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Jewish Student Files Lawsuit Against Virginia University and Campus Student Organizations over Anti-Jewish Prejudice

A Jewish undergraduate student is suing the University of Virginia, its president and rector, and two pro-Palestinian organizations, alleging that he was “a victim of hate-based, intentional discrimination, severe harassment and abuse, and illegal retaliation” at U.Va., according to a federal lawsuit filed May 17.

Matan Goldstein, who completed his freshman year at U.Va. this month, made public allegations this spring in interviews with The Daily Progress and CBS 19 in Charlottesville that he was physically and verbally assaulted on U.Va.’s grounds over his Jewish faith and the fact that he is a dual American and Israeli citizen.

An 80-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on Goldstein’s behalf claims that the university, as well as U.Va. President Jim Ryan and Rector Robert D. Hardie, “thoroughly and completely failed” to “protect students from discrimination, harassment, abuse, violence and retaliation, including antisemitism.” Goldstein is represented by Keswick-based civil rights attorneys Gregory Brown and Kristi Lyn Gavalier of Brown & Gavalier.

Also named in the lawsuit are U.Va.’s Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapter and Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. Goldstein claims that “the very existence of FJP at U.Va. and membership in FJP at U.Va., along with the numerous acts of misconduct … are definitively antisemitic and are, as a matter of law, a breach of each faculty member’s legal duties.” The lawsuit describes the student organization, which has chapters at college campuses across the country, as “antisemitic, pro-Hamas,” and alleges it committed “hate-based misconduct” against Goldstein and “other members of the university community.”

Goldstein seeks a jury trial and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, according to the complaint.

Goldstein’s lawsuit follows several challenging months on college campuses across the nation, including U.Va., Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Mary Washington, where more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested in April and May, and in some cases face criminal charges. At U.Va., 27 people were arrested on May 4 when Ryan and other university officials called in state police to break up a small encampment on the university’s Lawn. Police donned riot gear and sprayed chemical irritants at protesters.

Before May 4, pro-Palestinian groups held occasional protests and events at U.Va., none of which ended in arrests. Goldstein claims in the lawsuit that he was attacked by participants during an October 2023 walkout protest on U.Va.’s campus.

According to the lawsuit, Goldstein wore a yarmulke and a Star of David, and carried an Israeli flag to an Oct. 25, 2023, protest at U.Va., during which students and faculty members walked out of class and marched to the university’s Rotunda, protesting the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. “At the event, Matan was berated, insulted, threatened with violence, and physically assaulted,” the lawsuit claims, and a U.Va. professor with Goldstein “was forced to intervene and identify himself as a U.Va. professor in order to protect Matan and himself from imminent physical assault.”

The lawsuit also claims that “pro-Hamas faculty members have offered extra credit and boosts in grades to students who attend anti-Israeli, antisemitic rallies.” Further, the lawsuit alleges that in a private meeting between Ryan and a group of Jewish students and parents in February, the students “informed President Ryan that they felt afraid on campus” and “feared retaliation by the university. To be sure, the Jewish community feared retaliation from President Ryan.”

The lawsuit claims that the president of the Students for Justice in Palestine’s U.Va. chapter, who is not named in the complaint, filed a “bogus and false” Honor Committee charge against Goldstein, stemming from a media interview. U.Va.’s honor code prohibits lying, cheating and stealing. According to the complaint, the honor charge against Goldstein was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Goldstein’s complaint also says that Ryan and Hardie “‘gaslighted’ the Jewish students with a series of lies, evasions and acts of retaliation.” In a media statement, Ryan said that the university had investigated 26 reports “potentially related to antisemitism” during the 2023-24 academic year through mid-April but the university’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights and university police had not identified “evidence that would support additional adjudication, including disciplinary actions or criminal prosecution.”

The lawsuit alleges that “the U.Va. media apparatus falsely claimed that no major and, more importantly, ‘formal’ complaints had been lodged or initiated,” and that a university statement saying U.Va. investigators “have yet to return evidence to substantiate the [antisemitism] claims” is “reprehensible, irresponsible, and, most of all, false.”

A U.Va. spokesperson said Tuesday the university “will not comment on this pending litigation,” while adding the following statement: “The university opposes antisemitism and other forms of bias, and we respond swiftly to claims of harassment of members of our community. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and ensuing war in Gaza, leaders across our grounds have gone to great lengths to support students who have experienced difficulties stemming from the conflict and to investigate claims of misconduct that violates our policies or Virginia law. This has been a challenging year at U.Va. and at institutions around the country, but we are proud of the way our students, faculty and staff have risen to the challenge in a difficult moment.”

Ryan and Hardie previously received criticism from a group of Jewish parents who sent a letter to Hardie listing 37 alleged incidents of antisemitism at U.Va. The letter was later published online by conservative U.Va. alumni group The Jefferson Council, which was co-founded by U.Va. Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis.

The Jefferson Council and the group of Jewish parents have argued that Ryan and Hardie haven’t done enough to protect Jewish students from antisemitism at U.Va., although student leaders of the university chapter of the largest Jewish student group, Hillel, wrote a letter in April to the board of visitors saying that antisemitism, while “a top concern at U.Va. … is not as widespread as some outside of the university community believe.”

Meanwhile, other faculty members and student organizations have spoken out about their disappointment in Ryan’s decision to call in state police to remove protesters on May 4, an action Ryan attributed to “individuals unaffiliated with the university” joining protesters, as well as recreational tents being erected without a permit. However, some observers of the May 4 protest dispersal said they did not observe among the protesters a group of “four men dressed in black” who were cited by Ryan as one reason behind his decision to call in state troopers, according to a report by The Daily Progress.