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UVa, federal authorities open investigations after Jewish students claim they've been harassed, threatened and abused

Matan Goldstein had only just arrived at the University of Virginia when he says he was first attacked for his faith and his nationality.

Meeting other first-year students in his dormitory, Goldstein introduced himself as an Israeli and a Jew. After making this introduction, another student, who identified himself as Egyptian, approached Goldstein, told him he “hated” him and called him a “bloodthirsty human being.”

That was Week 1, a little more than a month before war would break out in Israel.

On Oct. 7 of last year, Palestinian terror group Hamas launched a surprise assault on Israel, killing roughly 1,200 civilians and taking more than 200 hostages. Israel has responded with a full-on siege of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. More than 30,000 people have died, an overwhelming majority of those Palestinians.

The war, and the atrocities committed against civilians, have sent shockwaves across the globe. And American colleges, as they are wont to do, have become hotbeds of debate, protest and even violence. University officials, themselves, have landed in hot water for their responses not only to the violence overseas but unrest on their own campuses.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, a former UVa provost, both stepped down after facing criticism for their defense of free speech, which many U.S. lawmakers and university donors saw as a failure to condemn a sudden rise in antisemitic acts.

And antisemitism is on the rise, according to human rights watchdog organizations.

Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 337% year-over-year increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S.

The Grounds at UVa are no exception.

UVa authorities have received dozens of reports from Jewish students claiming they’ve been harassed, threatened, intimidated and even physically assaulted.

While UVa says it received a total of 19 "reports related to potential antisemitism" from students, faculty and staff between the start of the 2023 fall semester and Jan. 1 of this year, not a single of one those reports has been officially lodged as a formal complaint.

"In response to reports of alleged antisemitic speech or conduct, University officials have connected with reporters, offered them resources, and sought additional information about their reports so that we can investigate and hold people responsible if necessary," UVa spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress in a prepared statement. "Many investigations are ongoing, but in some cases, we haven’t yet received enough information to identify alleged perpetrators and hold them accountable. We urge anyone with information about cases of antisemitism, islamophobia, or other forms of harassment and intimidation to share that information as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation of its own in December after a complaint was filed there.

Goldstein, alone, has filed four reports of harassment to university police. He has also brought his concerns to deans of the university on two separate occasions. He told The Daily Progress he faced “a negative response” each time.

“I just wish that the university would show solidarity with its Jewish students,” said Goldstein. “Because right now, the rhetoric that is being espoused against Israel is unacceptable.”

‘Moving backwards’

When Joel Nied moved his son into the dormitories at UVa, he said he expected his only involvement with the school would be buying his now-second-year student dinner once a year over UVa Family Weekend.

“Unfortunately, I have become way more involved than I ever wanted,” Nied told The Daily Progress.

The school’s Jewish community accounts for around 6% of its total undergraduate population.

Nied and a handful of other Jewish UVa parents were alarmed to hear of a spike in antisemitic reports from their children in the wake of Oct. 7. They began sending hundreds of letters and emails to President Jim Ryan, the university’s governing Board of Visitors and other high-ranking UVa administrators.

When the school did respond, parents said the messages were generic boilerplate language providing little recourse. Students said they were more often than not encouraged to seek mental health support.

Frustrated by the school’s response or lack thereof, one student decided to take the case to a higher power: the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education.

A copy of that complaint obtained by The Daily Progress describes UVa as inhospitable to Jewish students. The student, whose name is redacted in the report, described feeling unwelcome, frightened and discriminated against on Grounds, specifically because of their religious beliefs.

The Department of Education opened an investigation on Dec. 29. When contacted by The Daily Progress, the federal agency declined to provide a status report on that investigation.

UVa’s Coy said via email that the Department of Education’s notice to the school that it had opened an investigation made clear “that opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that the Office for Civil Rights has made a determination on the merits of the complaint.”

“The University stands against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of discrimination and intolerance and strives to offer an environment where people from every walk of life are welcome and safe to live, learn, and work together,” Coy added.

Dissatisfied parents began requesting a meeting with Ryan in November. Their request was granted three months later on Feb. 14.

That meeting came with stipulations: Ryan would only confer with four parents total, their children must be present and all conversations were to remain confidential.

“I didn’t understand why the targets of acts of antisemitism had to be their own advocates,” Nied said. “That type of situation doesn’t exist anywhere else. If you were to make a complaint at a company, you would go to human resources. You wouldn’t have to go to the CEO.”

In the end, all parties agreed to the terms and the four students, which included Goldstein, presented their complaints to Ryan, Provost Ian Baucom, Dean Christa Acampora, Vice President of Student Affairs Kenyon Bonner and chief of staff Margaret Noland.

