Education Department Launches Investigation Into CUNY Anti-Semitism

Jewish students were subject to a 'hostile environment,' complaint alleges

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona / Getty Images
February 3, 2022

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations of "severe and persistent anti-Semitic harassment" against students at Brooklyn College.

The Department is set to begin its investigation a year after the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights filed a complaint on behalf of Jewish students in Brooklyn College’s master’s program for Mental Health Counseling. The complaint alleges that the school has ignored anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated by professors and students in the program, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Jewish students were "maligned" in the classroom and subject to a "hostile environment" on campus, according to the complaint.

The investigation comes as the City University of New York (CUNY) system grapples with anti-Semitism across its schools, including Brooklyn College. Seven CUNY professors sued to sever ties with CUNY’s faculty union, which last year "condemned the massacre of Palestinians" at the hands of Israel in a statement. A February 2021 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report found that CUNY has fostered an anti-Semitic environment for years.

The complaint outlines how professors "have maligned Jews on the basis of race and ethnic identity" by claiming that Jews "contribute to the systemic oppression of people of color." Faculty, staff, and students disseminated "classical anti-Semitic trope that Jews possess disproportionate power and influence," the complaint reads. One professor slammed American Jews as "oppressors."

Denise Katz-Prober, the Brandeis Center’s Director of Legal Initiatives, told the Washington Free Beacon that the "negative impact" of the anti-Semitic climate in the master’s program on students’ mental health and ability to learn "can’t be overstated."

Jewish students were also subject to discrimination outside the classroom. The complaint alleges that students bullied their Jewish classmates "in class discussions and on social media" by recycling the "ethnic stereotypes [and] anti-Semitic tropes…that faculty members promote in their courses." In a WhatsApp chat, one student threatened to strangle a Jewish student, and received support from peers who agreed.

The incidents led one student, a Jewish person of color, to leave the program. This student, who spoke to the Free Beacon on the condition of anonymity, brought the issue to a school administrator. The student’s "brown skin" wouldn’t help in this case, the official said.

"She literally told me that my brown skin isn't going to save me in this regard," the student told the Free Beacon. "More or less she said keep your head down, don't say anything, don't try to save the other people, and don't think that you being dark-skinned is going to save you at all. Being Jewish is part of this privileged class, and you have no say."

Out of roughly 40 students in the cohort, two have resigned due to repeated anti-Semitic attacks, another student told the Free Beacon. This student said the anti-Semitism was obvious the first week of class. In one instance, a professor asked the class if Jews should be called white. In another, a professor handed out a worksheet that "called out Jewish people," the student said, for not accepting their identity as white.

"I never thought that in a program that was intended for sensitive mental health professionals that I would be harassed and discriminated against for my identity as a Jew," the student said.

A Brooklyn College spokesman told the Free Beacon that the school "unequivocally denounces anti-Semitism in any form and does not tolerate it on its campus."

"The College appreciates the important role Jewish Americans have played in the rich history of the country, the city, and the campus," said Brooklyn College spokesman Richard Pietras.

The Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into the University of Illinois in October 2020 on similar charges. Officials there were for years unresponsive to "an unrelenting campaign of Semitic harassment," according to the complaint.