UVM president rejects antisemitism charges, but university remains target of pro-Israel groups – Mondoweiss

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Last month the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into complaints of antisemitism at the University of Vermont. That complaint was filed in October 2021 by Jewish On Campus and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights is a D.C.-based nonprofit that has launched a number of complaints and lawsuits in the name of fighting “anti-Israelism” and antisemitism. “Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath or maintaining a kosher diet,” the groups president and general counsel Alyza Lewin declared in 2020.

Jewish On Campus (JOC) was a student group created in 2020 that has since developed into a nonprofit and become a partner organization of the World Jewish Congress. “JOC’s team has reports of over 1,000 unique stories of on-campus antisemitism,” the organization’s website explains. “Given our position as a youth-run project, we work together with students on the ground of individual universities to run multilateral campaigns to combat antisemitism. This action will involve both administrative action (with the help of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law) and student-body action through social media and grassroots on-campus work to fundamentally change campus culture on the frontlines of student activism.”

Antisemitism Allegations

The complaint refers to the antisemitism allegations as “statements of fact.” According to the groups two campus organizations blocked Zionists on social media, a UVM teaching assistant said she was lowering the grades of Zionists, and students threw rocks at the UVM Hillel Building.

In 2021 students organized a group called UVM Empowering Survivors in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. They set up an Instagram page where victims could share their experiences anonymously. In response to Israel’s deadly bombing of Gaza that May the page posted a message of support to the Palestinian people. It noted that the group has Jewish members who consistently advocate for Palestinian liberation, and that some members of the IDF had sexually assaulted Palestinians. The complaint refers to the IDF sexual assaults as a false claim despite multiple accusations and convictions.

“This is not something that we are going to discuss with you,” reads the post. “If you don’t support Palestinian liberation you don’t support survivors. We follow the same policy with Zionists that we do with those trolling or harassing others: blocked.”

UVM Hillel (the school chapter of the largest Jewish campus organization in the world and an organization whose motto is, “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel”) released a statement in response to the Instagram post calling it “vulgar and damaging.”

The other group accused of antisemitism is the UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union, a group that launched a campus book club in 2021. “There is no liberation without decolonization,” reads the club’s first Instagram post. “We want to subscribe to these cultural values as an organization so everybody feels welcome and wants to be a part of what we’re building. No racism, racial chauvinism, predatory behavior, homophobia, transphobia, Zionism, or bigotry and hate speech of any kind will be tolerated. Thank you!”

The complaint condemns the university for failing to “disqualify RSU or sanction the UVM Book Club for hosting an organization that explicitly excludes from membership Jewish students for whom Zionism is integral to their Jewish ethnic identity.”

On April 5, 2021 a UVM teaching assistant joked that she might reduce the grades of Zionists students in a Twitter post. “Is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give Zionists credit for participation???,” reads the tweet. “I feel like it’s good and funny.”

The complaint insists that the TA was “threatening” to alter grades in her tweet, thereby violating the school’s anti-discrimination policies and “promoting antagonism toward Jewish Zionist students.” The groups document other examples of the TA criticizing Zionism and Israeli policy in social media posts.

Finally, the complaint claims that UVM Hillel Building was targeted by a group of “rowdy, intoxicated students” who threw small rocks at it’s windows for up to forty minutes.

IHRA definition

The compliant offers a number of “suggested remedies” for the school to adopt. These include things like revisions to UVM’s non-harassment policy, but they also want the university to publicly recognize “that Zionism is a key component of Jewish identity for many students” and adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which includes certain criticisms of Israel.

Since the definition was developed in 2016 it has adopted by hundreds of entities, including the state of Vermont. It has also been protested by student groups, professors, professional associations, and human rights organizations who argue that it’s used as means to muzzle Palestine activism.

In 2020 nearly 130 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals expressed their concerns about the definition. The signatories found one of the definition’s antisemitism examples particularly alarming: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

“It does not bother to recognize that under international law, the current state of Israel has been an occupying power for over half a century, as recognized by the governments of countries where the IHRA definition is being upheld,” reads the statement. “It does not bother to consider whether this right includes the right to create a Jewish majority by way of ethnic cleansing and whether it should be balanced against the rights of the Palestinian people.”

“Through ‘examples’ that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the state of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews,” it continues. “We profoundly disagree with this. The fight against antisemitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the continued occupation of their land.”

