(JTA) – A year of strained relations between the University of Vermont and its Jewish community has led to the school resolving a federal antisemitism complaint and pledging to do more to protect its Jewish students — including from anti-Zionist rhetoric.
The university and the U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that they had reached a resolution to the complaint, which the department took up last fall after it was filed by students and pro-Israel groups. The complaint alleged that the institution had not properly responded to Jewish students’ allegations of antisemitic discrimination. Investigators determined that the university “received notice, but did not investigate” several claims of antisemitic behavior on campus, and that the steps it ultimately took did not adequately address students’ concerns.
Notably, the department’s office of civil rights determined that one of the ways the university’s Jewish students had been discriminated against was through “national origin harassment on the basis of shared ancestry,” reflecting a controversial argument promoted by pro-Israel groups that anti-Zionist rhetoric is harmful to all Jews because the Jewish people share Israel as an ancestral homeland. The resolution of the complaint also reflects a sharp change in course for the school, which had initially denied wrongdoing and blamed the accusations on an orchestrated external campaign — a response that upset the campus Jewish community.
“This complaint was overwhelmingly dealing with the antisemitism that masks as anti-Zionism, and what the resolution demonstrates is how seriously [the office] is taking that kind of antisemitism,” Alyza Lewin, president of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the ruling. A pro-Israel legal group that often involves itself in campus disputes, the Brandeis Center was one of the organizations that filed the initial complaint on behalf of mostly anonymous students.
The Department of Education responded to a JTA request for comment by pointing to its letter of resolution with the university. Its civil rights office has fielded several challenges to anti-Zionist rhetoric since the Donald Trump administration expanded the department’s mandate around antisemitism in 2019 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The office of civil rights is fast becoming a favorite tool for pro-Israel activists: It also announced this week it would open an investigation into allegations of a professor’s antisemitic behavior at George Washington University, a week after the university’s own investigation cleared the faculty member of charges brought by another pro-Israel group.
In the agreement, the University of Vermont pledged to revise its policies for reporting discrimination and to train its staff on how to specifically respond to discrimination complaints. The Department of Education will also review the university’s records regarding its response to last year’s allegations of antisemitism. One of the areas in which the university said it would train staff is on how to recognize “the Title VI prohibition against harassment based on national origin, including shared ancestry.”
Among the allegations: cases of unofficial student groups denying admission to “Zionist” students (including a support group for sexual-assault survivors); one graduate teaching assistant who had mused on social media about lowering the grades of Zionist students; and a group of students who’d reportedly thrown an object at the campus Hillel building (the complaint claimed it was a rock; Hillel staff told JTA it was a puffball mushroom). More than 20% of the university’s student body is Jewish, according to Hillel International.
The agreement marked a sharp change from how the university first responded when the government announced its intent to investigate the complaint last fall. Back then, the university’s president, Suresh Garimella, issued a combative statement in which he said the university “vigorously denies the false allegation of an insufficient response to complaints of threats and discrimination.” He also issued a point-by-point refutation of the allegations in the complaint.
Garimella further charged that the complaint had been orchestrated by “an anonymous third party” that had “painted our community in a patently false light.” In addition to the Brandeis Center, the complaint was filed on behalf of students by the watchdog group Jewish On Campus, whose antisemitism-tracking methodology has been criticized by other groups.
Garimella’s combativeness at the time was an unusual move for the leader of a university accused of violating Title VI law, which prohibits discriminatory behavior at federally-funded programs or institutions, such as public universities. Groups like the Brandeis Center have increasingly leaned on Title VI in federal complaints to argue that pro-Israel students face discrimination. Title VI cases have become a central component of litigating multiple kinds of Israel discourse on campus, ranging from a pro-Israel student body president being targeted at the University of Southern California to a resolution passed by pro-Palestinian law student groups at the University of California, Berkeley.
In Burlington, where the university is located, some liberal Jews were initially dubious of the complaint. Felicia Kornbluh, a history professor on campus who often teaches American Jewish history, told JTA she was concerned about “playing into the narrative” of a conservative, pro-Israel agenda set by the Brandeis Center, whom she described as “allies of the Trump wing of the Republican party.” (The center’s founder, Kenneth Marcus, served as assistant secretary of education for civil rights under Trump.)
But the complaint also landed in the aftermath of a contentious Burlington city council meeting at which, Kornbluh and others said, pro-Palestinian protesters became hostile to Jews. The meeting featured a council resolution to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel, and resulted in a raucous scene where pro-Palestinian groups shouted down Jewish students singing prayers for peace. Kornbluh described the atmosphere there as “really scary,” and “a little like Nuremberg.” Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, a local activist group, held multiple rallies on campus in support of the administration after the antisemitism complaint was publicized.