Since Oct. 7, Goldstein said he’s been the recipient of multiple death threats. During an Oct. 25 walkout led by the Students for Justice in Palestine, Goldstein said he was shoved and then slapped in the face while counterprotesting. He’s been told he “sells the organs of Palestinians on the black market” and been called “Nazi,” “Hitler,” “genocide-pursuer” and “filthy Jew.”

Goldstein stopped wearing his kippah, also known as a yarmulke, a traditional cloth cap worn by Jewish men, about a month ago. He has started concealing his gold Star of David necklace under his shirt when he is in public.

Several other Jewish students also said they have removed symbols of their faith from their person.

“I’m a religious Jew, I believe in God,” said Goldstein. “Why am I supposed to hide? Are we living in the 1930s? Am I supposed to be in a Jewish ghetto on the outskirts, isolated from everyone else? Why are we moving backwards?”

While waiting in line at a party, two Jewish female students said they were called “kikes” when another student discovered they were Jewish. At a gathering on Grounds, a Jewish student was harassed by a group of roughly eight schoolmates who told them to “turn sideways so we can see your nose,” among other “jokes.” The student left the event crying.

While only four students were allowed to speak with university heads, Nied said he has heard of at least two dozen Jewish students since Oct. 7 who have been attacked — assaults ranging from physical violence to offensive statements printed on anti-Israel flyers and posters scattered about Grounds.

Two days after their meeting with Ryan, parents received an email from the president thanking them for their time.

“I’m grateful for you willingness to share your perspectives and ideas,” according to a copy of the email obtained by The Daily Progress.

“The absence of condemnation is condoning,” said Nied. “And that is alarming.”

Word choice

At a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, freedom of expression has naturally been a cornerstone of campus life.

And there has been plenty expressed since Oct. 7. But it seems as though no one at UVa can find the right words to appease everyone on Grounds.

Since Hamas’ deadly attack, Ryan has issued two messages to the UVa community addressing the conflict. In the first, released four days after Oct. 7, Ryan condemned the violence, offered his compassion and condolences and directed students to resources on Grounds.

Ryan said the four-day delay between the attack and his response was due to the death of his biological mother, who died the week of Oct. 11.

But had he hesitated in publishing a response, it would have been understandable given the backlash other university leaders were facing at the time (and are still facing today).

Ryan’s initial message makes only a single reference to UVa community members with connections to Israel and Gaza.

“At UVa, we remain squarely focused on the well-being of UVA community members in Israel and in Gaza, as well as those closer to home who have family or friends in the region, or who are connected to the region by virtue of their faith,” reads Ryan’s statement.

He went on to say that, “I trust that we as a community can and will adhere to UVA’s longstanding tradition of not just allowing free speech, but promoting civil discourse, even when — perhaps especially when — we strongly disagree.”

Ryan’s comments have been described as “weak” and “biased” by both sides of the debate.

A faction of the school’s Israeli and Jewish community expressed frustration that the president did not issue a full-throated condemnation of antisemitism in his remarks, even as a terror group calling for the eradication of Jewish peoples attacked the world’s only Jewish nation-state. Palestinian students and their allies were outraged Ryan did not outright denounce the Israeli government, which they see as an occupational force, and immediately divest all monies invested in companies associated with the country.

Many students also pointed out that Ryan’s letter makes no mention of a statement issued by the Students for Justice in Palestine the day after the attack that described Hamas as “resistance fighters” and called the killing of civilians “an unprecedented feat for the 21st century.”

In an open letter sent to Ryan on Oct. 27, more than 70 members of UVa faculty called out Ryan for failing to even reference “Muslim,” “Arab” or “Palestinian” students.

“As a tenured faculty member, it’s very important to take seriously the rights and responsibility of the tenure system, and to speak what we see as the truth,” associate professor of anthropology Tessa Farmer, a signatory of the open letter, told The Daily Progress.

Ryan’s first letter does not reference “Jewish” or “Israeli” students. The open letter makes no mention of this.

“Supporting all of my students was an important and compelling reason to me,” assistant professor of English Laura Goldblatt told The Daily Progress. “Ryan’s message made it clear that Jewish faculty and students were being supported, but Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students are also being affected. The point of the letter was not to withdraw resources but extend support to a group of people most affected.”

Goldblatt is Jewish and a spokeswoman for the UVa Faculty for Justice in Palestine.

The open letter was immediately divisive.

The letter was ostracizing for assistant professor of commerce Robert Parham, an Israeli Jew.

“I looked through the signers,” Parham told The Daily Progress. “Now, I don’t consider my sociology colleagues colleagues anymore. I reduced my circle of belonging.”

Ryan penned a second letter to the community published on Nov. 6.

While saying that he had not received any reports of violence or discrimination on Grounds, he emphasized that both Jewish and Muslim students had a home at UVa and any acts of antisemitism or Islamophobia would not be tolerated.

