May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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SUNY New Paltz Being Investigated by Federal DOE For Failing to Protect Jewish Students

When Cassandra Blotner became the victim of sexual assault while at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she didn’t shrink from her traumatic experience and founded an organization on campus to support other such victims on campus and hold perpetrators responsible.

Cassie Blotner, left, and Ofek Preis celebrate their graduation from SUNY New Paltz. After posting a pro-Israel message online, both women, who are sexual assault survivors, were driven from a campus group for survivors and subject to an antisemitic campaign that is now the focus of a federal Department of Education investigation of the university.

There she thought she found a warm and welcoming spot with others who shared her vision. Then Blotner, who is known as Cassie and considers herself proudly Jewish and a Zionist, reposted on her personal Instagram account in December 2021 that “Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”

Within days she was messaged that Israel is a “settler-colonial state” and accused her of condoning “imperialism.” She was soon removed from her own organization and subject to a vicious antisemitic campaign of threats and harassment that grew so intense that, terrified for her own safety, she called her father at 3 a.m. to come get her.

“The university did absolutely nothing,” the New City (Rockland County) resident told The Jewish Link. It declined to assign a security officer to accompany her to class as the threats became more intense. She was finally told to just go home for her own safety.

“That was their solution,” she said.

Ofek Preis is an Israeli native who is considered an international student although she has been in the United States since age 11 and graduated from high school in Hewlett on Long Island.

Preis, who had been a sexual assault survivor before arriving at the university, said after she reposted the same message in January 2022, both to take a stand and support Blotner, she too was cut off from all contact with the group and became the focus of the same frightening campaign. Although Preis said many of her views on intersectionality and politics aligned with those of the group, New Paltz Accountability (NPA), she said she resigned because she could not be part of an organization that discriminates based on national identity and religion. She too became afraid to go to class.

“Cassie and I felt very harassed,” she said in an interview, adding that when the issue moved from private conversation to social media “things got a little dirty and hostile. They were making fun of Cassie and saying we were killers and responsible for genocide.”

Blotner tried to set up a meeting between NPA and the Jewish Students Union but was rebuffed. Both complained to the university’s IX office, which is in charge of handling discrimination complaints, but were brushed aside.

“We spoke to multiple administrators and university police, but they told us they didn’t understand because they weren’t Jewish,” said Blotner., who has since graduated. “I felt like I had a target on my back. When my name was called in class I got looks. I am very happy to be done with this school.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation several weeks ago into allegations that SUNY New Paltz failed to protect the two students from antisemitism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, including discrimination against Jews on the basis of their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law on behalf of the students and Jewish on Campus, a college student-run movement that works with students at universities to create multilateral campaigns to combat antisemitism on campus and collects incident stories. The Brandeis Center, an independent, non-partisan institution for public interest advocacy, research and education whose mission is “to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all.”

The complaint alleges the university, in violation of Title VI, allowed a hostile environment to proliferate on campus for Jewish survivors of sexual assault, to the point where both students felt unsafe to attend class and Jewish and Israeli survivors of sexual assault at SUNY New Paltz felt “shunned,” “isolated,” and “fearful.”

A statement from the university said it condemns “any attacks on SUNY students who are Jewish” and that it won’t “tolerate anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on campus.”

Denise Katz-Prober, the center’s director of legal initiatives, called the DOE move “monumental.”

Katz-Prober continued,“This is an especially egregious case of antisemitism … Both of these women are survivors of sexual assault and they were harassed, discriminated against and threatened and then excluded from the sexual assault group one pf them founded because they expressed a Jewish identity.”

Katz-Prober said it was especially disturbing that the university failed to recognize the campaign of anti-Zionist hate was antisemitic and took no steps to hold the perpetrators accountable. “Both women were threatened and isolated by the very people they turned to for support as sex assault survivors,” she said, adding the case is also important because, at a time when students are being threatened and harassed at campuses across the country because of their support for Israel, universities are being put on notice such actions are antisemitic and must be treated accordingly.

NPA went on to publish numerous statements doubling down on its stance that Zionists are not welcome in the group, extending its exclusionary and discriminatory stance to all Jewish Zionist and Israeli sexual assault survivors at SUNY New Paltz, continuing to push the antisemitic narrative that Zionism is a form of racism and white supremacy. The NPA posts fueled further harassment on social media directed personally toward Blotner. Some posts threatened to spit on her, others stated, “Cassie needs to go …” and one post called her vulgar name and said she “supports “mass genocide!!!!!!!”

After the complaint was filed the university held focus groups to get input from Jewish students and community about how the campus climate could be helped. The report recommended the university adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition on antisemitism, but otherwise was filled with “empty rhetoric” about such things as kosher food and exemptions for Jewish holidays, said Katz-Prober.

“The opening of this investigation by the Department of Education, the very first since President Biden announced his national strategy to combat antisemitism, sends a clear and unequivocal signal to SUNY New Paltz as well as universities across the country that they take anti-Zionist discrimination and harassment seriously and they expect universities to take it just as seriously, and address it with the same intensity and vigor, as they do all other forms of harassment and discrimination,” she noted.

Adding to that optimism is the recent settlement following a DOE investigation of the University of Vermont that found it mishandled antisemitism claims and required that university take corrective measures. The ruling was hailed by many Jewish groups as precedent setting because it bolstered claims that anti-Zionism can lead to antisemitism.

“The SUNY New Paltz focus groups and report were a nice idea in theory but, in practice, they completely missed the mark,” stated Katz-Prober. “The university must modify its policies, procedures and trainings, as UVM (University of Vermont) is now doing under the direction and supervision of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, to ensure university administrators, staff, faculty and students understand that discrimination and harassment on the basis of Jewish identity, whether it be motivated by religion or connection to Israel and shared heritage, is illegal. The current recommendations fail to recognize that Jewish identity is not confined to religious practice, but also involves shared ancestry, shared history and shared culture.”

Preis said she is especially proud of Blotner whose only initial goal was to support and help other sex assault victims but courageously continued to take a stand in support of Zionism even when her own organization was taken from her.

“I am grateful for this process,” said Preis. ”Rather than it be just a negative experience I am grateful we were able to make a statement for sexual assault victims in all spaces whatever their gender, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. I am glad it became a federal case because I’m just not one identity, but I am also an Israeli and Zionist.”

Preis is now living in New Paltz and launching a podcast about progressive Jewish trailblazers this summer. Her first episode will feature Cassie Blotner.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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