Result of student government rejecting pro-Israel club
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Williams College over concerns that it violated antidiscrimination law when the student government refused to recognize a pro-Israel student group.
In a May 31 letter, the Office for Civil Rights’ Boston office said it had accepted a complaint alleging the College Council violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That prohibits “discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”
David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, had filed the complaint May 2, alleging that the council is an “official arm” of Williams and thus covered by Title VI. (The government also accepts complaints filed by people who do not claim to be the victim of civil rights violations.)
The government letter is dated 17 days after the Williams administration voted to recognize the Williams Initiative for Israel, also known as WIFI, using a separate process that largely excludes the College Council.
It’s not clear whether the Office for Civil Rights knew about the administration’s action, or what effect that would have on the investigation. OCR’s Boston office didn’t immediately respond to College Fix queries Monday night.
A spokesperson for the department’s Washington headquarters confirmed to The Fix Wednesday that an investigation had been opened, but citing the ongoing nature of the investigation, did not provide further information.
In an email statement to The Fix, Williams spokesperson Greg Shook said that the college “welcomes the opportunity” to work with OCR.
“Our goal is to educate our students about governance and campus climate,” Shook said. “Partnering with OCR is a valuable way to move that effort forward.”
‘A charge so facially absurd it can only be explained by antisemitism’
The College Council voted to deny WIFI recognition as an official student organization during a secretive and controversial meeting April 23.
It was not livestreamed as usual, and speakers were not identified by name in the meeting minutes. An April 9 meeting that was livestreamed had drawn national attention because black student activists went on a profanity-laced rant against white students.
According to The Williams Record, WIFI was the first applicant in more than a decade to be rejected despite meeting all required bylaws.
The decision sparked a wave of outrage among Jewish groups and even the Williams administration, which cited the minutes as evidence that council members voted down WIFI because it supports Israel’s existence.
It also prompted David Bernstein, the George Mason University law professor, to file a discrimination complaint with the feds. His action was noted by the college’s local newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle, and Bernstein shared the complaint and response letter from OCR with The Fix upon request.
The professor wrote that the student government vote discriminated against Jewish students because the vast majority of American Jews support Israel. He cited a 2018 poll by a Jewish Democratic group:
92% of American Jews support Israel, and support for Israel is a bedrock platform of mainstream Jewish organizations, including Hillel that serves Jewish students. Discriminating against a student group organized by Jewish students for the purpose of supporting Israel constitutes discrimination against Jewish students on the basis of ethnicity or race. The antisemitic statements made in the course of the debate, as well as the unusual procedures undertaken, provide evidence of anti-Jewish motive.
Those anti-Semitic statements included accusations of genocide against Israel, Bernstein said, “a charge so facially absurd and contrary to facts that it can only be explained by antisemitism, and is resonant of historical blood libel.”
Those statements also constitute “antisemitic demonization of Israel, within the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism.”
Asked to specify that definition, Bernstein pointed The Fix to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental agency with 32 member countries. It says anti-Semitism includes any criticism of Israel that draws comparisons to Nazis or claims that the existence of Israel is “a racist endeavor.”
Bernstein also told OCR that the College Council had recognized the anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine. That means the council “has no policy, formal or informal, against recognizing student groups that take positions on foreign affairs in general, on the Middle East specifically, or on matters related to Israel or the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
The Williams administration initially played down the College Council’s rejection of WIFI, saying the club could obtain “most” of the benefits of recognition without approval. President Maud Mandel retroactively revised her statement several days later to say it could get “all” the benefits.
That still wasn’t enough for free speech and Jewish groups, and the college eventually caved to the pressure and circumvented the student government. But Bernstein’s complaint to OCR was not withdrawn, and on Friday, the agency’s Boston office notified him that it opened an investigation.
OCR said it had not made any determination on the merits of the complaint, only that the complaint was filed in a timely manner and was within its jurisdiction.
Using its standard boilerplate in response letters, the agency said Bernstein had “a right to file a private suit in federal court whether or not OCR finds a violation.”
Molly Berenbaum, the student founder of WIFI, did not respond to a Facebook message from The Fix.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of pro-Israel nonprofit StandWithUs, said the organization was “encouraged” by OCR’s investigation in a statement to The Fix. But she said in another statement that the college refused to address “the ongoing problem on its campus,” which is the student government’s broad leeway over club recognition.
UPDATE: Comment from pro-Israel nonprofit StandWithUs and the Washington headquarters of the Department of Education has been added. The article has also been updated to reflect Williams College’s subsequent refusal to change its process for recognizing student clubs.
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