Jewish Students at Haverford College File Lawsuit Alleging Antisemitism

A group of protesters in support of Israel stand on Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 24, 2024. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA (The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) — A group of Jewish students, faculty, parents and alumni at Haverford College have sued the school, alleging it’s discriminating against Jews by tolerating antisemitic speech and failing to support Jewish students amid an anti-Israel climate on campus.

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the group, called Jews at Haverford, accused leaders of the liberal arts college of applying a double standard to minority groups on campus. The group said the college violated the Civil Rights Act when it failed to condemn Hamas’ attacks on Israel, despite previously issuing statements pledging solidarity with other minorities, including after police killings of Black people.

The suit comes amid continued unrest over the Israel-Gaza war on college campuses and in classrooms. Schools across the country, including the University of Pennsylvania, where a pro-Palestinian encampment was disbanded by police last week, and Temple University, have faced an uptick in federal complaints over allegations of antisemitism since the Oct. 7 attacks. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating one such claim from a group of Jewish parents in Philadelphia accusing the Philadelphia School District of antisemitism at Masterman and other city schools, where students and families have clashed over the war in Gaza.

At Haverford, where a junior was among three Palestinian students shot near the University of Vermont in November, students have invoked the college’s Quaker roots while pressing it to support a ceasefire.

The Jews at Haverford group said the college has repeatedly permitted speech critical of Israel by students and professors; one professor called Haverford students who supported Israel “racist genocidaires,” a statement the college didn’t challenge, according to the lawsuit.

The college also let students host an event claiming that Israel had intentionally infected Palestinians with Covid — claims the Jewish group compared to “medieval blood libels” that falsely accused Jews of murdering Christians.

The lawsuit also lists complaints around the college’s plenary meetings, when the student body gathers to discuss and vote on issues. This academic year, plenaries have featured resolutions to call for a ceasefire, with “wildly biased” accounts of the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to the lawsuit. It claims several Jewish students were not permitted to speak and were bullied for their signatures.

Haverford has adopted “a single unifocal definition of justice, which excludes, and is resolutely hostile to, Jews who are committed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state or even insufficiently committed to its elimination,” the lawsuit said.

A spokesperson for the college, Chris Mills, declined to comment.

The case against Haverford was filed by the Deborah Project, a public interest law firm that says it seeks to “uncover, publicize, and dismantle antisemitic abuses in educational systems.” The firm has filed cases against schools in other states, including one in 2022 seeking to block what it called an “overtly racist and antisemitic” ethnic studies curriculum in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit — which describes a “history of antisemitism” at Haverford, including quotas on the numbers of Jewish students who could attend the college in the 1930s — cites five students who have been affected by anti-Israel demonstrations, saying they have been shunned and have changed their routines on campus.

Only one is named — Ally Landau, a women’s basketball player, who sent a campuswide email in early November “in the name of many concerned Jewish students at Haverford and Bryn Mawr.” She accused Students for Justice in Palestine and Students’ Council of “hijacking Plenary to push their one-sided anti-Israel agenda.”

Several weeks later, after the Vermont shooting, pro-Palestinian students issued a “grievances” document that called the shooting “the direct result of the proliferation of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian rhetoric on this campus and beyond.” They called Landau’s email “hateful,” and demanded the college acknowledge a “continued ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people.”

Haverford’s president, Wendy Raymond, responded by thanking the writers for “open, honest, thoughtful, and constructive dialogues,” and listed proposals, including culturally competent counseling and support for faculty and student activism. She did not address the claim that the shooting was related to rhetoric on campus, according to the lawsuit.

When Landau, a member of the women’s basketball team, later organized an event at a game promoting awareness of antisemitism, administrators pressured her to cancel it, according to the lawsuit — saying it would “prove too antagonistic to the pro-Palestinian students on campus.”

The lawsuit says Haverford has allowed posters around campus with “From the river to the sea,” a phrase that appears in Hamas’ charter and that is used as a rallying cry for the destruction of Israel. “Quoting the Hamas Charter is exactly as antisemitic as hanging a Confederate flag is racist,” the lawsuit said.

When posters were then torn down in March advertising a Shabbat dinner and a discussion of Jewish identity, the lawsuit said, the college failed to condemn the act as antisemitic.

In a message to the community April 9 acknowledging “growing concern about antisemitism on our campus,” Raymond, noted the posters’ removal but said “the movement of many of the flyers can be accounted for by benign mechanisms.” The college continued to investigate, she said.

Raymond said it was “troubling and unacceptable” that some Jewish students felt they could not participate in the college’s plenary. She also noted the event students held about Covid — originally titled “Mass Death on all Fronts: Israel’s weaponization of Covid against Palestinians,” which Raymond said “evoked centuries-old pernicious tropes related to blood libel.”

Administrators “interceded … encouraging student organizers to exercise more empathy and consideration of their fellow community members, and to alter their approach to their topic,” Raymond said. While organizers changed the title to “Covid in Times of Genocide,” according to the lawsuit, Raymond said administrators “were disappointed by those changes, which did not assuage important and clearly expressed concerns.”

“I regret that our commitment to freedom of expression in this case has resulted in such pain and harm, contributing further to the feelings of alienation and prejudice that many Jewish people have described to me,” she said.

Among other actions, the lawsuit asks the court to order Haverford to ensure that students are protected from discrimination on the basis of their Jewish identity, “including those for whom Zionism is an integral part of that identity,” and that it be ordered to provide education about antisemitism “which includes the hostile treatment of Jews who believe in the centrality of Israel to Judaism.”

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