San Diego State University banner and buildings
San Diego State University is among a small number of universities faces an anti-Muslim investigation. (Photo/JTA-Stuart Seeger via Creative Commons)

San Diego State faces Islamophobia probe tied to an email sent after Oct. 7

(JTA) – Two days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, the president of San Diego State University did what many other college leaders were doing: She sent a campuswide email supporting her students.

In the email, Adela de la Torre noted the “horrific reports of killings and kidnappings following the Hamas attacks on Israel during Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, a major Jewish holy day,” and said the university was “grieving for all those who are suffering in the wake of this outburst of violence.”

The president included tips on how students could seek support and counseling and added a note of concern for all of the conflict’s victims: “We are deeply struck by the sheer scale of the loss of life — of innocent Israelis, Palestinians, and countless others. We also recognize that this follows a long history of loss of life of civilians in this region.”

Now that email, according to a university spokesperson, is at the center of a federal civil rights investigation into SDSU, tied to a complaint that the school “promoted hate and racism against Arabs and Muslims.”

While it’s unclear who sent the complaint that triggered the investigation, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine had harshly criticized the email in question on its Instagram page in the days after it was sent.

The Department of Education, which opened the investigation Tuesday, declined a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment. Its Office for Civil Rights has said that the opening of such investigations does not mean the department believes they have merit, only that the complaint falls under its purview. Investigations focus on whether administrators responded appropriately to allegations of student discrimination. The department does not usually announce the causes of its investigations publicly.

The SDSU case is not the first Islamophobia-related investigation the department has opened since Oct. 7; it previously announced that at least two other schools have been investigated for perceived discrimination against Muslim students, alongside many more confirmed to involve allegations of anti-Jewish discrimination. But SDSU officials gave the clearest picture yet of how a renewed interest in discrimination based on shared ancestry on campus — a prime tool of Jewish and pro-Israel legal groups since before Oct. 7 — can also be used to advocate for Muslim students.

In an email to JTA, a university spokesperson revealed the reason for the investigation and stringently disputed the allegation that the president’s email was Islamophobic.

“The email, which you can read in full online, does not promote hate or racism,” the school’s statement reads. It listed steps the university had taken to help Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, including through a task force designed to combat Islamophobia. The university also has one devoted to antisemitism.

“Student Affairs and Campus Diversity team members have and continue to reach out to individual students, advisors and student organizations who have been impacted by the violence in Israel and Gaza,” the school’s statement said.

On Oct. 13, days after the university president’s email went out, the campus SJP chapter said in a statement that the school “has failed to acknowledge the emotions and well-being of its Palestinian and Muslim students.”

That statement has been co-signed by more than a dozen groups, including SJP chapters at other universities. The group added that it was “demanding” that de la Torre “reassess this hateful and divisive rhetoric being spewed all over campus.”

Among the group’s issues with the email: “The lack of acknowledgment and condemnation of the settler-colonial state of Israel that has inflicted apartheid, genocide, and ethnic cleansing upon the Palestinian people.” The group also pushed SDSU to divest from “corporations that are complicit in Israeli human rights violations.”

Nationwide, several universities, including Rutgers, Brandeis, Columbia and the Florida state university system, have suspended their campus SJP chapters.

The Department of Education’s civil rights office announced four other new investigations Wednesday: one at the University of Virginia, and three at different K-12 school districts in Georgia, Missouri and California. The investigations fall under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination at federally funded institutions

A spokesperson for the Georgia district, City Schools of Decatur, in suburban Atlanta told JTA it “will cooperate fully” with the investigation but did not offer further details on its origins. The district recently came under fire after an equity commissioner sent an Oct. 25 unauthorized email to staff that called Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide” and urged teachers to “support Gaza” and “facilitate conversations on this topic.” The email included links to articles by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and the progressive magazine Jewish Currents.

In the Decatur case, an internal investigation at the district recommended the employee be terminated, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he was still employed as of last month and his LinkedIn profile still lists him as a district employee.

Eytan Davidson, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and a parent of a child in the Decatur district, wrote in a letter to a local blog that the email was objectionable because “that employee shared unvetted, unauthorized, and misleading political resources under the guise of education that frightened and outraged Jewish families who were reeling from the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.”

Reached for comment, neither the ADL’s office nor the local Jewish federation said they knew about the Title VI investigation.

Little has been reported publicly about the likely roots of the discrimination cases at the other institutions. At the Lammersville Unified School District in San Joaquin County in Northern California, a spokesperson told JTA that the district is “surprised to learn of an investigation as no complaints about shared ancestry concerns have been raised with the District’s administration. As a result, the District cannot comment on the origins or existence of any concerns.”

Representatives of other institutions did not return JTA requests for comment; some were still on winter break. The Jefferson Council, a conservative alumni group promoting “intellectual diversity” at the University of Virginia, posted a detailed allegation of what it said was a “hostile environment for Jews” on campus days after the school’s own investigation was opened.

Andrew Lapin

Andrew Lapin is the Managing Editor for Local News at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.