WASHINGTON — Talia Dror grew up hearing about the blatant antisemitism her mother’s family faced in Iran before immigrating to the United States. Her grandfather was stabbed for being a Jew, she said. Her mother was regularly called a dirty Jew.
Yet, Dror never expected antisemitism would follow the family to the country they fled to for refuge.
But the Cornell University junior said she was petrified last month when the school’s Jewish students were threatened online. The posts called for the deaths of Jewish people and warned that the school’s kosher dining hall would be shot up and a “Jewish house” bombed.
A 21-year-old student was arrested on federal charges a few days later. But not before Dror sat in her locked house, pondering her mortality.
“I knew that with my roommates and I being openly Jewish community leaders, our apartment would be one of the first targets for someone looked to actualize the threats, she testified at a recent congressional hearing.
As Jewish Americans increasingly worry about their personal safety amid an alarming rise in antisemitic incidents – particularly on college campuses – since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, they’re pleading for help from the Biden administration.
Their calls for help have not fallen on deaf ears. Officials have emphasized the progress made on a national strategy to country antisemitism that was rolled out in May but has taken on new urgency. And they’ve put a particular focus on what’s happening in schools as officials have visited campuses, met with Jewish community leaders and made clear the Education Department will investigate antisemitism complaints.
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“We understand that people are scared,” White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden said in a recent video briefing for the Jewish community on how the administration is implementing its antisemitism strategy.
“I do believe that we are doing everything and anything we can to protect people against the threats that they are experiencing,” Tanden said.
Jewish groups want more action on antisemitism
But some Jewish groups are looking for more.
They want beefed up resources for the Department of Education’s office that investigates discrimination complaints, and they don’t want the office to wait until the complaints come to them.
They want the administration to regulate the definition of antisemitism. And they want one person put in charge of ensuring the antisemitism strategy is fully implemented.
“That would be an enormous help,” Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said of having a point person for the strategy. “I’ve raised this with the administration.”
He emphasized, however, that success is not just up to the White House.
“We need the rest of society to step up,” he said.
Antisemitism incidents on the rise
Incidents of antisemitism had already been on the rise before Hamas attacked Israel.
Antisemitic hate crimes rose 25% from 2021 to 2022, according to the most recent FBI statistics. Although Jewish people make up only 2.4% of the U.S. population, they are the targets of more than half of all reported religion-based hate crimes.
Since Oct. 7, the Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group that frequently speaks out against antisemitism and extremism, has tracked 832 anti-Jewish acts in the United States.
Jewish students have borne the brunt of severe antisemitic incidents across the country, according to Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO.
“We know that college campuses are a microcosm of the trends we’re seeing globally,” he told Congress. “But they’ve also become petri dishes where antisemitism is festering and flourishing.”
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Complaints filed to Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights
The Biden administration has responded in multiple ways, including reissuing guidance reminding schools that antisemitism is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights also updated its discrimination complaint form to make it clear that colleges, and universities and K-12 schools receiving federal funding must act if students are being targeted because they’re perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry. If they don’t, schools can lose federal funding or be referred to the Justice Department for further action.
The Education Department announced Thursday that five complaints have been filed this month alleging antisemitic harassment and two alleging anti-Muslim harassment.
“Hate has no place in our schools, period,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said.
The office received nearly 19,000 discrimination complaints in 2022 – an all-time high – but very few raised allegations of antisemitism. Only five had been made as the department neared the end of the 2023 fiscal year in September, the office told Rep. Kathy Manning, D-N.C.
“What’s getting in the way of students filing?” Manning asked at a recent congressional hearing about antisemitism on campuses.
Kenneth Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, who headed the office during the Trump administration, said students may feel loyalty to their school, may not know about the complaint process or may not have confidence it will work. That’s why, he said, the office should not wait for complaints to be formally filed but should proactively start its own investigations.
“The federal government should take action,” he said. “And there’s no reason why it cannot do so within these next 30 days.”
The ADL is likewise calling on the Education Department to proactively investigate antisemitism allegations.
Complaints expected to rise
Three students at New York University aren’t waiting for that. They’re suing the university, arguing their civil rights have been violated because of pervasive acts of antisemitic hatred, discrimination, harassment and intimidation.
The university, which has called the lawsuit a “one-sided narrative,” recently announced it’s creating a Center for the Study of Antisemitism.
“I have listened to heartbreaking stories from students, faculty, parents, and alums,” New York University President Linda G. Mills said in a statement announcing the center. “NYU unequivocally condemns antisemitism and other forms of hate, and we are committed to maintaining a campus environment where all can study and learn in an atmosphere of respect and live free from the fear of bigotry.”
Stacy Burdett, an independent consultant who works with businesses, schools and others to counter antisemitism, said the most responsive universities get that this isn’t business as usual. They’ve increased security services, formed antisemitism task forces and repeatedly reminded students and faculty that antisemitism violates the university’s values.
But complaints to the Department of Education will rise and its Office of Civil Rights is not set equipped to handle the existing backlog, she said.
“The complaints that are going to be coming in are going to be real, they’re going to be hard, and they are going to need investigative capacity,” she told a House Education subcommittee. “So, let’s get busy. And let’s put people in those chairs.”
‘Climate of constant fear’
At Emory University, senior Morgan Ames said she “lives in a climate of constant fear.” While friends at other universities have been physically assaulted, Ames said, she feels like she’s fighting psychological warfare.
Posters put up to raise awareness of hostages taken by Hamas are defaced. Fliers circulated have compared Jews to Nazis, she said.
“These actions surpass mere vandalism. They are deliberate threats to Jewish student safety,” Ames told USA TODAY. “It’s not healthy discourse.”
Ames praised Emory’s president for condemning antisemitic phrases and slogans made at an October protest on campus. But, she said, after dozens of professors pushed back saying the protester’s chats were in support of Palestinians and not antisemitic, that “created an intimidating atmosphere and inhibits students’ ability to participate fully in the classroom.”
At Cornell, Dror said, the university’s statements condemning the threats to the Jewish community was one of the strongest she’s seen. Also, security was heightened at all Jewish facilities on campus. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul visited the kosher dining hall.
“And all of that support has gone sincerely appreciated by the Jewish community. My question is, why didn’t we receive it right after the October 7 attacks?” she asked Congress. “We sincerely appreciate all of their help now, but it’s too little too late.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Antisemitic incidents on college campuses spur federal investigation