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St. Cloud State sued over treatment of Jews
By Jeff Horwich, Minnesota Public Radio
October 17, 2001
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Three professors and a student plan to file a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against St. Cloud State University and the entire MnSCU system, alleging that the school has done too little to deal with anti-Semitism on campus. St. Cloud State has been studying the problem for more than a year, but those suing the school say the time for studying is over.
St. Cloud State University and the MnSCU system are named in a lawsuit, alleging that SCSU faculty and administration have fostered an atmosphere of anti-Semitism on campus.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

St. Cloud State has faced complaints of discrimination before, but this latest round began when Israeli-born history professor Arie Zmora was denied an opportunity for tenure and left the university last summer. Zmora had taught previously at Macalester College in St. Paul and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. But says he never felt anything like the two years of "pain and agony" he says he experienced in the history department at St. Cloud.

"Continuous references and ridicule of Jews, especially this horrendous reference to fumigation of offices; sympathy with Nazi Germany; continuous questioning of my religion - why Jews do not believe in Jesus," Zmora recalled.

Shortly after he left St. Cloud State, Zmora filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that lists a series of personal and academic anecdotes. At a potluck dinner, the complaint says, a faculty member told his children not to play with Zmora's wife and later told Zmora he thought Isrealis were arrogant and aggressive. Another professor told Zmora he was an anti-Semite, and repeatedly said he had to fumigate his office because a gay, Jewish faculty member had occupied it before him. Zmora says the same professor had planned to use literature from an American neo-Nazi publishing house in his course on European history.

Zmora recalls how an angry former chair of the department entered his office after he gave a well-attended talk on his family's experience in the Holocaust.

"She said to me, 'You know what, Waffen SS were wonderful people. They did not participate in the Holocaust.' I was stunned."

Zmora says after he gave that lecture he was told he was no longer a candidate for tenure. The other three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, one of whom is Jewish, say faculty and administrators retaliated against them when they rallied to Zmora's defense.

Aside from faxing a copy of its diversity guidelines, St. Cloud State has said it cannot comment on the allegations or allow the faculty involved to respond. A spokeswoman says she may have a comment on the lawsuit, but only after the school has had a chance to thoroughly review it.

This spring, the school commissioned a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council, which found what it called "an underlying environment of discrimination and bias against Jews at SCSU."

After a second history professor filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the school took the unprecedented step of inviting the EEOC to conduct an investigation on campus, which is still ongoing. In August, the school announced it was hiring a Washington D.C. firm to conduct a third study, which will be completed in two years.

Minneapolis-based lawyer Judy Schermer says all these studies mask the fact that the school has taken no action to compensate her clients, or discipline the faculty named in the complaints.

"The faculty have been telling them there's a problem, students have been telling them there's a problem. And rather than address it, their solution was, let's do yet another study," Schermer says.

Aside from St. Cloud State and MnSCU, the lawsuit will name four individuals - at least some of whom are likely to be in the history department. The suit seeks financial compensation as well as specific restitution - in Zmora's case, a chance at that tenured position.

But attorney Judy Schermer says her most important goal is achieving court-ordered changes in the way the school handles bias complaints. To this end, the first step in the lawsuit is to seek class-action status - an assertion that everyone who is Jewish or has expressed sympathy for Jewish causes is subject to a hostile environment at St. Cloud State.