Middlebury Students Tried To Host a Vigil for Victims of Oct. 7 Attack. Administrators Told Them To Remove the Word ‘Jewish.’

The Department of Education is now investigating Middlebury over anti-Semitism.

Middlebury's Dean of Students Derek Doucet and the Old Chapel (Middlebury College, Wikimedia)
March 11, 2024

It was October 10, three days after Hamas had murdered 1,200 Israelis and abducted hundreds more, and Jewish students at Middlebury College were trying to organize a vigil for the victims. They reached out to Middlebury’s dean of students, Derek Doucet, with a draft poster promoting the event, which they invited administrators at the elite liberal arts school to attend.

"Stand in Solidarity With the Jewish People," the poster read. "This will be an opportunity to honor the innocent lives lost in the tragic events that have struck Israel in the past days."

It didn’t go over well.

In an email to students reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, Doucet, who has oversight of student activities, pushed to rename the vigil and strip it of references to Judaism so as to make it "as inclusive as possible."

"Some suggestions that might help are stating that this gathering is to honor ‘all the innocent lives lost,’" Doucet wrote, and including a reference to the "tragedies that have struck Israel and Gaza." He added that calls for solidarity with Jews could trigger "unhelpful reactions."

"I recognize and deeply respect that there has to be a place for purely Jewish grief and sorrow," Doucet said, "and yet I wonder if … such a public gathering in such a charged moment might be more inclusive with edits such as these."

The need to include all groups—in a vigil mourning the losses of one—was selective and short-lived. Less than a month later, Doucet’s office approved a "Vigil for Palestine," hosted by the Muslim Students Association, that began with an Islamic prayer and featured remarks from the school’s vice president of equity and inclusion, Khuram Hussain, who did not attend the Jewish vigil.

"Standing in solidarity," the Muslim student group wrote in an Instagram post promoting the event. "Together, we honor Palestine."

The divergent reaction to the two events is one of the most shocking examples of discrimination outlined in a federal civil rights complaint against Middlebury, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Filed last month by the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, a pro-Israel nonprofit that has sued other elite schools over anti-Semitism, the complaint alleges that Middlebury created a hostile environment for its Jewish students by ignoring and at times impeding their efforts to combat campus anti-Semitism.

On Tuesday, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights told StandWithUS that it had opened an investigation into Middlebury based on the complaint. The office will review the allegations and, if it finds that discrimination has occurred, provide a list of remedial actions for Middlebury to take. Such probes can range from a few months to several years, depending on the office’s case load.

Colleges across the country have been accused of violating Title VI, the civil rights law governing recipients of federal funds, by turning a blind eye to the harassment of Jews on campus in the wake of Oct. 7. The Middlebury complaint goes further, arguing that the school has not only tolerated anti-Semitism but actively discriminated against its Jewish students, in part by denying them the same accommodations as their Muslim and Christian peers.

Middlebury funds and recognizes six Christian clubs on campus, for example, along with both the Muslim Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine. But it has refused to recognize Chabad, an orthodox campus organization with chapters across the country, on the grounds that Jewish students already have access to Hillel, the only space at Middlebury with a Kosher kitchen.

"The funding request for food replicates programming already funded and offered by Hillel for Shabbat dinners," Middlebury’s student activities office wrote in a February email rejecting Chabad’s bid for recognition. It was at least the second time since 2018 that the school has denied an application from Chabad.

"Middlebury believes it has legitimate grounds to deny a Jewish club’s recognition simply on the grounds that one Jewish group is more than enough for the campus," the complaint reads. "It appears that Chabad’s rejection was at least in part based on a disturbing reluctance by Middlebury to provide kosher food options to its Jewish students."

The school also resisted calls for a police presence at the Jewish vigil in October, citing concerns that the officers could upset students, and asked the organizers of the event not to display Israeli flags, according to meetings described in the complaint.

The Palestinian vigil appears to have faced fewer hurdles. Not only did Middlebury station a police car outside the event, according to a report in the school’s student newspaper, it offered up Middlebury Chapel, one of the largest event spaces on campus, to the Muslim group after interest in the vigil surged. The chapel was not made available for the Jewish vigil, which was held outside, even though it drew a larger crowd than the pro-Palestinian event.

"What makes Middlebury different from our other Title VI complaints is that there’s not just a hostile environment for Jewish students; the administration also seems to be directly complicit," Yael Lerman, the director of the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, told the Free Beacon. "The Middlebury administration seems to think they’re off the radar and can get away with disparate treatment of Jewish students because everyone is focused on Harvard, MIT, and Penn."

That disparate treatment appears to reflect the ideological sympathies of at least some administrators. On Feb. 16, the same day StandWithUs’s complaint was filed, Middlebury released a statement, "How Middlebury is Handling the Tensions Surrounding the Israel/Gaza War," that appeared to endorse the Palestinian "struggle for liberation."

"Student Affairs, Public Safety, and the Events offices supported a vigil honoring the Palestinian people and their struggle for liberation at Middlebury Chapel on November 9," the statement said.

It also touted an "Anti-Oppression Reading Group Discussion of Islamophobia" with Renee Wells, Middlebury’s director of education for equity and inclusion, and a "teach-in" hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine, the group behind some of the most aggressive anti-Semitic protests nationally.

Middlebury has since stealth-edited the statement to remove those references, based on multiple versions of the webpage archived by StandWithUs Center For Legal Justice. The school did not respond to a request for comment about whether it supports Palestinian "liberation" or has an official view on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The efforts to rewrite history extend to the college’s dealings with students, who have been discouraged from creating a record of their conversations with administrators. After a Jewish student met with Middlebury’s provost, Michelle McCauley, to discuss a slew of anti-Semitic Yik Yak posts, the student sent an email recapping the meeting.

McCauley responded that the recap was "not as I understood the conversation" and, in a follow-up meeting, castigated the student for putting the discussion in writing, according to emails reviewed by the Free Beacon and meetings described in the complaint. She then had Hussain, the diversity official who spoke at the Gaza vigil, produce his own recap of the meeting, which omitted key parts of the conversation and downplayed the student’s concerns, according to the complaint.

"Rather than address its antisemitism problem, Middlebury’s administration has attempted to hide and deny its existence," the complaint reads. "Middlebury is a leading example of a campus where hostility towards Jews and Israelis thrives."

Update 03/11/24, 3:00 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the complaint was filed by StandWithUs. It was filed by the StandWithUs Center For Legal Justice, a separate legal entity.