The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Education Department has opened an investigation into allegations of antisemitism at Harvard University, where the campus, like many others, has been roiled by demonstrations and confrontations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students in the weeks since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
The complaint against Harvard, filed on Tuesday, joins a growing list of federal civil rights investigations into complaints of discrimination based on “shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics,” including at Columbia, Cornell, Wellesley College, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tampa and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
The list includes a handful of school districts as well, including New York City public schools, Clark County School District in Las Vegas and Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa.
The Office for Civil Rights announced on Nov. 16 that it was investigating such complaints as part of its efforts to “take aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination and harassment on college campuses and in K-12 schools since the October 7 Israel-Hamas conflict.”
The Office for Civil Rights publicly discloses the existence of the investigations, but it does not routinely reveal who filed a complaint or what it says. However, the office has an obligation under its regulations to investigate any complaint that states a viable legal claim. Universities could lose federal funding for civil rights violations.
It was not clear Wednesday who had filed the official complaint against Harvard, which was originally reported by Fox News Digital and The Boston Globe. The Globe said it had seen a letter from the Department of Education that said that the complaint accused the university of discrimination against students based on their Jewish or Israeli ancestry.
Complaints of antisemitism against Harvard have circulated on social media.
On Oct. 18, a confrontation at the business school between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel supporters went viral. Video clips showed pro-Palestinian students trying to corral a young man holding a cellphone. He seemed to be taking pictures of demonstrators lying on the ground, participating in a “die-in.” As some pro-Palestinian demonstrators held up their kaffiyehs, or scarves, to block him, the young man could be heard saying, “Don’t touch me.”
On Nov. 4, Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager and alumnus, wrote an open letter to Claudine Gay, Harvard’s president, and the Harvard Corporation Board, which mentioned the incident and said there was rising antisemitism on campus.
“Jewish students are being bullied, physically intimidated, spat on, and in several widely-disseminated videos of one such incident, physically assaulted,” Mr. Ackman wrote. “On-campus protesters on the Widener Library steps and elsewhere shout, ‘Intifada! Intifada! Intifada! From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall be Free!’”
“From the river to the sea” is widely interpreted to be synonymous with the eradication of the state of Israel.
Mr. Ackman had nothing to do with the civil rights complaint, his spokesman, Francis McGill, said on Wednesday.
Dr. Gay, Harvard’s president, was initially criticized by people like Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary, for being slow to denounce antisemitism. She has since sent out increasingly forceful denunciations of antisemitism and has announced the creation of a task force to combat it.
On Wednesday, Harvard said it would cooperate with the investigation. “We support the work of the Office for Civil Rights to ensure students’ rights to access educational programs are safeguarded and will work with the office to address their questions,” the university said in a statement.