Amid Surge in Antisemitism, US Education Secretary Discusses Efforts to Combat Anti-Jewish Hate

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As antisemitism increases to frightening levels across the nation, much of the focus is on the anti-Jewish hatred that has become prevalent on college campuses and in elementary and secondary schools around the United States.

Against that backdrop, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona held a briefing on Feb. 6, which was attended by several media outlets, including the Washington Jewish Week, where he addressed the issue of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the education arena.

Noting that he approaches this issue not only as secretary of education but also as a father of a high schooler and a college student, Cardona said he thinks about “the responsibility we have to ensure a safe learning environment for all students, and the role that we have as educators and education leaders to make sure that we’re standing up for our students and their right to learn in a safe environment.”

Citing his visits to different schools, Cardona spoke about how the students’ words had a profound impact on him, stating that students communicated to him “that antisemitism in some parts of our country has become normalized.”

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Photo credit: wikimedia.org: U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Cardona recounted an interaction he had with a Jewish student at Towson University, who told him about an incident where he was walking to class and took a different route because he was afraid he would be harassed and saw a swastika drawn on a wall. Cardona said the student told him, “I was happy I went that way because that’s no big deal,” referring to the swastika. Cardona recalled saying, “what do you mean it’s no big deal,” noting that even that student was normalizing seeing a swastika on campus. “That really bothered me because no child, no student should ever feel that they’re going to a learning environment where people are openly spewing hate and creating an environment where they don’t feel safe walking through their campuses.”

“At the Department of Education this became an all-hands-on-deck moment. After the terrorist attacks, we really recognized that we had to step up,” Cardona said as he discussed his department’s response to the events of Oct. 7 and their aftermath. According to Cardona, the education department worked on “building capacity and helping college presidents, helping K-12 leaders understand what their role is and what their legal responsibility is, and giving them tools on how to make sure that they’re providing safe learning environments.”

In addition to making information available on its website, Cardona said his department also held a webinar about Title VI that was attended by over 1,000 people on what to do and what resources are available. “I also fought to make sure that we have funding that we need to make sure that our Office for Civil Rights has the tools that they need,” he said, referring to the office that enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which serves to protect students from discrimination.

When asked about some of the Title VI cases that have been filed with the department’s Office of Civil Rights, Cardona declined to discuss the specifics, instead speaking generally about the process and his department’s role. “We need to start with the students feeling safe on campus – that’s the starting point,” he said.

Addressing the fact that school administrators are dealing with some students who are saying “this is antisemitism” while other students are saying “these are my free speech rights,” which makes an already difficult situation more complex, Cardona said school leaders “want to do what’s right.”

“I’ve heard from presidents who have told me that at the staff level they have work to do to make sure that the working environment is one that’s conducive to teaching students how to communicate what they want to communicate, have freedom of speech, while not crossing the line and making an unsafe learning environment,” he said. “There are presidents that have shared with me the need to increase the level of professional development around the resources that are available around Title VI. I think ultimately, they’re sharing that it is challenging because there’s a lot of emotion and that they want to do what’s right. And they want to make sure students feel safe, but also balance the ability for students to disagree, even if that makes people feel uncomfortable.”

When Cardona was asked whether a student saying or writing “from the river to the sea” creates a hostile environment and serves as a call to genocide, he didn’t directly answer the question, speaking instead in a general sense about school leaders’ needs to act.

“Any calls for genocide is something that we should be very clear is not tolerable,” Cardona said. “That to me is a very clear line for the leader to call out calls for genocide and make it very clear to condemn those statements and address it, not only with the student or students that said that, but with the student who felt that they’re being the subject of that.”

When pressed about “from the river to the sea,” which was noted could mean different things to different people, Cardona again demurred. “We investigate each case and it’s difficult for me to make a statement here about that. If students are feeling unsafe with that, it’s a responsibility of leadership to act.”

University presidents testifying before Congress about antisemitism on college campuses in Dec. 2023. Photo credit: wikimedia.org: 2023 Congress Hearing on Antisemitism

Citing the increased number of students across the U.S. who are feeling unsafe on campus, the Washington Jewish Week asked Cardona if he believes the average college student has a good understanding of the technical aspects of making a complaint to either their university or the education department’s Office of Civil Rights if they endure what they perceive to be intimidation or threatening rhetoric.

Noting that students may have a trusted adult they can turn to at their university if they’re feeling uncomfortable or threatened and that adult should know how to guide the student accordingly, Cardona acknowledged that the average student likely doesn’t know what the Office of Civil Rights does.

“Unfortunately, that information sometimes gets learned after something happens that they have to then respond. But it is the responsibility of the school to have an infrastructure where they’re communicating with students,” he said.

“After Oct. 7, with the rise in antisemitism that we saw in this country, I believe any college leader should have used that as an opportunity to make sure their leaders, their deans, their student support services, were more visible and communicating more directly and proactively with students. If you feel a certain way, you can call this number or you can text here or you can come visit this student support services center to get that message out. I do believe that has increased … I think ultimately, part of it is giving them a platform to communicate and to express how they feel, but also communicating with them what options they have if they’re feeling threatened or under attack,” he added.

While Cardona acknowledged there has been a spike in antisemitism since Oct. 7, he pointed out that “it was bad before Oct. 7.”

In addition to a rise in antisemitism, Cardona noted that there has also been a rise in Islamophobia and said, “we want to make sure that Title VI expectations exist for all students.”

“If you look at the resources that we put out there, the guidance that we put out there, it has been helpful. It has created better learning environments for students. It has helped build capacity in K-12 institutions, higher ed institutions. It’s given school leaders an opportunity to learn from school leaders’ successes and triumphs, but also challenges. So, I do believe it has happened. And to be honest with you, as an educator, as a father, it helped where I believe it counts – preventive maintenance – making sure that we have safe environments, because the tools are out there. Making sure that leaders know who they can call on, who’s going to pick up the phone at the Department of Education to provide support. I do believe that has made a difference and has helped create safer learning environments.”

Cardona said his department has seen an “elevated” number of cases since Oct. 7 and has opened 60 shared ancestry investigations over the past four months (compared to 27 investigations opened by the previous administration), which include claims of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

When asked if he believes that anti-Zionism is antisemitic, Cardona said “I believe antisemitism can include anti-Zionist statements … we take that into account when looking at cases.”

While much of the focus of the meeting was on universities, Cardona also spoke about what middle school and high school students are experiencing.

“What I heard from younger students is ‘I have to hide who I am so that I don’t have to deal with what is being said or what is being done,’” he said. “They might hide the sticker of the Israeli flag on their computer, or they might tuck in the Star of David, where before they didn’t … As an educational leader, I’m very concerned when students can’t be who they are unapologetically because of the conditions on campus. That to me is an unsafe learning environment … From the younger students, that’s what I hear – that it’s easier just to hide. But to me, that’s very alarming that students feel like they have to disassociate with who they are in order to learn in a safe environment.”

In response to a question from the Washington Jewish Week whether university leaders are doing enough to address antisemitism and to create a safe space for their students on campus, Cardona responded that he thinks “more can be done,” noting that we’ve “seen some college leaders who have done really well” and “some who haven’t done well.”

“I believe what we saw highlighted soon after Oct. 7 is what happens when we’re not in front of it in some cases … I still think we can continue to do more, not only to promote safe learning environments, but to also make sure students feel comfortable in their own skin. That they don’t have to change who they are, that they don’t have to hide their identity.”

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