(August 26, 2022 / JNS) An Israeli student at a New York state college says she feels she needs to hide her national and religious identity as she heads back to campus for the fall semester, days after filing a civil-rights complaint against the school.
Ofek Preis, along with Jewish American student Cassie Blotner, allege they were harassed and kicked out of a sexual-assault survivors’ support group at the State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz campus following Blotner’s independent social-media post last December expressing her Jewish identity, and Preis’s reposting of the message. Blotner is a co-founder of the New Paltz Accountability (NPA), the group in question.
“Neither one of us really knows what this semester will be like. We are heading into a campus where we don’t know what the environment will be like,” Preis told JNS this week as she moved back after the summer break. “We’re very grateful for all the support that we’ve received from outside sources. But we’re anxious about what will happen.”
Blotner and Preis’s complaint against the university was made with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging a violation of 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. They say university officials failed to provide security or protect them as required so they could attend classes without fear for their safety.
Preis said that she and Blotner were vocal with the university in the initial stages and attempted to reach various officials and channels throughout the university. “But the two of us felt very not-listened-to,” said Preis, leading to the development of outside resources, representation and support from other Jewish organizations and on social media. “We have definitely been tapped out from continuing to vocalize and vouch for ourselves because we felt so unheard.”
Preis said that she and Blotner were violated three times: by their assailants, by the anti-Semitism experienced in NPA and by the school’s failure to take action. The university president Darrell Wheeler, while condemning anti-Semitism, said in a statement to the university community that he was limited in his options because NPA is not a sanctioned university organization.
“It was absolutely shocking and very dehumanizing for both Cassie and I as survivors to come to this space and seek help, seek support and seek a platform in which we can protest and advocate for justice, and advocate for the reform that we want to see on campus. And we’re told that we are incapable of doing so because of our national origin and our history. It takes the trauma to a whole other level because part of being a survivor is that your identity was taken away from you, and your voice is taken away from you. You’re silenced. Then you have no control over your safety and your well-being on campus. And that is exactly what happened to us, three-fold,” said Preis.
She said she did not feel anti-Semitic hostility on campus to the extent she felt after reposting Blotner’s message, previously seeing the campus environment as relatively safe.
“There is a great Jewish community on campus. We felt surrounded by our people, and we felt very supported, and that doesn’t take away from the Jewish community today. But the extremism of this case makes it so hard to compare to other kinds of anti-Semitism that we might have faced before,” she said.
Preis is hoping the complaint filed with the Department of Education leads to substantive change, not only in educating students, faculty and university officials on anti-Semitism but in forcing administrators to be more proactive in caring for Jewish students under threat on campuses across the country.
“We are asking for that precedent to be set for other universities to understand this is not okay, and that they have that responsibility to listen to us. They have the responsibility to protect us and they have the responsibility to educate themselves about Zionism and anti-Semitism,” she said.
In the meantime, as Preis begins her senior year, she said she feels hesitant to outwardly display her heritage to the level she has in the past, even as her push for change makes headlines. Preis told JNS that silence is not an option for her when people on campus make claims about Israelis and her country.
“I felt obligated to fight the claims and fight the defamation,” she said. Still, returning to campus under such duress poses identity challenges.
“When it comes to letting my Jewish pride show on campus, it definitely has reduced a lot. I felt very obligated to keep it to myself, to stay inside about it,” said Preis. “And I do think that because this is my senior year, I will definitely be taking a little bit of a step back just for safety, for mental well-being. I will just be trying to stay away from further complications, with me being a proud Israeli.”
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