As students come back on campus at SUNY New Paltz, two young women are fearful. Last semester, they say, they were harassed and vilified on social media. They became too afraid to attend their classes. One left for home before the school year ended. They’re back, but they’re scared they won’t be safe during their senior year at the university.
Cassie Blotner and Ofek Preis say they were victims of anti-Semitic taunts and threats that the university did nothing to address. The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that the university failed to address the hostile climate these women endured and did not hold accountable those who discriminated against them because of their Jewish identities.
Blotner, a political science and criminology major, co-founded a group called New Paltz Accountability (NPA) to advocate for survivors of sexual assault and hold abusers accountable. Preis is an Israeli international student. Last November, both women told their stories at a well-attended NPA public forum.
But a split occurred when Blotner posted her opinions about Israel on her personal Instagram account last December. Her message said: “Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”
Members of the NPA were troubled by Blotner’s sympathy for the Jewish homeland and asked her to discuss her beliefs. One wrote, “Personally I think Israel is a settler colonial state and we cannot condone the violence they take against Palestinians.” In a private message, another told Blotner that her post appeared to condone “the genocide that the Israeli government have [sic] been committing against the Palestinians.”
Stunned, Blotner felt that she was being asked to defend Zionism, which to her is central to her ethnic identity. To Blotner, being asked to defend the actions of the Israeli government in a group setting was anti-Semitic. She suggested a meeting that would include the Jewish Students Union. NPA refused.
The leadership of NPA denies that they are anti-Semitic but insists that they are fighting “all forms of oppression” and any member who does not share this viewpoint is “not the right fit for New Paltz Accountability.”
When Ofek Preis heard about the backlash against Blotner, she posted the same pro-Israel message as Cassie. She was soon dropped from NPA’s email list.
As the dispute became public, anonymous anti-Semitic and threatening messages began to appear on the social media app YikYak. The women were accused of white supremacy and one post suggested people spit on “the Zionists.” Preis said the reaction was “traumatizing and life-altering.”
In response to an article in the campus newspaper, the Oracle, NPA stated, “We only organize with people who share similar political views, which are simple: You must denounce all forms of oppression and exploitation.” But Blotner says she doesn’t understand why she and Preis were “forced to choose between our identities as survivors and as proud Jews.”
The women became nervous on campus and stopped going to most of their classes. Blotner went home to her parents in February, tried coming back, but left again in March. She got incomplete grades on all her courses. Preis says she spent most the semester in hiding, attending most classes online. She passed only one course and has had to drop her double major.
Blotner and Preis say that throughout this time, they got no help from the University — no psychological counseling, no security escorts when they felt unsafe on campus, no support from the Title IX coordinator or the Diversity & Inclusion office.
“Ms. Blotner and Ms. Preis were shunned and isolated by the very people to whom they had turned for support as sexual assault survivors,” says Denise Katz-Prober, Brandeis Center’s director of legal initiatives. “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires universities like SUNY New Paltz to ensure that Jewish and Israeli students are not denied educational opportunities due to discriminatory behavior that targets them on the basis of their ethnic and national identities. That’s exactly what was done here.”
Donald Christian, SUNY President at that time, decried NPA’s anti-Semitism in a statement but said there was nothing he could do because the group was not officially registered as a campus student organization. The Brandeis complaint points out, “The University provided NPA with free use of university facilities to table, host meetings and events, and post flyers on campus. NPA also circulated a petition among the student body to solicit students’ support for the organization’s demands…”
Current SUNY New Paltz President Darrell P. Wheeler’s spokesperson sent Hudson Valley One a statement condemning attacks on Jewish SUNY students and pledged to “continue our active engagement to support our Jewish students and employees around the rise of anti-Semitism.” When asked for actions the school has taken or will take, the University’s spokesperson declined to offer specifics.
The State Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating the Brandeis Center’s complaint. That may take several weeks. In the meantime, Blotner and Preis are working to finish their degrees. They’ve found support from their professors and other students. Despite that, they’re nervous. As Preis says about the people who threatened them online, “you never know what they’re capable of doing.”