September 22, 2019 | 69° F

Department of Education to investigate University

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation against the University for its response toward alleged anti-Semitic harassment on campus.

The Zionist Organization of America, a Jewish advocacy group, filed the complaint with the OCR on July 21. The OCR chose to initiate a full investigation on Oct. 26, according to a letter sent by the OCR to the ZOA.

Specifically, the OCR is looking at whether the University violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice of the ZOA. This section states that any agency that receives federal funding, such as the University, cannot discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

The OCR confirmed via email that there is one open complaint against the University under investigation.

“The complaint alleges that the University failed to respond appropriately to a complaint alleging that students were subjected to harassment and different treatment because of their national origin (Jewish ancestry/ethnicity). The complaint is currently under investigation,” said Jim Bradshaw, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman.

The ZOA, approached last semester by several concerned University Jewish students who provided information and evidence, sent a letter on April 6 to University President Richard L. McCormick. The letter claims that these students have experienced anti-Semitism and harassment in numerous ways, including the hosting of several events by the student group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action and the alleged intimidation on Facebook and in-person by a University employee.

“The notion that there are Jewish students on the campus who feel that there is hostility on the college campus is unacceptable and should also be to McCormick and his administration,” Tuchman said.

The ZOA also claimed that in all these instances — which range from October 2010 to March 2011 — that the University failed to respond properly and provide further methods to resolve the issues, according to the April 6 letter.

One allegation is that Jewish students who planned to protest a January 2011 BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice event were discriminated against when the event coordinators enacted a $5 admission fee, although the event was previously advertised as free.

Another allegation the letter stated was that one Jewish student, School of Arts and Sciences senior Aaron Marcus, who is a columnist for The Daily Targum, was the subject of hateful comments on Facebook from a former University student, Shehnaz Abdeljaber, who is now the outreach coordinator at the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

She referred on her public page to Marcus as “that racist Zionist pig” and also advocated people to find Marcus’ “hate page.” Another student also posted other allegedly threatening comments on his status: “Id [sic] be happy to see him beat with a crowbar.”

McCormick responded to the letter on April 26, saying that the University was aware of all the incidents and worked diligently to address them.

He stated in his letter that the First Amendment prohibits the University from punishing students for intolerant statements. But to address the situations, the University took active steps, including numerous meetings and communications, to foster discourse and education between the Jewish students and BAKA.

He also stated in his letter that BAKA students did not choose to impose the fee, but rather a non-University event host imposed the fee as a measure of crowd control. Event volunteers entered for free as is custom for University events.

McCormick stated that the First Amendment protects events on campus, and he concluded that he is confident that the University did comply with the First Amendment and Title VI in all instances.

According to a second letter on June 21, the ZOA expressed their concern with McCormick’s response. In the letter, the group claims he did not address Marcus’ allegations or the claims against Abdeljaber. They also wrote that McCormick’s response to the University’s handling of the BAKA and other events was inadequate, and they further asked that the administration take more pro-active steps in redressing the complaints.

“President McCormick responded to the letter, but the response did not indicate that anything was necessary to be done,” Tuchman said.

In a June 29 response, McCormick reiterated his previous position that he believed the situations were handled appropriately. He also stated that he cannot comment on conduct with students or personnel, but did state that the allegations mentioned were investigated and “decisions were made based on a review of the facts, law, and university policies.”

This led the ZOA in July to file a formal complaint with the OCR, Tuchman said.

“Those letters are virtually identical to the complaint that the ZOA filed identifying in detail the nature of the problems and some of the steps that we felt Rutgers should take to address the problems,” she said.

But the OCR will only look into two of the ZOA’s three allegations — that a student was harassed on Facebook by the professor and another student on Facebook, and that BAKA did treat students differently by initiating an admission fee in January, according to the OCR’s letter. The OCR cited a lack of evidence and students’ names for the other allegations.

According to a statement from the University, these claims go against the University’s values and “are not supported by facts.”

“The claims by the ZOA are contrary to the true values of Rutgers University and are not supported by the facts. Rutgers University has one of the largest populations of Jewish students of any public university in the nation. Rutgers also has a long tradition of working with and supporting the Jewish community, and a longstanding commitment to facilitate meaningful dialogue and promote civility among all members of our community,” according to a University statement.

There are about 5,800 Jewish undergraduate students and more than 1,000 Jewish graduate students at the University, according to the website of Rutgers Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus.

The statement also said that the University supports the Middle East Coexistence House on Douglass campus, which allows students from different religious backgrounds to live and study together. The student organization Shalom/Salaam, which aims to bring together Jewish and Muslim students, has also hosted several on-campus events to unite the two cultural groups.

The statement also mentioned that the University has many centers, institutes and organizations devoted to Jewish life.

“We will continue to support students of faith and defend their rights to express their opinions openly,” according to the University’s statement.

Tuchman said the ZOA had no original motive for delaying announcing the case, but they were holding off on it to appeal for an investigation into the other allegations.

“One of the issues that we would like the government to look into is hostile environments within the classrooms,” she said, adding that the ZOA would be providing the names of the students with this complaint.

Tuchman said if the government finds that the University has violated this law, the University could potentially lose its federal funding. But the OCR could also choose to work with the University and require it to take steps to address the issues.

Andrew Getraer, executive director of Hillel, said in an email that student activism and political debate is part of an institution of higher education. But he specified that, “the line between advocacy and intimidation is especially important in cases where university employees or representatives are involved.”

Getraer said in this case, the University is obligated to investigate the situation, as a Jewish student is claiming that he faced what he felt was threatening speech from Abdeljaber.

But he said that Hillel believes this is a unique incident.

“Jewish life at Rutgers is safe, active and thriving. But even one isolated bias incident is too many. While Rutgers Hillel is not a party to the ZOA legal action, we maintain a keen interest in ensuring that hatred and bias of any kind are not tolerated at our university,” Getraer said.

Hillel President Zeke Pariser echoed these sentiments in an email. He said if there is strong evidence supporting this claim, then the investigation should occur and that appropriate action should be taken against those who make any student feel unsafe.

But Pariser, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, emphasized that he hopes this case does not represent the Jewish culture at the University.

“In my experience, Rutgers has been a terrific for Jewish life, and I believe that the case in question was an isolated incident, not an indication of University sentiment,” he said.

Sarah Morrison, who was Hillel president last year, agreed that this case does not paint a picture of what the campus is like, though she also said there have been a few incidents like this in the past she has been aware of.

“Everyone I know has not had an issue before. I’ve only seen incidents in a small handful of people that have been serious enough that they have been acknowledged by the University,” said Morrison, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

Morrison said this case is different and unheard of on what she said is otherwise a tolerant campus. But she also acknowledged that if there are serious issues, they should be properly looked into.

“I feel like this is an isolated incident,” she said. “It’s really sad that it occurred, but I have faith the University will address it appropriately. If there is any indication of bias, it should be dealt with appropriately.”


Correction: In an earlier version, Shehnaz Abdeljaber was incorrectly titled. She is a former University undergraduate student who is now outreach coordinator of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

By Mary Diduch

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