Major American Jewish organizations condemned the University of Vermont on Friday after it issued a strong denial of any form of anti-Semitism on campus in response to a federal investigation into possible anti-Jewish discrimination by students and faculty.
The US Department of Education’s investigation into possible anti-Semitic events at the university was announced on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the popular Vermont State University in Burlington, popularly known as UVM, dismissed the accusations as “manifestly without merit.”
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“The baseless information released this week is damaging to UVM,” University President Suresh Garimella said in a message to the university community.
“And just as troubling, they harm our Jewish students, faculty, staff and alumni. »
“There is no doubt that anti-Semitism exists in the world and in our society, despite all our efforts.” “Using fear and division by falsely claiming that UVM does not receive anti-Semitic complaints creates confusion and insecurity throughout the community. »
The university said it is confident that the investigation will clear him in all respects.
It is the strongest rebuttal to the anti-Semitism accusations that have affected many American universities and are also under investigation.
“In these circumstances it is normal to remain silent as we support the ongoing investigation, but this is not possible for me. These public accusations, along with deeply held values in our society, require a strong and immediate response,” Garimella said.
Jewish organizations have said that to deny the problems exist is to blame Jewish students for raising the issue and could further alienate Jews and fuel anti-Semitism on campus.
Twenty leading Jewish organizations said they were “concerned, disappointed and alarmed” by the response, which “merely legitimizes” anti-Semitism.
“Instead of showing the courage that other university leaders across the United States have shown in acknowledging the problem or offering help to Jewish students who are afraid to come forward, UVM’s president persists and refuses to take responsibility,” the letter said. Organizations including the Anti-Defamation League from the University of Vermont, Hillel International, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Campus, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Chabad.
“The university refuses to help the targeted community. Moreover, by suggesting that Jewish students learn to protect themselves, he prefers to blame the victims,” the letter reads.
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights in Law, which supported the lawsuit against the university, said the university’s response was “shockingly inappropriate and hurtful.”
“Garimella’s statement shows no thought, no compassion, no remorse,” the Brandeis Center lamented.
“Garimella exhibits the same callous attitude that makes Jewish students vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, accusing victims of reporting to him,” the center said.
The American Jewish Committee said Garimella’s denial “had a negative impact on Jewish students facing anti-Semitism on campus, making Jewish students and groups feel less included, valued and protected.
“We are deeply disappointed that the university prefers to speak on behalf of Jewish students rather than take them seriously,” the committee said.
The World Jewish Congress said it was “disturbed” by Garimella’s response.
“His statement is far more ambiguous than the reactions of other university or college presidents or administrations facing similar challenges,” the group said.
The charges against UVM involve Zionist students who say they were kicked out of student clubs, including a support group for sexual assault victims. In addition, a teaching assistant reportedly threatened to lower Zionist students’ grades and insulted them online. Finally, students allegedly threw stones and destroyed doors at a student dormitory for Hillel Jews.
Garimella said that the university investigated these complaints quickly and thoroughly.
After investigating the organizations allegedly expelling Zionist students, the university said they were not recognized as student organizations, received no academic support, and therefore were not subject to UAV regulations.
The university assures that no grades were taken down by the anti-Zionist assistant despite his threats, and no students reported being discriminated against.
Finally, the police, who received a report that stones had been thrown at the Hillel building on campus, where Jewish students live, determined that small stones had indeed been thrown at the building, but attracted the attention of a resident, and no evidence was found. Garimella said that this is due to anti-Semitic prejudice.
The Brandeis Center said these arguments were “completely unfounded.”
The student book club that bans Zionists is actually funded by the university, the Brandeis Center explained, noting that the two groups’ discriminatory behavior is not covered by free speech.
A sexual assault support group that closes its doors to Zionists is a major student organization well-known by the administration, although it is not supported by the university. The Brandeis Center considers this sufficient evidence of the university’s responsibility in this matter of discrimination.
The teaching assistant, in turn, “encouraged hostility” against Jews by saying it was “good and funny” to insult them and encouraged her students to do the same. The Center said that it poses a further threat to their prices.
In its response to the assistant, the university did not address the issue of online violence or incitement to anti-Semitism. He didn’t dispute that he was still on the varsity staff.
According to the complaint, the students who threw stones at the Jewish dormitories went outside to ask the residents what was going on, to find out if they were Jews, and for about 30 minutes they continued to throw stones, destroying the buildings. This in no way matches the explanation given by the university.
The lawsuit against the university accuses it of allowing a hostile, anti-Semitic environment to flourish on campus, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs.
Anti-Semitism discrimination has been a Title VI violation since 2019 thanks to an executive order by former President Donald Trump. It opened a new legal avenue for Jewish advocates fighting anti-Semitism on campus.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigates only complaints it deems worthy of further investigation.
Before the federal investigation, Jewish students at Vermont State College had already reported widespread discrimination. This year’s Jews on Campus report found that the University of Vermont reported more anti-Semitic incidents in 2021 than any other campus.