“We take seriously our responsibility to care for the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff in a challenging moment for us all and greatly value those renewed expressions of our shared commitment,” he said.

He once again directed students and faculty to UVa resources.

Despite the longer and more detailed letter, students and faculty were still left dissatisfied.

Ryan, himself, has seemed dissatisfied, and has since called upon the Board of Visitors to help him assemble a committee that will decide when and if a UVa president should speak on current events off Grounds. Experts have told The Daily Progress the answer will likely be simple: never.

On Thursday, students passed a referendum spearheaded by anti-Israel student organizations and other groups successfully calling for UVa to audit its $13.6 billion endowment and divest from all companies “engaging in or profiting from the State of Israel’s apartheid regime.” The referendum garnered 5,425 of the 7,993 votes cast by students, 67.87% of voters.

Though the referendum is nonbinding, its supporters see it as a line in the sand between the students’ will and administrators’ actions, part of the long legacy of free speech on Grounds instituted by its founder.

Opponents have said it is part of another long legacy at UVa, one of antisemitism.

Blood, soil, river, sea

Parham’s first day at UVa was Aug. 11, 2017 — a day that will forever stain the history of the school and the city of Charlottesville.

As he was setting up his office, he heard loud noises and shouting outside. When he peered out his window, Parham saw a sea of tiki torches as a mob of White men marched across Grounds chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”

“That was ‘Welcome to Charlottesville,’” said Parham.

Though he briefly considered packing his bags then and there, Parham instead stuck a mezuzah to his office door. Literally meaning “doorpost,” a mezuzah is a charm inscribed with a Hebrew blessing. For many Jews, it is an outward expression of their faith. For Parham, it meant he was there to stay.

Parham said the thought of leaving UVa has not crossed his mind since that day — until this fall.

“Back then it was outside forces,” said Parham. “They came against us, and I felt a part of us. Now, the voices that are bullying are coming from the inside, and that’s harder to deal with.”

The turning point was the Oct. 25 student walkout, as hundreds of protesters rallied on the steps of the school’s landmark Rotunda and marched across Grounds chanting, carrying Palestinian flags and wearing masks to conceal their identities.

Prior to the demonstration, organizers circulated flyers instructing participants to wear “mask/hat/sunglasses to protect your identity.”

Parham, Goldstein and others have called the act not just cowardly but criminal, a direct violation of the Virginia Code.

In 1950, Virginia outlawed any individual over the age of 16 wearing a mask, hood or any face covering with the intention of concealing their identity. The prohibition was an implicit tool to prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Current state law,” Parham said, “was legislated because of masked marches on the Grounds of UVa. It was just that the masks were slightly pointier and whiter.”

Though counterprotesters view the masks as cowardice, the individuals behind the masks consider them a necessity.

Josh Rosenberg, a Jewish student who holds a leadership position with Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Daily Progress at a subsequent walkout urging divestment on Monday that he wore a mask to protect his future. Rosenberg said he had already been doxed and received death threats as a result of having his personal information posted online.

The masks weren’t the only thing that disturbed Parham while observing the Oct. 25 walkout. Standing next to Goldstein on the Rotunda steps looking over the mass of protesters, he heard demonstrators chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Referencing the land spanning from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, the chant has been open to a multitude of interpretations since it was popularized by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s.

Many construe the phrase as calling for the destruction of Israel. In October, the Anti-Defamation League published a statement explicitly demarking the phrase as antisemitic given it makes “members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracized.”

As the father of a Jewish UVa student, Nied said that when groups on Grounds chant the phrase, they are unequivocally referring to the killing and displacement of Jews.

Yet, some of those shouting the slogan at UVa are Jewish.

“I very proudly say that as a Jew,” said Rosenberg. “I love the Jewish people. I love my community. When I say, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ I mean that as a call for human rights and equality for everyone who lives between the river and the sea.”

Rosenberg says people are misunderstanding the phrase when they interpret it as a genocidal call.

“We believe that everyone, Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Christian, should be able to live with the exact same rights,” said Rosenberg.

But the differences between those communities are stark and the solution to their peaceful cohabitation is nuanced, something Provost Ian Baucom touched on during a UVa Board of Visitors meeting Thursday.

“Speech can be hurtful,” said Baucom. “People can say things that we disagree with, particularly on a matter like this. There is a lot of pain in our community — pain felt by our Jewish students, pain felt by our Muslim students — and there is strong disagreement. We have to find ways to continue to be a place where people are free to disagree and everyone knows they belong.”

This story was updated to reflect that the University of Virginia received a total of 19 "reports related to potential antisemitism" during the fall semester, none of which were lodged as formal complaints.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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