Harvard Faces Accusations of Discrimination Stemming from Palestinian Students

According to a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Education Department, more than a dozen Palestinian and Muslim students have accused Harvard University of failing to protect them from discrimination, harassment, and threats. The complaint, filed by the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), calls for a federal investigation into Harvard’s response to reported assaults targeting student activists advocating for Palestinian rights during the Israel-Hamas conflict. According to the complaint, some of the targeted students, who were wearing traditional Palestinian scarves called keffiyehs, were subjected to object-throwing and pouring of liquids, while others were stalked, doxxed, and intimidated at their on-campus jobs.

Education Department investigating antisemitism, Islamophobia on campuses nationwide

The filing of this complaint comes at a time when hate crimes and aggression have seen a significant increase against individuals involved in protests related to the Israel-Hamas war. The Office for Civil Rights of the Education Department has launched investigations into anti-Muslim and antisemitic harassment at various colleges, including Columbia, Cornell, Wellesley, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, more than 50 “shared ancestry” complaints have been submitted to the Office for Civil Rights. These complaints involve allegations of discrimination or harassment based on a student’s perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. However, it is unclear how many complaints specifically address antisemitism or anti-Muslim discrimination

The office has not yet confirmed the filing of civil rights complaints. Additionally, a federal online database, which is updated weekly, does not indicate the opening of a “shared ancestry” investigation against Harvard in response to a complaint. However, Palestine Legal states that the complaint filed on Monday is one of the few complaints received concerning a campus’ response to discrimination against Palestinians. The first such complaint was filed against Florida State University in 2021.

In November, Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights of the Education Department, released a “Dear Colleague” letter stressing that schools must address antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate-based discrimination promptly and effectively.

How Harvard, other schools responded to accusations

According to the complaint, Harvard has provided little support to the targeted students in their experiences of alleged anti-Muslim harassment. Campus leaders have warned some students of potential risks to their academic opportunities for participating in protests. The complaint details students’ disappointment with the lack of protection and support, emphasizing that Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab students at Harvard deserve equal treatment and protection.

Harvard has declined to comment directly on the complaint. However, Jason Newton, a spokesperson for the institution, mentioned the resources the university has implemented to support students, including the Presidential Task Force on Combatting Islamophobia and Anti-Arab Bias.

In December, both Claudine Gay, Harvard’s then-president, and Elizabeth Magill, the then-president of the University of Pennsylvania, faced repercussions after testifying at a Congressional hearing on antisemitism. A Jewish student in the Red Clay Consolidated School District filed an antisemitism complaint against the district, which was subsequently settled by the Education Department. The investigation found that the student had faced harassment due to her identity, including the use of bloody imagery, swastikas, and a “Heil Hitler” salute. The district’s response to the behavior was deemed inadequate, and the student’s family was reimbursed for counseling costs, while anti-discrimination training for staff was mandated.

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