the problem.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, told JNS that the agreements are a good first step, but the universities need to do more to directly address antisemitism on campus, including unsanctioned anti-Israel protest encampments.

“They have policies that are in place,” Lopatin said. “This encampment was against the rules. I don’t know why they have to re-examine their policies. They just have to follow through on their policies.”

“I think the university believes that if they ignore what’s going on, it’ll go away,” Lopatin told JNS. “That’s never a good policy, usually, and I don’t think it’s going to happen this time.”

Universities across the country have been at the forefront of the explosion of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel discrimination since Oct. 7, and many have struggled to deal with mass anti-Israel demonstrations that many Jewish and Israeli students allege have created a hostile environment and violated their civil rights.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona addressed that wider wave of discrimination on college campuses since Oct. 7 in a statement on the resolution of the CUNY and Michigan investigations.

“Sadly, we have witnessed a series of deeply concerning incidents in recent months,” Cardona stated. “There’s no question that this is a challenging moment for school communities across the country.”

One of the challenges that schools have faced is drawing the line between discriminatory behavior and protected free speech, an issue that repeatedly comes up in complaint letters to universities alleging discrimination.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin. Credit: JCRC/AJC Detroit.

“The complainant stated that shortly after the beginning of each of the two class sessions, a group of students in attendance changed their Zoom backgrounds to the Palestinian flag and their visible screen names to ‘Free Palestine: Decolonize’ and read aloud a statement ‘defaming and demonizing Israel through false accusations of colonization, ethnic cleansing, genocide and more,’” the CUNY letter says. 

CUNY’s Hunter College took no action as it concluded that the statement was protected free speech, according to the complaint.

Cardona stated that the Department of Education would continue to pursue solutions in the dozens of other open investigations into discrimination at universities across the country.

“The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights continues to hold schools accountable for compliance with civil rights standards, including by investigating allegations of discrimination or harassment based on shared Jewish ancestry and shared Palestinian or Muslim ancestry,” Cardona added.

The Education Department lists 111 open Title VI investigations against schools and educational districts that receive federal funding, based on what it calls “discrimination involving shared ancestry.” (Another listing on the department’s website identifies 149 open probes of schools under Title VI based on “national origin discrimination involving religion.”)

Lopatin told JNS that the urge to lump in the condemnation of anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian bigotry, including in Monday’s resolution disagreements, risks missing the acute threat that currently faces Jews.

“I’m very much against saying it’s all the same,” Lopatin said. “It gets into this ‘All Lives Matter’ thing. This is a time to say Jewish lives matter.”

“There was a time when we had to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ because there was a particular issue of discrimination against African Americans, and now is a time where people have to say ‘Jewish Lives Matter,’” he added. “The emphasis has to be that it’s become a hostile environment for many Jews on campus.”

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