A mock checkpoint at Columbia University (Photo: Mondoweiss)
The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into allegations that officials at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) have allowed an anti-Semitic climate to develop on campus. The allegations have been voiced by two recent Jewish graduates of UC Berkeley–students whose past lawsuit on the matter was dropped.
The Los Angeles Times reported on the investigation last week. A spokesman for the Department of Education’s civil rights office emphasized that the opening of an investigation “in no way implies that [the office] has made a determination with regard to its merits.”
The complaint alleges that activities like mock checkpoints and the annual Israeli Apartheid Week create “a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars … during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”
But a report (pdf) on Jewish student campus life, much criticized by free speech advocates and Palestine solidarity activists on other grounds, paints a starkly different picture than the complaint does. That report, which was slammed as harmful to academic freedom and conflated anti-Semitism with Palestine solidarity activism, still noted that “Jewish students have thriving, open communities and occupy a prominent place on the campuses visited in terms of numbers, access to services and opportunities to explore their religion, its history and culture.”
An attorney for the students claimed to the Los Angeles Times that student Palestine solidarity activists posed “as Israeli guards…forc[ed] people through mock checkpoints [and] wore Stars of David and skullcaps to attack Judaism and portray all Jews as ‘bloodthirsty barbarians.’” But that claim was strongly disputed by Students for Justice in Palestine activists interviewed by the campus newspaper.
“No one is stopped at checkpoints other than the actors in the demonstration — everyone knows that,” SJP member Mariah Lewis told The Daily Californian.
The complaint was filed by Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy. Both of them had filed suit against the university last year, but it was dropped. Both students were members of Tikvah Students for Israel.
The investigation is the latest one to be opened by the Department of Education ever since Jewish groups, led by the Zionist Organization of America, successfully lobbied the department to include religious groups with shared ethnic characteristics under the rubric of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That paved the way for Jewish students to file complaints alleging discrimination at their schools.
But so far, those claiming anti-Semitism as a result of Palestine-related activism on campus have come up short. As Naomi Zeveloff of the Jewish Daily Forward reported, “Jewish groups have yet to succeed in using this law against what they see as anti-Semitic anti-Israel activity on campus…A survey by the Forward has found that at least 10 anti-Semitism cases have been filed with either the Department of Education or in court under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In only one of these cases so far has the complainant been favored: a high school case in which Israel played no role.”
The allegations of anti-Semitism on UC Berkeley also come in the midst of a high-profile battle over Palestine solidarity activism on California campuses as a whole.
In July of this year, a report on Jewish students was issued that was criticized for recommending restrictions on speech related to Israel/Palestine. Then, a resolution was passed by the California Legislature that further tarred Palestine activism as anti-Semitic. The resolution, as reported by Mondoweiss, was drafted with the help of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the University of California, though UC backed away from support of the bill after it was passed over concerns that it could violate First Amendment rights.
Most recently, the University of California Student Association passed a resolution that condemned the legislature’s actions and called on UC to stop profiting from the Israeli occupation by divesting from companies who do business with the Israeli military.