Even the IHRA definition’s lead author Kenneth Stern has cautioned against it being implemented in schools. “The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe,” he wrote in a 2016 New York Times op-ed. “It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.”

While some defenders of IHRA definition point out that it only includes some criticisms, others boldly trumpet its draconian potential. During a recent hearing of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, Israeli antisemitism envoy Noa Tishby didn’t mince words.

“The reason that IHRA unfortunately gets a pushback is…exactly because of Israel,” she explained. “…It’s very convenient to condemn Nazis, nobody likes to walk around and call themself an antisemite, but you kind of go ‘I’m not an antisemite, I’m just an anti-Zionist.’ That is considered okay and that is one of those things that we have to make clear: anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Period. End of story. There’s no question about that.”

School response

UVM president Suresh Garimella put out a statement denying the antisemitism allegations and saying they “painted our community in a patently false light.”

“The uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM,” it reads.“Equally importantly, it is harmful to our Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

Garimella says that all the alleged incidents in the complaint were investigated by the school. The two groups that excluded Zionists didn’t violate any school policies because they’re not recognized as student organizations. The teaching assistant who made the joke on Twitter didn’t actually lower anyone’s grade over their Zionism. UVM even had police investigate the rock throwing incident at the Hillel Center and they found that a group of students was simply trying to get the attention of a friend living in the building.

This information has not stymied the antisemitism allegations. Twenty pro-Israel Jewish groups (including Jewish on Campus and The Louis D Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law) put out a statement declaring that they were “alarmed, disappointed and troubled” by Garimella’s “inadequate excuses.”

“We support these Jewish students at UVM and elsewhere who have the right to openly express their identification with Israel without being shunned, marginalized and excluded from campus opportunities,” it reads. “Every student at UVM is entitled to a college experience free from antisemitism and all other forms of discrimination. It is time for UVM to frankly acknowledge the serious concerns that have been raised and take concrete steps to address them.”

Legal strategy

After years of lobbying from Israel advocates former president Donald Trump signed a 2019 executive order making Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act apply to antisemitic acts.

The move redefined the legal battlefield with such cases and opened up a floodgate of complaints from pro-Israel organizations. Since 2019, pro-Israel groups have filed at least 14 complaints with the Department of Education. The Brandeis Center had already had already filed antisemitism complaints leading to action against Brooklyn College, the University of Southern California, Stanford University and the University of Illinois before targeting UVM.

“Meritless complaints alleging that advocacy for Palestinian freedom threatens Jewish students is one more censorship tactic in a context where speech on Palestine is already widely suppressed.”

Liz Jackson, Palestine Legal

“Meritless complaints alleging that advocacy for Palestinian freedom threatens Jewish students is one more censorship tactic in a context where speech on Palestine is already widely suppressed,” Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Liz Jackson told Mondoweiss. “The costs of baseless civil rights complaints are severe. They cause years-long investigations of faculty and student speech that poison the academic environment; widespread censored speech on serious matters of Palestinian freedom and racial justice; courses interrupted or failed; the exclusion of Palestine in curricula; and severe stress for students and faculty who voice their experiences as Palestinians, or their criticisms of the Israeli state.”

Jackson’s points out that this strategy is not limited to formal complaints, but also includes letters that threaten lawsuits over classroom discussions, film screenings, youth organizing conference, BDS resolutions, or other speech activity. “It’s a publicity strategy to achieve damaging headlines that embarrass universities,” she explained. “The letters typically threaten legal action if universities do not meet demands to punish students and faculty for speaking about Palestine.”

Palestine supporters rally

On September 21 Palestine supporters held a rally in front of UVM’s Waterman building where they cautioned against expanding the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. The event was organized Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) the local group that spearheaded the campaign targeting Ben & Jerry’s over the ice cream manufacturer’s business in Israel. VTJP member Wafic Faour told Mondoweiss that the efforts of pro-Israel groups have grown bolder since Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling its product in illegal settlements last summer. “A lot of this started after the Ben & Jerry’s statement,” said Faour. “We began seeing groups from outside and inside state that oppose equal rights for Palestinians working very hard.”

The Vermont Cynic reported that about two dozen people showed up for the rally and Faour estimates that two-thirds of the attendees were Jewish. “The most dangerous part of this new campaign is this claim that pro-Israel groups represent all Jewish students,” he said. “What about the Jewish students who support Palestine? Who will protect them?”

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