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“Kill All Arabs”: The Feds Are Investigating UMass Amherst for Anti-Palestinian Bias

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the University of Massachusetts Amherst in response to a complaint that alleges that the school took months to address the harassment of Palestinian and Arab students.

In the previously unreported civil rights complaint, 18 students said that they have “been the target of extreme anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab harassment and discrimination by fellow UMass students, including receiving racial slurs, death threats and in one instance, actually being assaulted.” The result, the students said, was a hostile environment for all Arab and Palestinian students, those perceived to be Palestinian, and their allies on campus. Among the most chilling allegations involves a student yelling “kill all Arabs” at fellow students protesting Israel’s war on Gaza. 

The complaint, which was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, charges that despite repeated communication to over a dozen administrators and Title IX officials, the school “was extremely slow to take action” and that its stonewalling exacerbated the hostile environment.

The Education Department’s civil rights division, known as OCR, opened its inquiry on April 16, less than two weeks after the legal advocacy group Palestine Legal filed the complaint on behalf of the students. The office will ultimately determine whether or not the school’s handling of the harassment complaints and disciplining of students involved in on-campus protests violated federal civil rights law.

“When you have a complaint that so clearly, and in such detail, lays out the severity of the hostile environment … I think that led OCR to really swiftly open it,” said Radhika Sainath, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal. “It’s an ongoing environment too.”

The Department of Education declined to comment on the pending investigation, and the university did not respond to a request for comment on the probe or the allegations.

Over the past six months, students across the country have conducted protests, sit-ins, and other demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza and for their institutions to divest from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. While universities have largely responded with an iron fist, the Department of Education has been increasingly brought in to investigate civil rights claims. Since October 7, Palestine Legal has filed five complaints with the OCR, including against Northwestern Law and the University of North Carolina. Conversely, pro-Israel groups have used the civil rights law to target students speaking out in support of Palestinian rights.

Tariq Habash, a former political appointee in the Department of Education who resigned in January in protest of President Joe Biden’s policies on the Gaza war, said that universities’ widespread crackdowns against anti-war protests is connected to the discrimination students have complained of. 

“This is not how you prevent discrimination. This is how you enable it and how you make it normalized.”

“The condemnation has been so swift against largely peaceful, non-violent anti-war protests that are calling for an end to an ongoing genocide of Palestinians,” Habash said. “They’re arresting faculty who are trying to protect students who are in the middle of prayers. They are suspending students. They are kicking them out of their dorms and throwing their belongings into alleyways — this is not how you create safe, inclusive environments. This is not how you prevent discrimination. This is how you enable it and how you make it normalized.”

Targeted Harassment 

The 49-page complaint lays out allegations of harassment going as far back as the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7. The complaint alleges that a student began appearing at Students for Justice in Palestine and other related off-campus protests, “shouting threats such as ‘Kill all Arabs,’ playing a speaker with a recording of the sounds of bombs and other explosions and attempting to ram student protestors with an electric scooter.” 

The student, whose name is redacted in the copy of the complaint reviewed by The Intercept, also allegedly attempted to intimidate an elderly woman among other people, “while also being extremely racist towards Arabs and Palestinians, stating ‘level Gaza’ and ‘Kill all Arabs.’”

The complainants also report receiving vicious messages and threats online, also allegedly by a student and student-run accounts with names like “@amherstzionwarroom, @UMass_amherst_sjp_watch, @UMass_amherst_zionists and @UMass_zionists.”

Some of the posts called the students “classic Islamic barbarism supporters [who] love raping and killing,” and “genocidal barbarian baby decapitator supporters.” One account, named “palisranimals,” reportedly targeted two students, making comments like “where is the best beach in Gaza to build a house next to?! I’ve heard Pali bones make great foundation!” and “every ‘Palestinian’ child in Gaza is actually a terrorist.”

“These accounts would target SJP students and comment on their meeting times, eventually bragged about the doxing on Canary Mission,” reads the complaint, referring to a website that targets and doxxes students and professors who criticize the Israeli government.

The school’s Equal Opportunity and Access Office determined in February that a student was running the accounts, according to the complaint.

Over a matter of weeks, into months, the targeted students and their parents would email administrators asking for support, at the very least a public expression from the university that it cared for its Arab and Palestinian students and would not accept hate toward them. Sometimes they would not hear back for days, sometimes not at all. 

As administrators began to engage with individual complaints, the complaint states, they did not enact broader measures to “effectively put an end to the hostile environment as a whole,” nor issue any statement explicitly condemning anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab behavior.

“We spent our senior year just compiling evidence against our own school.”

“We spent our senior year just compiling evidence against our own school,” said Emmanuelle Sussman, one of the student complainants. “OCR was like a second full-time job. … It’s insane the degree to which this has been our time spent, plus everything else that’s going on.”

