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Jewish students sue Harvard, alleging lack of action against antisemitism on campus

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(BOSTON) — A group of Jewish students at Harvard University has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the school has “become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment” and alleging the administration has failed to protect them.

The lawsuit, on behalf of members of the Students Against Antisemitism Inc., was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston and asks a judge to compel the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university to enforce rules already on the books to protect Jewish students on campus and discipline classmates who violate them.

“Jewish students on campus have been subjected to a really hostile environment in which they have been intimidated, harassed and in some instances physically assaulted because they’re Jewish,” attorney Marc Kasowitz, who is representing the Jewish students in the legal action, told ABC News Thursday. “Right now, the Jewish students on campus at Harvard are afraid for their own physical safety and to express their views about current events.”

The lawsuit comes about a week after Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard University, resigned amid plagiarism allegations and a backlash over her answers at a Congressional hearing to questions about antisemitism on U.S. college campuses.

A spokesperson for Harvard University issued a statement Thursday to ABC News, saying, “We do not comment on pending litigation.”

Harvard University has said in recent months that it is taking steps to address antisemitism concerns on campus – including the creation of an Antisemitism Advisory Group of faculty, alumni, students, and other community leaders in Harvard’s Jewish community.

The lawsuit names as defendants the school’s president and the institution’s highest governing board, the Fellows of Harvard College, also known as Harvard Corporation. Since Gay’s resignation, Alan Garber, the university’s provost, has been serving as interim president.

The Jewish students listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit include four enrolled in the Harvard Law School, one studying public health and one seeking a master’s in theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Only one of the students, Alexander Kestenbaum, was identified in the legal documents.

Kasowitz said the students have filed numerous complaints with school officials about the intimidation and hatred they say they have endured on campus as antisemitism has soared in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists that left more than 1,200 dead, 6,900 injured and more than 200 taken hostage, according to Israel Defense Forces.

Israel responded with relentless airstrikes and a ground operation in the Gaza Strip that has killed at least 23,357 people and wounded at least 59,410 others, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.

“Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus, shouting vile antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel,” the lawsuit alleges. “Those mobs have occupied buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges, plazas, and study halls, often days or weeks at a time, promoting violence against Jews and harassing and assaulting them on campus.”

Hours after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, several on-campus groups expressed their support for Palestinians in a letter, arguing that Israeli policies in Gaza are “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” read the letter. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison. Israeli officials promise to ‘open the gates of hell,’ and the massacres in Gaza have already commenced. Palestinians in Gaza have no shelters for refuge and nowhere to escape. In the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel’s violence,” the Harvard student groups said in their statement last week.

The students behind the letter denied supporting Hamas and said they’ve been “flooded with racist hate speech and death threats” for their solidarity with Gazans amid the Israeli retaliation and the humanitarian crisis there.

The fierce backlash against the pro-Palestinian letter led to a doxing campaign against them. This prompted Harvard to establish a task force to support students experiencing doxing, harassment, and online security issues, according to the Harvard Crimson.

“It’s a really, really scary time to be Palestinian and to be someone who feels morally compelled to speak about the Palestinian perspective in an environment that is so hostile to it and also in an environment that where it feels like that perspective is not present at all,” a student, who did not want to be named, told ABC News in a past interview.

Some pro-Palestinian students told ABC News they have since been afraid to speak their minds on campus.

“Falling into the old trope of conflating valuing Palestinian lives with antisemitism is an unfortunate and lazy response, and I condemn it,” a Harvard law student, who asked not to be named, told ABC News in a past interview. “Of course, I feel for the students being intimidated into silence.”

According to the lawsuit against Harvard, Jewish students have also complained of being attacked on social media and that Harvard faculty members have “promulgated antisemitism in their courses and intimidated students who object.”

“What is most striking about all of this is Harvard’s abject failure and refusal to lift a finger to stop and deter this outrageous antisemitic conduct and penalize the students and faculty who perpetrate it,” the lawsuit states.

The court documents allege a double standard exists at Harvard. It alleges that while students and faculty are permitted to advocate “the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel” without consequences, the school requires students to take a class that “warns that they will be disciplined if they engage in sizeism, fatphobia, racism, transphobia, or other disfavored behavior.”

“We want the university to do what it should to make sure that all of their students feel safe, protected and able to express their views in an open way like kids should be able to do,” Kasowitz told ABC News. “It’s not that complicated.”

The lawsuit notes that during her Congressional testimony in early December, Gay and other college presidents came under widespread criticism for not saying unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

“The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific, and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take — we take action against it,” Gay said during a heated exchange with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, a Harvard alum, who asked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?”

Gay’s testimony prompted widespread calls for her resignation, but the Harvard Corporation initially voted unanimously to support her “continued leadership of Harvard University.”

The corporation accepted Gay’s resignation on Jan. 2 as criticism of her continued to grow. Gay remains a professor at the university.

Before her resignation, Gay initiated the process of examining how antisemitism manifests within the Harvard community and started crafting a plan to address the school’s history of antisemitism, including acknowledging prejudice in Harvard’s past.

“As President, I affirm our commitment to protecting all members of our community from harassment and marginalization, and our commitment to meeting antisemitism head-on, with the determination it demands,” Gay said in a Nov. 9 statement.

She said the school would implement a “robust program of education and training for students, faculty and staff on antisemitism broadly and at Harvard specifically.” Part of the program, Gay said, would be focused on rooting out “certain rhetoric that has been heard on our campus in recent weeks, and its impact on Jewish members of our community.”

Gay also said the school was “redoubling our efforts” to make students aware of avenues that exist to report “feelings of fear or incidents causing harm.”

Interim President Alan Garber released a statement to the community following Gay’s resignation that addressed on-campus tensions, calling on the University to “bridge the fissures that have weakened our sense of community and, through our words and deeds, affirm the immense worth of what we do here, notwithstanding our shortcomings,” according to the Harvard Crimson.

The lawsuit accuses the school of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that bans discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any institution or program that receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The lawsuit notes that Harvard accepted $642 million in financial assistance from the federal government in fiscal year 2022 and $676 million in fiscal year 2023.

Harvard is also being investigated for complaints of discrimination based on shared ancestry under Title VI by the Department of Education.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to compel the school to “implement institutional, far-reaching and concrete remedial measures,” including disciplining or terminating deans, administrators, professors and other employees responsible for antisemitic discrimination and abuse, and to expel students who engage in such conduct.

ABC News’ Nadine El-Bawab contributed to this report.

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