Safe Space for Bigots: The University of Vermont Gets the Federal Investigation It Deserves
The facts at the core of the current antisemitism scandal at the University of Vermont don't seem especially disputable, and the University hasn't really disputed them. A University teaching assistant, feeling perhaps correctly that the University offered a safe space for antisemites, wasn't content to merely bully Jewish students who identified with Israel. She boasted about it publicly, chortling on social media about her threats to reduce the grades of Jewish kids for whom Israel has personal meaning.
"Is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give Zionists credit for participation???" she tweeted. "I'm trying to be lowkey on social media for Ramadan and it's going okay so far but (name redacted) keeps sending me Instagram posts from UVM Zionist Instagram accounts and I get the indelible urge to cyberbully and religion goes out the window." And "serotonin rush of bullying Zionists on the public domain."
When an Israeli flag was stolen from an off-campus student house, the TA heartily praised the vandalism. "Who stole the Israeli flag," she tweeted, "I just wanna talk and tell you how cool and special and loved you are... may the wind always be at your back." And later "at this stage in the game I don't even want to know who stole it anymore I just want to defend their honor. They are like the spider-man of Burlington, anonymously doing good."
She appears to fit in nicely at UVM, where the harassment, ostracism and belittling of Jewish identity is, well, as the lady puts it, cool, part of the campus fabric. Jewish students have decried the "vulgar anti-Semitism that Jewish students are experiencing online from student accounts at UVM... Jewish students have every right to be Jewish in their own way and not attacked and have their lived experiences minimized for their religious beliefs, personal practice or connection to Israel."
Others on campus did not see it quite the same way. Last year, UVM students organized a group called "UVM Empowering Survivors" to support victims of sexual harassment. When Hillel, the Jewish student organization, posted a statement of solidarity, the anti-sexual harassment group rejected it. They would, its leaders proclaimed, "follow the same policy with Zionists that we follow with those who troll or harass others: blocked." When the Jewish kids reached out to convey the pain that the oppressive exclusion of Jews on campus was causing, they were met with the kind of "Jews Not Welcome" stuff associated with 1930s Germany, not necessarily the purportedly progressive, supposedly civil rights-oriented college quads of Burlington, Vermont. The group would have nothing to do with Jewish kids, it stated; it would instead "hold our peers accountable for their pro-Israel or Zionist stances."
Then there was the targeting of the Hillel building, increasingly commonplace on American campuses. A group of students spent some 40 minutes throwing rocks at the building's windows. The University insisted that there was nothing anti-Jewish about an attack on the Jewish students' campus center, a proposition that tended to be undercut ever so slightly by the evidence that one of the vandals shouted, "Are you Jewish?" while throwing the rocks.
In response to a quite detailed complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the U.S. Department of Education has opened a formal investigation into whether UVM has fostered or permitted a hostile environment for Jewish students, in violation of the federal civil rights laws. Instead of acknowledging "Burlington, we've got a problem," UVM's president responded with a statement at once inane and threatening, warning darkly that the investigation would hurt Jewish students. "You'll be sorry," he seemed to be telling them. Twenty Jewish organizations denounced UVM's president for a response that was insensitive, offensive and just plain dumb.
It was Justice Louis Brandeis himself who observed that frequently sunlight is the best disinfectant. Based on what we know so far, UVM could stand some disinfecting, by one means or another.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.