NEW YORK – When Jaimie Kreitman was a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1980s, she experienced what she describes as “hostility and toxicity” from her professors and classmates because of her Jewish background.
A few days after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on combating anti-Semitism on campuses in December, Kreitman filed a complaint against her alma mater to the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the situation for current Jewish students is “a hundred times worse” than when she was attending university.
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At the time, Kreitman was one of a few Jewish students pursuing a master's degree in Arabic and Islamic studies and recalls being “picked on” constantly.
According to Kreitman, a particular professor refused to accept her Arabic credits from a summer course she had taken at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, leaving her no choice but to repeat the class. She also said some faculties “made Jewish students' lives miserable," adding that one teaching assistant “embarrassed” her on a regular basis.
Kreitman told Haaretz she was especially “persecuted” when it came to her master’s thesis, in which she had compared a medieval polemic by a Jewish apostate in North Africa defending Islam against Judaism, to another polemic of the same time.
“A professor thought that my thesis was completely subjective and that it wasn’t worthy of a graduate's level. She wasn’t going to pass me and called me in to defend my master’s thesis, which is never ever done,” she said.
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Thanks to another teacher who defended her, she graduated with her master's degree, but it was clear to Kreitman she would not pursue a PhD at Columbia.
“I wasn’t going to do it, I was very discouraged, I couldn’t go through,” she said. “It’s hard enough to pursue this study, it takes ten years to get a PhD, why endure this? I decided to leave academia completely and take a different turn.”
Two federal complaints have been filed against Columbia University accusing the school of anti-Semitic discrimination since Trump had signed the executive order.
Trump's executive order, which grants Jewish students the same protection as other minority groups, states that higher education institutions that receive federal funding could be penalized for allowing anti-Semitism on campus.
But the move has also triggered harsh criticism from the Jewish community and other students, claiming it does not effectively fight anti-Semitism but is designed to silence criticism of Israel.
“I cannot imagine any Jewish student going to Columbia,” Kreitman told Haaretz. “Why would you go there under these circumstances? The toxicity, the hostility, the hatefulness, it’s not a warm environment.”
Kreitman said she has been active in Columbia Facebook groups in recent years and has followed the reports of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, some of which are published by watch groups like CU Monitor.
“[Columbia University] is in a city that is known to be a major Jewish center, how is this tolerated? And this isn’t academia! This isn’t objective scholarly learning!” she said. “I felt that at this point I have nothing to lose...and if I can lend a voice, why not?”
Both Kreitman’s complaint and the other one filed by the Lawfare Project on behalf of a Jewish Israeli-American undergraduate student were submitted to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“I am a Jew, I’ve suffered as a consequence of the hostile environment toward Jews as a student at Columbia, and myself and other Jews continue to suffer as a consequence of anti-Semitic rhetoric and beliefs normalized by this institution,” Kreitman wrote in her complaint.
Her complaint, which a group of people helped her assemble, includes a list of incidents against Jewish students from the last 180 days at Columbia University, as well as proposed actions to be taken.
Suggested remedies include: establishing a system through which faculty and staff can be “warned and disciplined” for promoting anti-Semitism; public and explicit condemnations of anti-Semitic acts and statements by faculty, guest speakers, and student groups; the creation of a process for reporting anti-Semitic incidents; instituting a program through which students and faculty can learn about and discuss “both traditional and new anti-Zionist anti-Semitic expressions;" regularly present diverse perspectives on Israel; and finally, taking measures to create a safe environment for all Jewish students.
“They should wake up and smell the roses because we are sick of it, we’re sick of this,” Kreitman said of Columbia University’s administration. “Columbia is arrogant, and they really need to live up to their status as Ivy [League]. It’s infuriating.”
By signing the executive order on anti-Semitism, Kreitman added, “Trump unleashed a barrage of complaints.”
“It's giving us credence to our complaints,” she told Haaretz. “Whatever we think of him, this was fabulous.”
According to the Lawfare Project, which filed its complaint on behalf of student Jonathan Karten, Jewish students at Columbia “have endured systematic discrimination from tenured professors and anti-Israel groups,” including Students for Justice for Palestine and Columbia University Apartheid Divest.
Columbia students and faculty also host Israel Apartheid Week, which has included bringing virulently anti-Semitic speakers to campus.
A university spokesperson said in an email to Haaretz on Tuesday that Columbia had “no comment” on the issue.
JTA contributed to this report.