Rokita warns Indiana college officials to guard against campus antisemitism

Though most, if not all, of Indiana’s collegiate campuses have cleared out after spring classes ended earlier this month, Attorney General Todd Rokita on Wednesday issued a warning to postsecondary officials: “Hateful antisemitic acts against Jewish students will not be tolerated.”

Rokita said campuses “are duty-bound to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by combating all form of antisemitism on their campuses.” Not doing so risks their federal funding, he added, saying that Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin. That includes perceived ancestry or ethnicity.

“My team and I are deeply committed to ending antisemitism in all forms,” Rokita wrote in a seven-page letter to college officials. “Some Indiana colleges and universities boast large populations of Jewish students. If these students face antisemitism on campus without corrective measures, they may bring an action under Title VI against your university by alleging a hostile environment or retaliation.”

More than 1,400 Israelis died during and after an Oct. 7 attack on Israel by terrorist organization Hamas. It was the deadliest day in modern history for Jews since the Holocaust.

Israel’s military launched an aggressive offensive in Palestine after the attack and has since killed more than 35,000 Palestinian people. Top U.S. officials have criticized the country for not doing enough to protect civilians.

Meanwhile, at college campuses, American students have protested Israel’s military actions in Gaza, disrupting classes and graduation ceremonies alike.

While protests have erupted at several Hoosier schools — including Purdue University, Ball State University and the Indiana University-Purdue University joint campus in Indianapolis (IUPUI) — actions at Indiana University catapulted to national headlines after a series of arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU) has stepped in to represent a student, professor and Bloomington resident who were banned from campus for one year — something the organization said violated their First Amendment rights. Additionally, the Indiana State Police’s campus interventions have faced criticism.

Contents of the letter

Protests nationwide have included widely-reported incidents of antisemitism.

Rokita on Wednesday cited tweets about Indiana protest activities, including handmade signs, as examples of students “publicly showing their support for Hamas and targeted animus towards the State of Israel and Jewish students.”

The signs cited in the letters to college officials include slogans like “Purdue divest from genocide” and “Your tuition fund$ genocide.” The signs appeared to focus on divestment without explicitly mentioning Hamas, however.

“Although the 2023-24 academic year is wrapping up, the potential persists for continued campus protests — and continued antisemitic agitation,” Rokita’s accompanying release continued. “… Those who would incite violence or commit criminal acts may not hide behind the First Amendment to avoid culpability.”

Rokita included testimony from 2024’s House Bill 1002 as evidence of alleged antisemitic activities on campuses, such as a described incident when “members of the Students for Justice in Palestine … attempted to intimidate members of a Jewish Fraternity in their parking lot because of the Israeli flag flown above their house …”

Many witnesses who spoke at the time condemned the bill for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A weakened version of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Eric Holcomb — a move Rokita supported. Holcomb then issued and signed a proclamation that more closely resembled the original bill.

“Jewish students fear practicing and living their faith openly. According to testimony, some students have even abandoned their education and left Indiana. Student groups, especially Greek life, have spoken out against antisemitism more than some of your administrations have,” Rokita’s letter to college officials said.

“I am pleased that these young people are standing up to antisemitism, but it demonstrates your own lack of fortitude in taking appropriate action,” he continued. “Jewish students have witnessed and experienced antisemitism on your campuses. By not protecting your Jewish students, you deny them the same educational opportunity and protections as everyone else — which is both morally and legally unacceptable.”

“As expressed above, your inaction leaves you vulnerable to a violation of Title VI and may subject you to legal action or the loss of your federal funding,” he said.

He added that college officials “must ensure that student groups do not materially support foreign terrorist organizations” under both federal and state law.

“Protecting our Jewish students requires accountability on the university’s part. I strongly encourage them to enforce university codes of conduct and the law when necessary to put an end to antisemitism and the promotion of terrorism on your campuses,” Rokita wrote. “That way we can ensure that all students, including our Jewish brothers and sisters, are safe and have an equal access to education.”

Some pushback

Destiny Wells, one of two Democratic attorney general candidates seeking to challenge Rokita in the November general election, questioned aspects of Rokita’s press release and letter.

“Attorney General Todd Rokita’s warning about antisemitism to college officials is suspect at best,” Wells said in a Wednesday release. “Unlike Rokita’s threatening of protected First Amendment speech, I encourage the political awakening of our youth in spaces like academic institutions, much like I joined the military from my Indiana University campus as we entered the war in Iraq after 9/11. While I may not always agree with one’s position, college years are formative in figuring out a complex world—this is the American way.”

Instead, she said Rokita should focus his efforts on revisiting a 2019 effort to create comprehensive hate crime legislation. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an anti-hate organization found in 1913 to protect Jewish people, Indiana’s existing legislation — Senate Enrolled Act 198 from 2019 — doesn’t count as a “hate crimes law.”

Wells included the ADL’s 2019 response in her Wednesday release, saying change was needed to protect all Hoosiers from hate crimes. Notably, Indiana’s law doesn’t include gender identity, gender or sex.

“If Todd Rokita is serious about combating antisemitism and hate in all its forms, he would use the power of his office to advocate the legislature revisit SEA 198-2019 in order to remove Indiana from the list of states without comprehensive hate crimes legislation,” Wells concluded.

By Whitney Downard – The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.