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US investigates complaints of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia at colleges

The federal government this week opened discrimination investigations at a half-dozen universities, including Columbia, Cooper Union and Cornell in New York, following complaints of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim harassment after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war .

Since the war began on October 7, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has also opened investigations into Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the University of Pennsylvania, and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, as well as a K-12 school district, Maize. Unified in Kansas.

The Biden administration opened the investigations as part of “efforts to take aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and other forms of discrimination,” according to a press release issued by the Office for Civil Rights.

Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said a school’s appearance on the list does not “reflect a finding that the law was violated.”

The office investigates possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects students participating in programs and activities receiving federal financial aid from discrimination based on race, color and national origin. The federal agency gave no details about the incidents that gave rise to the investigation, saying only that they stemmed from five complaints of anti-Semitic harassment and two of anti-Muslim harassment.

Protests by pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups on college campuses have heightened tensions between student groups, faculty and administrations in recent weeks. Universities have struggled to contain the blowback as students and faculty voice concerns about safety and free speech.

The conflict linked to the war has been particularly bitter in New York, where demonstrations are almost daily. The number of hate crimes recorded in the city in October was more than double that of the previous October. Anti-Semitic incidents have more than tripled.

On Tuesday, about 400 students gathered at Columbia University to protest the war and to criticize university leaders who suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups until the end of the semester. In the days following the start of the war, an Israeli student was attacked by another student.

Ben Chang, a Columbia spokesman, said the university had received notification from the civil rights office “and would cooperate with any investigation.”

Earlier this month, Columbia announced the formation of an anti-Semitism task force and a group to support people whose personal information has been posted online.

Also this month, a Cornell University student was arrested and charged with violent anti-Semitic threats, leading the university to cancel classes for a day. The campus is under tension and earlier this month hosted a visit from Gov. Kathy Hochul, who condemned the threats. Cornell officials declined to respond to a request for comment.

At Cooper Union, a confrontation between opposing camps, in which pro-Palestinian students knocked on the doors and windows of a library where Jewish students had moved in after a protest, became part of the national debate on the war. There have been no arrests or summonses following this incident, police said.

An email to the university seeking comment was not immediately responded to.

And the University of Pennsylvania was already facing backlash over a Palestinian literary conference it hosted before the war broke out. Since then, the campus has been rocked by criticism from different sides regarding its response.

The university said it would cooperate with the investigation and said it was taking steps to combat anti-Semitism.

Other universities are also facing scrutiny over war-related campus climates. Three Jewish students sued New York University this week over what they say was a hostile environment that allowed anti-Semitism to go unchecked.

On Wednesday, NYU announced the creation of a center to study anti-Semitism. And John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said Wednesday that the claims made in the lawsuit were inaccurate. NYU was not on the list of institutions the federal agency is investigating.

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