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Jewish undergrads targeted for their support for Israel file civil rights complaint against New York college

The two Jewish students said the administration of SUNY New Paltz failed to protect them, even after they received death threats

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the university.

Two undergraduates have filed a civil rights complaint in which they allege that a student group formed to help sexual assault survivors excluded them because they voiced support for Israel, and that the State University of New York at New Paltz failed to hold accountable those who harassed and threatened them because of their Jewish and Israeli identities.

The environment both on campus and on social media was so hostile, according to the complaint, filed in June with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, that the women felt “shunned,” “isolated” and “fearful.” Social media posts described in the complaint include threats to spit on them and kill them, and accusations that they were complicit in mass genocide. The students allege their treatment violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

University officials issued the following statement: “SUNY New Paltz has provided access to resources and support for those impacted by the events of this past year and we continue our active engagement to support our Jewish students and employees around the rise of antisemitism, to address antisemitism and bias concerns when they arise, and to continue dialogue and educational efforts. As a public institution, we value the First Amendment and uphold the free exchange of ideas.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of both students and a group called Jewish on Campus by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. They were identified by the center as Cassandra Blotner and Ofek Preis, who is Israeli. Both were members of the New Paltz Accountability student group, which Blotner co-founded. 

In an interview, Blotner said she went to campus police and showed them threatening posts on the Yik Yak app, one of which threatened to kill her and Preis, and asked for a police escort as they walked to and from classes at the university, which is located about halfway between New York City and Albany. But she said the campus police refused, saying that because the posts on the app were anonymous, they couldn’t investigate. 

Blotner said she was so fearful that she stopped going to classes and that Preis attended only the few that were offered virtually. Both got incompletes for the semester. Blotner said the Brandeis Center is arranging security for them so they can return to classes for their senior year beginning Aug. 29.  

According to the Brandeis Center, the problems began for the students in December when Blotner posted a message on her personal Instagram account that read, “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.” Preis then shared Blotner’s post on her own Instagram account.

The complaint alleges that others in the New Paltz Accountability group denounced the post, and said it “concerns the organization as a whole.”

The Jewish Student Union at SUNY New Paltz threw its support behind Blotner and Preis, writing a letter to the campus community in February that said the “NPA has isolated Jewish survivors of sexual assault and their allies, and has, ironically, made it so that Jewish survivors no longer have a place to turn to.”

Donald Christian, then the university’s president, wrote a letter to the student body in February in which he condemned antisemitism and said the situation “has diminished our long history as a public university campus that values being a welcoming, ‘come as you are’ environment for all students, where Jewish students have long felt like they belong.” Darrell P. Wheeler became the university’s president last month.

The Brandeis Center said the school claimed it was limited in its ability to intervene in the situation because NPA is not a recognized student organization.

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