University of Vermont is under fire for denying allegations of anti-Semitism

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.

On Tuesday, the US Department of Education announced an investigation into what may be a series of anti-Semitic incidents at the university.

On Thursday, the storied Vermont State University in Burlington, commonly known as UVM, dismissed the allegations as “manifestly unfounded.”

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“The unsubstantiated 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 are harming our Jewish students, faculty, staff and alumni. »

“There is no doubt that anti-Semitism exists in the world and, despite our best efforts, in our own community,” he added. “Exploiting fear and controversy by falsely claiming that UVM has not received complaints of anti-Semitism is creating confusion and a sense of insecurity throughout the community. »

The university said it was confident the investigation would clear him on all counts.

It is the sharpest denial yet of allegations of anti-Semitism affecting many American universities, which are also under investigation.

“In such circumstances it is normal to remain silent as we support the ongoing investigation, but that is simply not possible for me. These public allegations, along with deeply held values ​​within our community, demand a strong and immediate response,” Garimella said.

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella speaks to reporters Monday, July 1, 2019, in Burlington, Vermont. (Credit: AP/Lisa Rathke)

Jewish organizations have said that denying the problems exist is tantamount to blaming Jewish students for creating the problem and could further alienate Jews and further fuel anti-Semitism on campus.

Twenty leading Jewish organizations said they were “concerned, disappointed and alarmed by the response” which they said “only legitimizes” anti-Semitism.

“Instead of the UVM president showing the courage that other university leaders in the United States have shown by acknowledging the problem or offering help to Jewish students who are afraid to come forward, he will sign off on refusing to take responsibility,” the letter, signed by organizations including Anti-Defamation League, Hillel International, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jew on Campus, Jewish Federations of North America, and Chabad of the University of Vermont.

“The university refuses to help the target community. Furthermore, by suggesting that Jewish students learn to protect themselves, he rather blames the victims,” the letter states.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which supported the lawsuit against the university, said the university’s response was “shockingly inappropriate and hurtful.”

The University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

“Garimell’s statement shows neither thought, nor compassion, nor remorse,” laments the Brandeis Center.

“Garimella exhibits the same dismissive attitude that made Jewish students vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, blaming the victims for reporting him,” the center said.

The American Jewish Committee said Garimella’s rejection “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 has chosen to speak on behalf of Jewish students instead of accepting them and talking to them seriously,” the committee said.

The World Jewish Congress said it was “disturbed” by Garimell’s response.

“His statement is far more ambiguous than the responses of other university or college presidents or administrations facing the same issues,” the group said.

The allegations against UVM involve Zionist students who say they have been expelled from student clubs, including a support group for victims of sexual assault. In addition, the teaching assistant allegedly threatened to lower Zionist students’ grades and bullied them online. Finally, students allegedly threw rocks at the student dormitory for Hillel Jews and vandalized the door.

Garimella said the university quickly and thoroughly investigated the complaints.

After investigating the organizations that allegedly expelled the Zionist students, the university said they were not recognized student organizations, received no academic support and therefore did not fall under IHA rules.

An Instagram post by the University of Vermont sexual assault advocacy group announcing the expulsion of Zionists. (Courtesy)

The university assures that the anti-Zionist assistant did not reduce any remarks despite her threats and that no student reported being a victim of discrimination.

Finally, after being informed that rocks had been thrown at the Hillel building on campus, where Jewish students live, the police determined that the small stones had indeed been thrown at the building, but to warn the resident, and there was no indication that it was motivated by anti-Semitism. bias, Garimella said.

The Brandeis Center said the arguments were “completely inappropriate.”

The student book club that banned Zionists is actually sponsored by the university, the Brandeis Center explained, noting that the discriminatory behavior of the two groups was not covered by free speech.

The sexual assault advocacy group, which has closed its doors to Zionists, is a major student organization that, while not supported by the university, is well known to the administration. The Brandeis Center considers this sufficient evidence of the university’s responsibility in this matter of discrimination.

The teaching assistant “encouraged hostility” towards Jews by saying it was “good and fun” to bully them and encouraged her students to do the same. She further posed a threat to their grades, the center said.

In its response to the assistant, the university did not deal with the issue of bullying on the Internet, nor with her incitement to anti-Semitism. She also did not question the fact that she is still among the employees of the university.

According to the complaint, the students who threw stones at the Jewish dormitories asked the residents, went outside to find out if they were Jewish and continued to throw stones for about 30 minutes, destroying the buildings. This in no way matches the explanation given by the university.

The Burack Hillel Center near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The lawsuit filed against the university accuses it of allowing an anti-Semitic, hostile 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-Semitic discrimination has been a violation of Title VI since 2019, thanks to an executive order from former President Donald Trump. This 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.

Jewish students at Vermont State College had already reported widespread discrimination before the federal investigation. A report by Jews on Campus released this year found that the University of Vermont reported more anti-Semitic incidents in 2021 than any other campus.

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