Feds Probe Alleged Anti-Palestinian Racism at Columbia, Group Says

Alex Kent/Getty Images
Alex Kent/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into alleged anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab racism at Columbia University, according to a group that filed a complaint against the university.

The news comes after months of student complaints about increasing harassment and the school’s failure to prevent a hateful environment towards Palestinian students from taking root on campus.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified Palestine Legal, the group representing Columbia students and Students for Justice in Palestine, of its investigation, which the group shared in a public statement on Thursday. If the investigation finds Columbia violated Title VI, it could lose federal funding or “be referred to the Justice Department for further action,” according to the department.

Palestine Legal staff attorney Radhika Sainath praised the opening of the probe, which came just days after police cleared a protest encampment and arrested more than 100 demonstrators.

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“The law is clear—if universities do not cease their racist crackdowns against Palestinians and their supporters, they will risk losing federal funding,” Sainath said in a statement. “Students have the right to speak out against the genocide of Palestinians, without fear of unequal treatment, racist attacks or being denied access to an education by their university.”

The complaint cites several instances of alleged university neglect when it failed to prevent or punish verbal and physical abuse of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students and their allies. Examples include the university’s alleged nonresponse to the doxing of pro-Palestinian students since October; its handling of an incident in which two pro-Israel students sprayed putrid “skunk” water at pro-Palestinian demonstrators in January, which landed some in the hospital; and its delayed investigation into an outspoken Israeli professor who had more than 50 harassment complaints filed against him.

The complaint also accuses the school of treating Palestinian students differently than others on the basis of their ethnic identity through its policies, statements, and other administrative actions.

“Columbia is quick to condemn speech it deems hateful or offensive to non-Palestinians, but when Palestinian students are the targets of anti-Palestinian hate or violence, the university stalls or fails to condemn the actions. When it does make a statement, Columbia fails to note that Palestinian students were the victims, unlike when non-Palestinians are harmed,” the complaint reads.

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The complaint also accuses Columbia president Minouche Shafik of falsely claiming “clear and present danger” to invite the NYPD to arrest students from the encampment on the school’s lawn on April 18. It characterizes this action as “a significant break from decades-long practice” and an “egregious example” of the university’s differential treatment of Palestinian students and their allies.

The university declined to comment on the investigation, though Shafik has often reiterated the school’s commitment to keeping a safe and welcome environment for all students. Her leadership has also come under fire from pro-Israel advocates, who voiced concerns about antisemitism and the safety of Jewish students. Two other investigations into Columbia’s alleged discriminatory conduct are active, though it’s unclear whether these are over antisemitism or anti-Muslim racism. A spokesperson said the Education Department does not comment on active investigations.

Layla Saliba, one of the students represented by Palestine Legal in the complaint, said the investigation shows the severity of the allegations.

“It should not be controversial to be against your relatives being bombed,” Saliba told NBC News. “Yet Columbia has created an environment where just expressing your view as a Palestinian, it feels so unwelcoming.”

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