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Palestinian and Muslim students file complaint against Harvard claiming discrimination

A civil rights group said Harvard failed to protect more than a dozen students from "rampant harassment and racist attacks."

A truck displaying the names and faces of Harvard students who were linked to an anti-Israel letter, in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 13, 2023. Sophie Park/The New York Times

A civil rights organization filed a federal civil rights complaint Monday on behalf of more than a dozen Harvard students, accusing the university of failing to protect them from harassment based on their Palestinian, Arab and Muslim backgrounds.

The group, Muslim Legal Fund of America, said that the students were subjected to “rampant  harassment and racist attacks” for months. This included doxxing, stalking and assault. MLFA said some students were attacked for wearing keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves.

During some of these attacks, students said they had objects thrown at them or liquids poured on them on campus. Other students reported being stalked while working at student jobs on campus. Some of the students who were targeted did “nothing to put themselves in the public eye,” the group said. 

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Tensions have been high at Harvard since the Israel-Hamas war began in October. Former President Claudine Gay resigned after a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus ignited a storm of controversy, and campus demonstrations have been ongoing. 

Previously:

A few days after Hamas’ deadly attack began the war, some pro-Palestinian students signed a letter holding the Israeli government “entirely” responsible for the violence. In response, a conservative activist group rented a truck with LED screens that displayed the names and faces of the students as it drove through Harvard Square, labeling them Harvard’s “leading” antisemites. 

One of the students that the recent complaint was filed on behalf of referenced the truck in a statement published by MLFA. 

“We have been chased, spat at, stalked, and hounded by doxxing trucks on campus, and even at our families’ homes. On top of worrying about my family’s safety in Palestine, I’m living in fear of being attacked while walking to class. No student should have to live like this,” the unnamed student said in a release. 

Earlier this month, a group of Jewish students sued Harvard, alleging that its campus had become “a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” Those students also claimed that the university failed to protect them.

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On Jan. 19, Interim President Alan Garber announced the creation of two “presidential task forces” at Harvard, one to combat antisemitism and the other to fight Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias. The task forces are being tasked with studying the root causes and frequency of “bias-based behaviors” on campus while recommending approaches to eliminate these behaviors. 

In December, video circulated online of the wife of an economics professor at Harvard following and accosting a graduate student wearing a keffiyeh. The woman, Eve Gerber, said that the student was “making families feel unsafe with [their] terrorist scarf.” She later apologized, calling her comments “indefensible.”

Pro-Palestininan Harvard students have been wearing keffiyehs on Thursdays since at least early 2022, according to The Harvard Crimson

The MLFA complaint was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It demands an immediate investigation into the alleged harassment on campus. The students that MLFA filed the complaint on behalf of attend Harvard College, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard Law School, the group said. Some are Palestinian, some are Muslim, and others are simply described as “allies” who have been targeted for their support of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. 

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“We are proud to help these brave students find a voice and assert their rights to learn free and safe from harm, consistent with the First Amendment of our nation’s Constitution,” MLFA Civil Litigation Department Head Christina A. Jump, lead attorney for the students, said in a statement. “They deserve that, just like any other student — let them learn, and learn in a safe space.”

MLFA references a November letter from Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon that described a rise in reported hate crimes and discriminatory harassment against Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students in the wake of Oct. 7. The Biden administration said at the time that it was working to identify and prevent threats that could harm these students. 

“I’m extremely disappointed by what I’ve heard these students experienced,” MLFA Senior Civil Litigation Staff Attorney Chelsea Glover said in a statement. “Harvard’s Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students deserve the same protections on campus as all other students.”

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