Anti-Israel protest (archive image)
Anti-Israel protest (archive image)REUTERS

The US Department of Education is opening a discrimination investigation into the University of California, Santa Barbara a month after its student government president, who is Jewish, shared images of campus activists targeting her with inflammatory signs.

The UCSB investigation, which the department announced Tuesday, was the latest in a long line of federal Title VI “shared ancestry” investigations opened into colleges and K-12 school districts since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The department also announced another new investigation this week, at Howard County Public Schools in the Baltimore area.

The reasons for the investigations were not immediately clear. The department’s Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, recently pledged to begin posting the complaint letters for all of its investigations online, but had not done so for this week’s as of Tuesday afternoon. Requests for comment to the Department of Education, UCSB and Howard County Public Schools were not immediately returned.

But UCSB had recently been the site of a very public incident of antisemitism, when its Jewish student body president, Tessa Veksler, posted images to Instagram of campus signs targeting her in February.

“You can run but you can’t hide Tessa Veksler,” one sign read. “Tessa Veksler Supports Genocide,” multiple signs declared. “Get these Zionist[s] out of office,” another read, with yet another accusing her of being “racist” and “Zionist.”

Another, not referring to Veksler specifically, contained the phrase, “When people are occupied resistance is justified,” which critics say is meant to justify Hamas’ terror attacks on Oct. 7 that killed approximately 1,200 people in Israel. Veksler also called attention to the phrase “Zionists not welcome” being written next to a dorm room mezuzah.

“How can Jewish students feel safe at UCSB when they see a Jewish leader being explicitly targeted?” Veksler, who did not respond to a request for comment, posted Feb. 26. “This is dehumanizing and rooted in antisemitism.”

Veksler is a senior and the child of Jews who fled the former Soviet Union. She shared the images with a hashtag associated with the End Jew Hatred movement, which is led by pro-Israel legal advocate Brooke Goldstein.

At the time, UCSB leadership condemned the signage in a message to campus and said it would conduct a bias incident review, based on the same discrimination criteria the Department of Education uses to conduct its investigations.

“The posting of such messages is a violation of our principles of community and inclusion,” read the letter by the school’s leadership, including Chancellor Henry Yang and Jeffrey Stewart, interim director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The letter did not mention Veksler by name and did not describe the nature of the signs, or define them as antisemitic. It concluded, “We hope for an end to the violence in the Middle East. We call upon all members of our community to treat each other with respect, care, and sensitivity.”

If the Title VI investigation does relate to the signs targeting Veksler, then OCR’s investigators would be compelled to rule on whether the school should have taken even more action to curb the efforts by activists to label their student body president a “Zionist” and “racist” who “supports genocide.” Past investigations have pressured schools to agree to additional resources for Jewish students or risk losing federal funding.

Among the dozens of schools now under various levels of scrutiny for their handling of campus discourse around Israel and Gaza, the UC system has been in a particular spotlight lately. Its Berkeley campus was recently home to a series of militant anti-Israel protests and was the epicenter of a faculty-led protest to call attention to antisemitism. The president of the entire UC system has allocated additional funding to address antisemitism and Islamophobia throughout its campuses, and the system also recently joined Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative, a series of workshops from the Jewish campus group designed to improve antisemitism training among university employees.