Biden administration faces pressure to step up its response to antisemitic incidents on college campuses


NEW YORK, N.Y. — As antisemitic incidents mushroom on college campuses, some Jewish leaders and lawmakers from both parties are accusing President Joe Biden’s administration of taking a lax approach toward enforcement of civil rights laws, exposing Jewish students to continued harassment.

They point to a surge of complaints filed with the Education Department that have yet to be resolved, creating a backlog that effectively eases pressure on school administrators to take action needed to protect Jewish students amid protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, sent a letter Thursday to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona objecting to the “speed of these investigations, delayed conclusions, and lack of adequate resources allocated to these investigations.”

The congressman asked Cardona for an update on the pending investigations into antisemitism on college campuses, noting that at Columbia University in New York, “the eruption of antisemitism … has created a particularly hostile environment for Jewish students.”

Neither Columbia nor the New York Police Department has released data on the number of antisemitic incidents at the school.

The tumult spreading through college campuses is especially tricky for Biden as he works to rebuild the voting coalition from the 2020 presidential race. Many of the students protesting the war in Gaza say they are unhappy with him for not bringing about a cease-fire.

At the same time, some Jewish students and their defenders are displeased that the Biden administration isn’t showing more resolve in stamping out antisemitic harassment on campus.

The breakdown in support is not so tidy, though. Plenty of Jewish Americans across the country oppose Israel’s conduct of the war and have joined with protesters in demanding a cease-fire and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. At Columbia last week, one Jewish student stood near an encampment that has cropped up in the shadow of Butler Library and told NBC News he had quietly celebrated Passover inside the tents with other protesters.

In this volatile atmosphere, any position Biden takes is bound to alienate someone — and has.

“They want to get re-elected, and they’re afraid of what’s going to happen in the swing states,” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said of team Biden. “The joke is that the two-state solution is Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

Herbie Ziskend, White House deputy communications director, said that electoral considerations don’t drive the president’s actions.

“Politics doesn’t enter in,” he said.

Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israel counteroffensive touched off a wave of antisemitic incidents around the country and turned college campuses into flashpoints of anger. In the two and a half months between the start of the war and the end of 2023, the Anti-Defamation League tallied more than 5,200 antisemitic incidents nationwide, exceeding the total for all of 2022 — though the group said that number includes 1,317 rallies that were marked by “antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism,” which weren’t “necessarily” counted in prior tallies.

What followed was a rash of complaints filed with the Education Department’s civil rights office — an arm of the Biden administration that enforces Title VI, a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination in programs receiving federal aid.

Since the war began, the office opened 93 investigations into cases of discrimination against members of ethno-religious groups — about seven times the number begun in a comparable period before Hamas’ attack. The complaints involve both secondary schools and some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

“While the evidence is often clear and convincing, many Title VI investigations have remained unresolved for months, and even years,” Gottheimer wrote.

“The proliferation of attacks and threats on Jewish and pro-Israel students demands immediate action,” he added.

Starting an inquiry is meaningless unless the department moves swiftly to resolve the complaint and hold schools accountable, others said.

“Something needs to give,” said Brian Cohen of the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. “The universities aren’t acting fast enough. I don’t think the Department of Education is working fast enough. Universities around the country are spiraling out of control and that’s not good for anybody connected to higher education.”

The Education Department did not make Cardona available for comment. In a prepared statement, he said: “As the nation’s secretary of education, I am incredibly concerned by the reports we are hearing about antisemitic hate being directed at students. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights is committed to actively investigating complaints from those who feel their institution is not protecting their civil rights.”

Said Ziskend: “The president has forcefully condemned antisemitism and hate. He has spoken out with moral clarity on the need to condemn antisemitism. The whole administration has done that and continues to do that.”

Last week, Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke to Cohen by phone.

Emhoff, who is Jewish, “wanted to check in on me and our Jewish students and offer his support,” Cohen said. “He ended the call by reminding me that the work we’re doing is incredibly important and not to forget Jewish joy, as well.”

A longtime supporter of Israeli statehood, Biden has an affinity for the Jewish community, advisers say, and has taken myriad steps to combat antisemitism. Last May, he released a 60-page national strategy to counter antisemitism, billing it as the first of its kind.

“This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country,” Biden said in a recent statement.

A month into the war in Gaza, the Education Department’s civil rights office sent a letter to schools reminding them that they are legally obligated to prevent discrimination against students, be they Jewish, Israeli, Muslim or Palestinian.

But such gestures aren’t keeping students safe as pro-Palestinian protests spread to other campuses, lawmakers and Jewish rights groups say.

Kenneth Marcus, who headed the Education Department’s civil rights office in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations, said, “The department’s office of civil rights should be seizing the moment and taking charge of this situation. It’s not enough merely to wait passively for complaints to come in and log them and indicate that investigations have been opened.”

“They should be proactively opening investigations rather than waiting,” added Marcus, who chairs the Brandeis Center, which promotes civil and human rights for Jews. 

In a visit to Columbia on Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., met privately with Jewish students who, he said, showed him flyers appearing on campus that “looked like Nazi propaganda from the 1930s.” Johnson’s staff showed one to NBC News: a drawing of a skunk with a Jewish star on its side. “Skunk on Campus,” the caption read.

Some Jewish students at Columbia said that they have felt threatened walking on school grounds. After meeting with Johnson, one told NBC News that he has spotted Hamas flags on campus. Another said that he’s heard chants of “Go back to Europe.”

“It’s time to say, ‘Enough,’” said Ben Solomon, 22, who is studying economics and political science. “This isn’t speech. This is disruption. This is intimidation.”

As he left the university, Johnson told NBC News that he planned to call Cardona with a message: He would tell him “what I saw here and encourage him to come and make a visit himself.”

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