A truck calling Harvard's then-president Claudine Gay a disgrace drives around Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Dec. 12, 2023. Similar trucks, funded by a right-wing group and opposed by Jewish groups on campus, have projected the names and images of members of Harvard student groups who signed an anti-Israel letter after Oct. 7, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

Feds to probe Harvard’s response to harassment of pro-Palestinian students

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Feds to probe Harvard’s response to harassment of pro-Palestinian students

A truck calling Harvard's then-president Claudine Gay a disgrace drives around Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Dec. 12, 2023. Similar trucks, funded by a right-wing group and opposed by Jewish groups on campus, have projected the names and images of members of Harvard student groups who signed an anti-Israel letter after Oct. 7, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

(JTA) — As Harvard University has become ground zero in the debate around campus antisemitism, a new federal investigation at the school will determine whether it has done enough to stop harassment of Palestinian students and their allies.

The Title VI investigation comes at a tense moment for the Ivy League institution, whose president recently resigned after angering Jewish groups with her congressional testimony about campus antisemitism. (She subsequently faced plagiarism allegations.) But an attorney for the Palestinian students told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency she views their case as largely similar to what Jewish students have gone through.

“These are parallel complaints that identify the same failures of Harvard administration across the board,” said Christina Jump, head litigator at the Muslim Legal Fund of America. “It’s a systemic failure by Harvard to not address these complaints by students in minority religious groups.”

The group alleges that students had been harassed while attending pro-Palestinian vigils and working student jobs, assaulted while walking to campus libraries, stalked by classmates and faced racial profiling by professors and doxxing, or the revealing of personal information, on campus. According to Jump, the most common form of harassment students faced was when they wore keffiyehs, or traditional Palestinian headscarves.

The Texas-based legal nonprofit filed the Title VI complaint that triggered the new Department of Education investigation on behalf of what Jump said were more than a dozen Muslim, Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students, whose identities are being kept anonymous. The investigation is one of six new discrimination cases opened this week by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, bringing the total number of investigations it has opened since Oct. 7 to more than 60.

Harvard was also the subject of a previous Title VI investigation alleging the university had failed to respond to allegations of antisemitism after Oct. 7; the department closed this investigation last month after a federal lawsuit alleging similar failures was filed against the university.

Opening investigations does not mean the department believes the complaints have merit, only that they meet the eligibility criteria. Still, failure to reach a resolution could jeopardize federal funding for the schools in question.

While many of the new investigations, including at least four announced Wednesday — at Indiana University, the University of Michigan, The New School in New York City and the University of South Florida — stem from complaints about antisemitism, the Harvard investigation joins a growing slate prompted by Muslim interest groups. Another, opened last week at a Minnesota public school district, will investigate whether the district acted appropriately when it reportedly suspended two students for chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“Harvard’s primary responsibility should be to its current students, not wealthy donors and alumni with personal agendas that harm students who support Palestinian freedom,” Chelsea Glover, an attorney with MLFA, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Glover criticized Harvard for brushing aside the complainants’ concerns while meeting with “prominent donors and alumni who encouraged the student harassment and doxxing.”

Jump added that students tried to seek help from the university, but “in some instances they were told specifically that ‘we’re not really sure that a Palestinian identity is a real thing anyway.’” She wants the investigation to push the university “to now be in a position of accountability, to recognize that it did fail, it did not train as it should, it did not provide responses to the students as it should have, it did not condemn racist statements and inappropriate language and harassment which was occurring on campus.”

The complaint itself does not name any of these donors and alumni, Jump said. But Bill Ackman, a Jewish billionaire investor, Harvard alum and pro-Israel advocate, led a social media campaign to name students who signed anti-Israel statements in the aftermath of Oct. 7, so that potential employers would be aware of their views. Ackman also encouraged pro-Israel donors to withhold donations to Harvard and fueled the campaign against the president, Claudine Gay, before her resignation.

One unnamed student, quoted in an MLFA release about the complaint, mentioned being “hounded by doxxing trucks on campus, and even at our families’ homes.” The right-wing group Accuracy in Media drove trucks through Harvard’s campus in the weeks after Oct. 7 displaying the names, photos and other personal information of students it claimed were members of groups that had signed the statements solely blaming Israel for the events of the day.