Against this backdrop, Garimella’s dismissiveness left the university’s Jewish community frustrated and angry. During a Jewish Telegraphic Agency visit to Burlington after the president’s initial statement, Jewish students and faculty said they felt like university administration was not taking their concerns seriously.
“I feel like we’re not being supported here,” Evan Siegel, a Jewish junior who is involved with student government, told JTA while sitting in off-campus housing adorned with Jewish summer camp memorabilia. “And that sucks.”
Employed as a campus tour guide, Siegel wondered, “How am I supposed to give tours and be like, ‘UVM is the best,’ when my president is being an ass?”
Other Jewish students told JTA at the time they had no intention of supporting the university financially or otherwise after they graduated, and wouldn’t advertise the fact that they were alums.
Matt Vogel, executive director of Hillel at the University of Vermont, where one of the alleged antisemitic incidents had taken place, also reluctantly played a role in the drama of the last year, after hoping he would be able to keep his focus on Hillel’s student programming. As the fall semester was starting, he sent an email home to parents reading, “Antisemitism keeps me awake at night.” Throughout the semester, Hillel also became more active in calling out antisemitism on social media.
“Just by default, we’re at the center of it,” Vogel told JTA last fall in the Hillel building, as student volunteers chopped vegetables for that evening’s Shabbat dinner in the next room. “I’ve overheard a student saying, like, a Hillel sticker on their water bottle might turn into a political conversation about Zionism in the first two seconds.”
Soon, Kornbluh decided that the administration’s response to the allegations was unacceptable, and penned a local op-ed opposing it that was later shared by her faculty union in a show of solidarity.
“I was stunned by the tone and content” of Garimella’s letter, Kornbluh wrote in the piece. Accusing the university of “gaslighting,” she added, “I do know that one persistent rhetorical strategy of antisemites in Europe and the United States has been to say that there is no antisemitism.”
Garimella reversed course following weeks of criticism, a strongly worded letter from more than a dozen Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee and news of several high-profile antisemitic incidents nationally. In October, the university published a website intended to support Jewish students — accompanied by a new statement from Garimella, who now condemned antisemitism unequivocally.
“I have listened to members of our campus community who experience a sense of risk in fully expressing their Jewish identity,” he wrote. ”I want my message to be clear to the entire campus community: antisemitism, in any form, will not be tolerated at UVM.”
This time, Garimella pledged not only to investigate individual reports of antisemitism, but also to work to change the campus community’s approach to the issue. He committed to further anti-bias training and building a streamlined bias reporting system for students, and said the university’s diversity office would work to build and maintain “meaningful actions that ensure our Jewish students and community members feel support and care.”
After Monday’s resolution, Garimella was fully supportive of the findings of the Department of Education’s investigation.
“The resolution reflects an important step in UVM’s engagement with our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the surrounding community,” he wrote in a message to the campus. “It also reflects numerous conversations we have had with our campus Jewish community and important local and national voices on the consequential and complex issue of antisemitism.”
In response to a JTA request for comment, a university spokesperson sent copies of the letters from the president and provost. (Throughout the year, the president’s office had declined multiple JTA interview requests.)
Jewish groups, including the university Hillel, celebrated the resolution. “The President and senior leadership’s new statements today represent tangible and accountable steps forward,” Vogel told JTA in a statement. “We hope this ensures that no Jewish student or any student at UVM experiences discrimination or harassment because of their identity.”
Also celebrating the ruling was Jewish on Campus, a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress and one of the groups that brought the initial complaint. “Today’s announcement is a victory for the safety and security of Jewish students,” Julia Jassey, the group’s CEO and a University of Chicago undergraduate, said in a statement.
Avi Zatz, the only University of Vermont student on the initial complaint who has made their identity public, is himself an employee of Jewish on Campus. Citing antisemitism in Vermont, Zatz recently transferred to the University of Florida — in a state that may soon pass legislation that, critics say, could harm Jewish studies on all its public campuses.
“I can’t have hoped for a better resolution,” Zatz, a junior, told JTA from his new school in Gainesville, Florida. While he said he was still glad to have left Vermont, he added, “I finally feel a sense of closure.”
Kornbluh, for her part, said the resolution was “a start,” but criticized the university for not voicing a stronger commitment to Jewish studies or meeting with Jewish faculty.
Reached by phone from Madrid, where he is studying abroad this semester, Siegel said he was “proud, determined, ready for more” following the university’s agreement.
“This resolution was really, in a respectful way, a slap in the face to the university to do better,” he said. “I, for one, am ready to get back on campus and continue my work as hard as I can.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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