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Yael Lerman

Israelis Applying to U.S. Schools Are Facing Discrimination

This story is a cautionary tale—and, we hope, an empowering one—to Israelis applying to universities in the U.S. You may find yourself under greater scrutiny, rejected from admissions, or your scholarship in jeopardy, simply because you are Israeli. After all, think about who is looking at your application. Many of those working in admissions offices today are former students exposed to virulent anti-Israel activity while on campus. Now some of them have become admissions officers and may believe they can get away with excluding Israeli applicants. In doing so, they are committing unlawful national origin discrimination, whether out of ignorance, a devotion to “intersectionality,” or personal political animus. Here is how we fought back against one such case and won.

Last year, Shiran, an Israeli, applied to the Art Institute of Chicago’s graduate program. She created a stellar application and fulfilled all requirements. It never occurred to her that she could be rejected because she is Israeli.

After submitting her application, Shiran was asked to interview before a panel of faculty, including the head of the program, on a Saturday in February 2023. As an observant Jew, Shiran requested the last time slot, just after the Sabbath ended. Instead of the panel, only one faculty member attended the interview. She asked Shiran antagonistic questions from the start: she focused incessantly on Shiran’s previous work for the Jewish Agency doing cultural programming, insinuating Shiran was covering up her “real” work as an Israeli spy; she asked if Shiran’s national origin as Israeli meant she would be unable to interact professionally with Palestinian or Arab students. The interviewer refused to review the work Shiran identified in her application as the discussion piece for the interview, instead fixating on Shiran’s work in Jerusalem.

Shiran had the presence of mind to respond calmly and clearly. She told the interviewer that the question about whether she could get along with Palestinian students made no sense to her as an Israeli of North-African and Turkish descent. Shiran grew up in an Arabic-speaking home, listening to Arabic music. Shiran also referred to her considerable clinical experience in Israel which included working alongside numerous and wonderful Arab medical staff. She asked the interviewer if Palestinian students were asked in their interviews if they can interact professionally with an Israeli in the classroom.

The interviewer told Shiran she would hear back in two weeks. Months went by. Then, as the Passover seder was about to begin, Shiran received a phone call informing her that her application was rejected.

After the holiday, Shiran took a cursory look at the faculty of the art therapy program. Her findings included a professor whose profile stated that her work “revolves around the intersectional political Palestinian identity…[and] the essence of existence as resistance.” Was this professor involved in the decision to reject Shiran’s application?

Shiran turned to the legal team at StandWithUs to help her respond to the unlawful discrimination she experienced in her interview. We asked the University to conduct an independent investigation and served as Shiran’s advisor in the investigation. A few days after the investigation concluded, the Art Institute reversed its decision and admitted Shiran.

Unfortunately, Shiran’s story is not an isolated case. In the last year, an Israeli sought our help when an anti-Israel coach tried to jeopardize his athletic scholarship at a public university. Since October 7, numerous Israeli students have reached out as victims of campus harassment, discrimination, criminal threats, and false imprisonment, seeking legal redress. We partner and succeed over these unlawful attempts to discriminate against Israelis with the help of students like Shiran, who combine the Jewish pride and indomitable fighting spirit that is part of the Israeli DNA.

As for Shiran, she remains a dedicated fighter on behalf of Israelis in America. She entered the graduate program this fall and, shortly after October 7, realized that anti-Israel discrimination is embedded in the school’s culture. On October 26, 2023, StandWithUs wrote a demand letter to the school, to which they never responded. Shiran is now suing the Art Institute.

Yael Lerman is the Director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department. She can be reached at legal@standwithus.com.

About the Author
Yael Lerman is the Director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, the legal arm of StandWithUs, an international Israel education non-profit organization. Before joining StandWithUs, Yael was a lawyer at the Anti-Defamation League, advised on effective policing at the Police Assessment Resource Center, and litigated at Boies, Schiller and Flexner in New York.
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