Meanwhile, university leadership took strides to express solidarity with Israel. In October, UMass President Marty Meehan co-founded a broad coalition of more than 100 institutions of higher education standing “with Israel and against Hamas.” And in November, according to the complaint, university administrators “appear to have participated in at least two events” with the Anti-Defamation League — an organization that has been criticized for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism and that has given the school an “F” rating in its “Campus Antisemitism Report Card.” The complaint cites an email sent to members of the administration, including Meehan, that states that one of those events would be focused on “making it clear that Anti-Zionism is in fact antisemitism.”

Amherst, MA - October 25: A member of the University of Massachusetts Police Department asks a protester to stand up and walk with him out of the building as students who staged a sit-in outside of the Chancellor's office are arrested at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Students demanded that the Chancellor to end what they called, "UMass Amherst's ties with war profiteers and call for a ceasefire and end of the blockade on Gaza". (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A member of the University of Massachusetts Police Department asks a protester to stand up and walk with him out of the building as students who staged a sit-in outside of the chancellor’s office are arrested on Oct. 25, 2023.
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Mass Arrests

In October, the university arrested 57 demonstrators conducting a sit-in protest on campus, calling on the school to cut ties with weapons manufacturers involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The complaint notes that the day after the October protest, Chancellor Javier Reyes and his assistant Mike Malone met with four student protesters to discuss the arrests and their demands. At the meeting, according to the complaint, the chancellor assured the students that the school would not press disciplinary charges against them and that they would not suffer any consequences other than those stemming from the criminal trespassing charges brought by the UMass Police Department. 

Two weeks later, however, all 57 arrested students received notice that the university was in fact pursuing disciplinary charges against them for trespassing. The students went through code of conduct hearings amid final exams, right before the winter holiday, and none of them succeeded in appealing their sanctions, regardless of their records or references from professors and employers. The rush with which the school arrested and disciplined the students was a departure from its handling of previous protests, according to the complaint. 

Meanwhile, three students were barred from studying abroad the following semester because of the disciplinary sanctions. The complaint notes that when parents and students attempted to appeal that decision, they were informed that it came from Kalpen Trivedi, vice provost for global affairs and International Programs Office director. The complaint includes a purported screenshot of Trivedi’s Facebook page, in which he suggests doctors at Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the media were complicit with Hamas. (At the time, the Israeli military had laid siege to the hospital while claiming, without credible evidence, that it was a command and control center for Hamas.) 

“They are all Hamas. All grotesquely evil,” reads the screenshot. Trivedi could not be reached for comment.

The complaint also charges that the UMass Police Department published the home addresses of the arrested students, many of whom were already facing harassment. In response to repeated requests by parents to remove the addresses from its website, according to the complaint, the police department claimed it was required to publish the addresses by state law. In fact, state law requires the agency only to make addresses available as a public record, not to post them online.

The police department eventually removed the students’ home addresses from its website several weeks later, on December 5. The department did not respond to a request for comment. 

“We were fighting like tooth and nail to get them to remove our private addresses off the internet.” 

“While we were experiencing this crazy level of harassment and deeply, deeply concerning threats of violence, we also were fighting our own police department that we were reporting these incidents to,” Maysoun Batley, one of the students who filed the complaint, told The Intercept. “We were fighting like tooth and nail to get them to remove our private addresses off the internet.”

“Hundreds of Emails”

The complaint also lays out various interactions the students or their parents had with university administrators that left the complainants frustrated by what they felt was an inept response.

In late November, when three Palestinian college students were shot in nearby Vermont, one frustrated parent wrote to Reyes, Meehan, and Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police Tyrone Parham.

“Three Palestinian undergraduate students were shot in Vermont last night!! Three young men were shot! Instead of protecting our children in this current political climate, you are exposing them to risk. This is dangerous and irresponsible. You need to take ACTIVE STEPS to protect our children. I expect a call. I expect an email to the ‘UMass community.’ I expect action beyond the empty words that you have offered so far!”

The university brass did not respond, according to the complaint.

In December, the students said, they were invited to two Zoom meetings with administrators and faculty who apparently were seeking to understand how to make the students feel safer. Instead, the students told The Intercept that they walked away feeling less than fully embraced, citing one professor who apparently criticized their protests.

“This reminds me less of what my dad told me about sit-ins in 1962 in Kentucky, and sounds more like Nazi students shouting down Jewish professors in 1932 in Berlin,” a professor said, according to the students. The professor reportedly suggested that the students “turn down the volume.”

In face of lackluster institutional support, the students took it upon themselves to seek out protections like anti-harassment or no-contact orders.

While the school’s Title IX coordinator granted a mutual no-contact directive to one student against another student accused of harassment on November 29, according to the complaint, it was not until January 30 that other students received similar protections. And it was not until March 28 that the complainants received court-sanctioned harassment prevention orders against other students harassing them, which went into effect the next day.

“Hundreds of emails toward them proving all the harassment since mid-October, and it took them until March 29,” said Ruya Hazeyen, another one of the students who filed the complaint. “And all of them are still allowed on campus, even though we have proof of some of them assaulting our members, threatening our members, doxxing our members. They’re still all right now on campus.”

The post “Kill All Arabs”: The Feds Are Investigating UMass Amherst for Anti-Palestinian Bias appeared first on The Intercept.

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