(June 5, 2019 / JNS) The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Williams College for possibly violating anti-discriminatory law over the student government rejecting a new pro-Israel group, Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), in an anonymous vote in April.
The Office for Civil Rights’ Boston office announced in a May 31 letter it’s looking into a complaint filed earlier in the month by George Mason University law professor David Bernstein, accusing the College Council of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits “discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”
“Williams College is an institution of higher education that received federal funds, and is subject to Title VI,” wrote Bernstein in the complaint.
Bernstein was informed Friday of the decision.
Williams spokesperson Greg Shook told The College Fix that the school “welcomes the opportunity” to cooperate with OCR.
“Our goal is to educate our students about governance and campus climate,” he said. “Partnering with OCR is a valuable way to move that effort forward.”
In May, the college administration overrode the student government’s rejection of WIFI.
WIFI, per its constitution, seeks “to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.”
Issues that the council members had with the group included it not taking a position on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At an April 16 council meeting, one student asked, “Why do you feel the need to ally yourself with the State of Israel, as opposed to taking a human-rights-oriented approach?”
Another student seem concerned about having a club “that’s built on the assumption that Israel has a right to exist, in the sense that it has a right to enact its policies, which [are] oftentimes drowning out the voices of Palestinians.”
WIFI leader Molly Berenbaum responded, “It’s specifically just a group that thinks Israel should exist. That’s really as specific as it gets.”
The student government decision was condemned by Williams College president Maud Mandel, who said that the “transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Mandel, that the student government did not follow “its own processes and bylaws.”
The bylaws make no mention of political views as an eligibility factor.
“This attempt to deny Jewish and pro-Israel students the freedom to fully participate in campus life is a case of egregious discrimination and blatant intolerance, and we are pleased the Department of Education is investigating,” AMCHA Initiative co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS.
“BDS is designed to promote lies and political propaganda that aim to inject hate onto campus, divide the community, and shut down genuine debate and discourse. In order to do that, BDS proponents attempt to suppress all pro-Israel views and voices, and ostracize and marginalize those that hold them,” she said. “This is exactly what was attempted here, and sadly has been attempted by anti-Zionist students and groups on numerous campuses across the country.”