URBANA – The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the University of Illinois’ response to reports of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist incidents on its Urbana campus.
Three Jewish organizations — including the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, the Jewish United Fund and Hillel International — filed a complaint earlier this year alleging that Jewish and pro-Israel students on the U of I campus face “an unrelenting campaign of anti-Semitic harassment” and that the university allowed the proliferation of a hostile environment in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The incidents contained in the complaint date back five years and include swastikas found on or near the campus, vandalism to Jewish symbols and buildings, as well as Jewish fraternities and sororities. The complaint also details incidents involving the campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UIUC. In one incident, the SJP promoted a rally on campus by saying “[t]here is no room for fascists, white supremacists, or Zionists at UIUC,” according to the complaint. In another incident during a mandatory diversity training session in 2019, a multicultural advocate on campus delivered a presentation about Palestinian resistance to Israel’s policies that allegedly “glorified violence against Jews.” The complaint details other incidents in which students who supported the Palestinian cause allegedly called Jewish and pro-Israel students white supremacists.
Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel for the Brandeis Center, says the university failed to address and protect Jewish students from discrimination.
“The university is required by law to take prompt and effective steps to address harassment and discrimination and to ensure that the students have a safe environment where they’re not deprived of any educational opportunities, where they’re not excluded, where they don’t feel compelled to shed some part of their identity in order to participate in university activities,” Lewin says.
Lewin added that “the university has started to seriously engage with us. They recognize the seriousness of this problem, they’ve started to appreciate and understand the multitude of ways that anti-Semitism manifests itself.”
This week, the U of I issued a joint statement with the Jewish groups that filed the complaint, acknowledging that anti-Semitism is a problem on campus and that the university needs to do more to address it. Incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise on college campuses across the country, according to Hillel, an international Jewish student organization. The Anti-Defamation League reported earlier this year that anti-Semitic incidents, generally speaking, increased to an all-time high in 2019 since the organization began tracking them in 1979.
Ian Katsnelson, a U of I junior and vice president of the pro-Israel student group, IlliniPAC, applauds the joint statement. Katsnelson says he hasn’t felt supported by the university. He says last year when he ran for president of the student body, he was called a Nazi because he was Jewish and supported Israel.
“My ancestors have been killed by Nazis. And here I am on this college campus, and I’m being called a Nazi myself, just for being Jewish. And I really wish at that moment that the university had my back. And unfortunately, they didn’t really at that time.”
Katsnelson is one of multiple Jewish students on whose behalf the complaint was filed.
Robin Kaler, a spokesperson for the U of I, wrote in an emailed statement that the campus would respond to the complaint, is committed to supporting a safe and welcoming environment for all students, “and we are focused on working together on clear, concrete and actionable steps to support Jewish students, staff and faculty.”
After the complaint was announced late last month, dozens of Jewish faculty members signed an open letter to U of I Chancellor Robert Jones stating that they refuted the facts of the complaint. They wrote that they believe the campus had adequately addressed incidents of anti-Semitism, and that the incidents in the complaint don’t constitute an “unrelenting campaign of anti-Semitic harassment.”
Bruce Rosenstock, a professor in the U of I’s religion department, is one the professors who signed the letter. Rosenstock, who is himself Jewish, worries that the complaint and ensuing investigation will force the university to “declare that Zionism is an ancestral and ethnic trait of the Jewish people.” Zionism is defined by Merriam Webster as an “international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.”
Rosenstock says not all Jews identify as Zionists.
“They’re demanding that the university make it a policy that a certain group who identifies with Zionism as their ancestral identity, as Jews, that that group get to define what Jewish expression is at this university. And that is simply unacceptable,” he says. Rosenstock added that it can be hard to distinguish when anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.
He worries that the complaint and the result of the investigation will ultimately have a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom on campus.
Lewin, with the Brandeis Center, said “nobody is trying to shut down legitimate discourse and conversation and disagreement, even passionate disagreement, about the current policies of the government of Israel.” Lewin argues that Zionism isn’t only a political ideology but is an expression of Jewish identity.
“The Jewish students at UIC aren’t experiencing viewpoint discrimination. They’re actually experiencing national origin discrimination,” Lewin says.
Rosenstock disagrees. “I do fear that the university will be forced to define Zionism, not as a political ideology, but rather, as the very essence of Judaism and of the Jewish people’s identity as Jews. That is a falsehood that needs to be battled,” he says.
Lewin says the organizations involved in the complaint plan to continue engaging with the university while the Office for Civil Rights conducts its investigation. She says they ultimately want the university to take a number of steps, including adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, modifying the university’s anti-discrimination policies, and creating training programs to education the community about anti-Semitism, among other actions.
Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.
Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines