Jewish Rights Groups: Johns Hopkins University 'Must Do More' After TA's Anti-Israel Tweets

The controversy surrounding the anti-Israel tweets of a Teaching Assistant (TA) at Johns Hopkins University won't go away, as Jewish rights groups press the university to reveal the actions they have taken against the young graduate student who posted them.

In a series of tweets, copies of some of which were provided to Newsweek in the form of screenshots, Rasha Anayah, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in the university's chemistry department, tweeted out a question posted as a survey, and followed it up with other posts.

Johns Hopkins University
"Anti-Semitism, along with other forms of bias and hate, has been on the rise in recent years, and the possibility that it had surged on our campus was deeply disturbing," the office of the University Provost wrote. In this photo, a view from Charles Street of the grassy "Beach" and Milton S Eisenhower Library of the Johns Hopkins University is shown. Getty Images

On November 15, 2020, Anaya tweeted,
"ethical dilemma: if you have to grade a zionist students exam, do you still give them all their points even though they support your ethnic cleansing? like idk [I don't know]."

Anayah posted two possible answers: "Yes [redacted] be a good ta"; and "free Palestine! Fail them."

According to the post, there were 18 replies that day, 77% of which favored failing the students. On November 16, she posted a response to the poll results that supported failing the students by saying, "like I agree but too many of you want me to get fired."

Anayah made her anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian views clear in a series of tweets on November 20, postings which also indicated the presence of racial and graduate/undergraduate tension in her classroom.

"we had an undergrad in lab who had been on birthright [to Israel] and had one of the street signs to tel aviv on her laptop. it stabbed me every time she opened it. if i had been paired to one of them or one of these conceited white boys i would have lost it," she wrote.

In another tweet, she appeared to acknowledge that she was struggling with university administration over her postings on Twitter.

"people be starting s**t for the sake of starting s**t. don't underestimate me fam if I can take on the university's admin and still come out on top then why do some of these undergrads think they can come for me?" she tweeted.

It is not clear from the tweets what, if anything, any of this had to do with the subject matter of the class: Chemistry. The posts have since been removed from Twitter.

Newsweek reached out to Anayah through her email address listed on the university's Chemistry School of Arts and Sciences' graduate students directory, but did not receive a reply in time for publication. Newsweek also contacted Johns Hopkins University to ask if Anayah was still employed as a teaching assistant, but they said they could neither confirm nor deny whether she was still employed.

Ph.D. candidate Rasha Anayah
Rasha Anayah, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. LinkedIn

The controversy exploded in January, with demands for action from Jewish student groups and others in the Johns Hopkins University community, as well as from non-profit Jewish rights groups, including the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law which describes itself on its website as "independent, non-partisan institution...[with a] mission is to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and to promote justice for all."

The other was from the group StandWithUs, which describes itself on its website as "a non-profit international education pro-Israel organization."

The university conducted an investigation into the incident, and sent out an email on May 19 from the office of the University Provost addressed to Jonathan Bell, associate director of StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, copying other people and organizations who had complained about the incident.

The email noted that the investigation had concluded. But the university provided no details, findings or results, citing federal privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which governs institutions of higher education.

They also noted that there had been other incidents of anti-Semitism on the campus.

"The allegations involved in this incident raised alarm in our campus Jewish community and elsewhere, which was then exacerbated by the report in late January of four swastikas carved into the walls of an elevator at the Peabody Institute," the email said. "Anti-Semitism, along with other forms of bias and hate, has been on the rise in recent years, and the possibility that it had surged on our campus was deeply disturbing. As President Daniels wrote in a message to the university community at the time, Johns Hopkins unequivocally condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms."

They added that they were bound by privacy laws, but were also committed to maintaining "academic integrity."

"Our inability to provide specifics about student disciplinary matters is frustrating and unsatisfying to many, but the fact that an incident plays out in social media does not change our obligations under the law," they wrote. "We can, however, assure you that the values we outlined in our previous correspondence have remained steadfast. We hold academic integrity as a foundational value, and bringing any factors into the judgment of a student's work besides its merit is indefensible. Discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, and national origin is not only unconscionable but also destructive to the free and open exchange of knowledge and ideas upon which our institution is based."

While representatives from both the Brandeis Center and StandWithUs acknowledged privacy laws under FERPA and noted their appreciation to Johns Hopkins for investigating the matter as a first step, they emphasized it was just that, a first step. Any such investigation should have determined whether the TA violated the school's code of conduct and if so, decided what those consequences should be, they noted.