“Harvard’s Leading Antisemites,” the truck messages called them. Jewish groups objected to the truck’s presence on campus; Harvard Hillel said it “strongly condemns” the truck, adding that “accountability” for the students who signed the statement should “under no circumstances … extend to public intimidation of individuals.”

Accuracy in Media continues to deploy its aggressive tactics at campuses across the country. Another truck was recently reported at the University of California, Berkeley, where the group previously called attention to anti-Zionist law students.

In a statement, a Harvard spokesperson provided a list of resources it said were available to students on campus and said, “We support the work of the Office of Civil Rights to ensure students’ rights to access educational programs are safeguarded and will work with the office to address their questions.”

Meanwhile, in Bloomington, the Indiana University Title VI complaint concerns an allegation brought by Zachary Marschall, a Jewish conservative who edits the college watchdog website Campus Reform. Marschall does not have any connection with the school; he has filed nearly two dozen antisemitism complaints against colleges across the country, triggering seven investigations so far.

Marschall’s complaint at Indiana concerns pro-Palestinian student protests to which he alleges the university should have responded more forcefully. Marschall has declined to make the full texts of his complaints available to JTA, but a description of the complaint provided by Campus Reform mentions an Oct. 28 rally held by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a student group, in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

That same rally was also mentioned in a letter Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana sent to IU administrators on Nov. 15, 2023, in which the Republican threatened the school with the loss of federal funds “if IU administrators condone or tolerate campus antisemitism.”

Following Banks’ letter, IU officials suspended a tenured professor from teaching after he helped the Palestine Solidarity Committee book a campus room for a separate event hosting Israeli peace activist Miko Peled. They also canceled a planned museum retrospective of the Palestinian American artist and alum Samia Halaby that was to be held on campus, citing unspecified safety concerns. University faculty have circulated petitions calling on IU to explain or reverse its actions.

The university’s media relations office did not return multiple JTA requests for comment. In response to the opening of the investigation, Marschall said, “Too many Americans do not know how to recognize antisemitism and too few Jews feel comfortable speaking publicly about their experiences facing hate and discrimination. I hope the Department of Education investigations lead to greater awareness about how antisemitism operates and empower students to speak up for themselves.”

The four other schools facing new Title VI investigations are The New School; the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Butler School District 53, a K-12 district in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois.

Representatives for The New School and USF confirmed to JTA that their complaints were related to antisemitism but did not elaborate. “Antisemitism has no place on our campus,” The New School said in a statement, while a USF statement said, “As we have reaffirmed numerous times in recent months, antisemitism has no place in our society and will not be tolerated on our campuses.”

A USF spokesperson also sent JTA a copy of the department’s notice of its investigation, which says it will focus on whether “the University discriminated against students on the basis of national origin (shared Jewish ancestry) by failing to respond to incidents of harassment in October and November 2023.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of Michigan said its investigation concerned allegations of antisemitism. The statement added, “Jewish students, faculty and staff are valued members of the University of Michigan community. U-M is home to 6,500 Jewish students, an array of vibrant organizations that serve the Jewish community and faculty with extensive academic expertise on Judaic studies.” The statement also highlighted the university Hillel, and statements its president has made denouncing antisemitism, including the announcement of a new center devoted to combating it.

A representative for Butler School District 53 did not return a JTA request for comment, and information about the nature of its investigation was not immediately known.

Israeli students and pro-Israel groups have recently alleged antisemitism at both The New School and USF, while the University of Michigan’s president recently blocked two planned student body votes on Israel — a decision that its faculty senate condemned while calling for the school to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, at a Tuesday press briefing, said his department’s Title VI investigations were driven not by hard-and-fast rules of what counts as hate speech but by asking whether students at the receiving end of that speech felt unsafe.

“This is an opportunity for leadership to bring people together to talk about it, and to set clear lines on how you communicate while not making students feel threatened or unsafe on campus,” Cardona said.

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