"This conduct, whether or not she lowered the grades, but she riled up her followers on Twitter to turn them against them...here what she does is say, 'Hey guys let's vote, should we treat these Jews in a discriminatory fashion, should I fail them?' That's the conduct they have to make clear is completely unacceptable," Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Brandeis Center, told Newsweek.

"To suggest Zionists should be treated in a discriminatory fashion must be condemned," she said. "That is what the university must issue if they want the Jewish students to feel safe and guarantee this type of conduct won't happen again. That's the issue."

The Louis D. Brandeis Center
"To suggest Zionists should be treated in a discriminatory fashion must be condemned," Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Brandeis Center, told Newsweek. "That is what the university must issue if they want the Jewish students to feel safe and guarantee this type of conduct won't happen again. That's the issue." The Louis D. Brandeis Center For Human Rights Under Law

Lewin referenced the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that notes "when behavior implicates the civil rights laws, school administrators should look beyond simply [investigating and] disciplining the perpetrators and that "prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring" must be taken.

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, called for the university to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism from the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), which she said would send a message to students.

In a statement sent to Newsweek by Andrew Green, the university's vice president of communications, stressed that the school takes allegations related to academic integrity, discrimination, harassment, or other misconduct very seriously, but reiterated the disclosure restrictions under FERPA.

"As we have said publicly many times, Johns Hopkins unequivocally condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms, "Green wrote, noting both the school's President Ronald Daniels and Kumar reiterated that to impacted students and stakeholders. "... we have well-established policies and procedures for reviewing allegations of bias, academic misconduct, or violations of our student conduct code, and for taking any disciplinary or corrective action that is necessary to stop misconduct, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects."

Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law scholar at UCLA, addressed the First Amendment aspects of the Johns Hopkins case in January on reason.com.

Eugene Volokh UCLA
"TAs and university professors should of course be free to express whatever views they want, whether anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Catholic, anti-conservative-Protestant, anti-Muslim, anti-Republican, anti-Democrat, anti-black, anti-white, or anything else," Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, wrote about the Anayah case. newsroom.ucla.edu

"TAs and university professors should of course be free to express whatever views they want, whether anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Catholic, anti-conservative-Protestant, anti-Muslim, anti-Republican, anti-Democrat, anti-black, anti-white, or anything else," he wrote. "To the extent that some students worry as a result that the instructors will grade them down based on their race, religion, politics, etc., I don't think that worry can justify suppressing such speech; if it did, then a vast range of speech would be stripped of academic freedom protection."

He did add an important caveat, though.

"But if instructors publicly discuss the possibility that they will indeed grade down students based on the students' ideology, ethnicity, religion, race, and the like (e.g., by saying "idk" whether "Zionist" students should be treated this way)," he wrote, "then it seems to me that the university should indeed investigate whether such discrimination has indeed taken place, and make clear to instructors and students that such discrimination is forbidden."

The Brandeis Center and StandWithUs aren't backing down. They said that public silence by the university will not rectify the situation or eliminate the hostile environment and prevent harassment from recurring.

"The university must, at a minimum, make clear through a statement that conduct such as that exhibited by the TA runs counter to the university's values of mutual respect and inclusion and will not be tolerated," they wrote, citing other universities, including the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, which recently issued a similar statement.

The U.S. Department of Education website provides an exception to the FERPA privacy rules that allows the institution to disclose the results of a disciplinary hearing, but that exception is limited to incidents where "the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense," which is not the case here.

But the groups who have criticized the university continue to insist that it has the responsibility to do more.

"Not only is the University able to do more, it must do more, as a matter of federal civil rights law and University policy, as stated in its Discrimination and Harassment Policy and Procedures and its Media Guidelines," the organizations wrote. "Simply put, privacy laws do not prevent the University from taking measures to communicate that it strongly condemns the type of conduct at issue here: namely, a TA's public statement of her desire to "fail Zionist" students on account of their religion and ethnicity, without regard to their aptitude and/or command of the chemistry principles that she was charged with teaching them—in shocking derogation of her duties as a TA."

Rothstein noted the concern by Jewish students that they could face future discrimination without university administrators speaking up.

"Unfortunately, with increasing frequency discrimination is condemnable to all other groups except Jews where it gets distorted as somehow a political statement instead," Rothstein said. "There's a lot that they can do to demonstrate to Jewish students on campus that they are safe...they could do so many things."

Correction 7/22/2021, 4:25 p.m. EST: This story has been updated to reflect that the Department of Education website passage quoted in the original story grants an institution of higher education an exception to the FERPA privacy law only in cases where a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense has occurred. We regret the error.