Three separate probes into allegations that campus activism for Palestine created an anti-Semitic environment have been closed by the federal government. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced that three colleges in the University of California system–Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine–are not in violation of civil rights laws for not protecting Jewish students, as the complaints alleged.
The federal civil rights complaints have been filed over the years by student activists and pro-Israel groups, who claimed that mock checkpoints, pro-Palestine events, remarks made during the debate over divestment at Berkeley and walls meant to simulate the Israeli separation barrier created a hostile, anti-Semitic environment for Jewish students on campus. But the Office of Civil Rights determined that those activities are “expression on matters of public concern.” The department added that “exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”
Other parts of the complaints alleged that explicitly anti-Semitic acts were not thoroughly investigated by universities. The OCR dismissed those allegations as well.
“We are pleased with the successful outcome of this investigation,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a statement.“The claim that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students at Berkeley is, on its face, entirely unfounded.”
The closure of the investigations was celebrated by civil liberties advocates and Palestine solidarity activists. “The organized legal bullying campaigns have failed,” said Nasrina Bargzie, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, in a statement. “OCR’s decision in these cases confirms the obvious – that political activity advocating for Palestinian human rights does not violate the civil rights of Jewish students who find such criticism offensive, and that, to the contrary, colleges and universities have an obligation to create an environment that supports freedom of expression.”
Groups like the Asian Law Caucus, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild had previously urged the Office of Civil Rights to close the civil rights investigations because they were chilling student activism.
The complaints centered on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, color and national origin. No Title VI complaint targeting Palestine solidarity activism and alleged anti-Semitism has been successful since 2010, when the Department of Education made a decision that opened up the floodgates for Israel advocates to file civil rights complaints. After lobbying by groups like the Zionist Organization of America, the DOE said that students from religious groups with shared ethnic characteristics, like Jews, could file such Title VI complaints.
The complaint at Irvine was filed in 2007, while the ones targeting Santa Cruz and Berkeley filed in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The investigation into Berkeley was prompted by allegations made by two pro-Israel students who had previously filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against UC Berkeley on similar grounds. The students alleged that the campus activism created “a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime.”
The complaint at UC Santa Cruz was initiated by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at the school. Rossman-Benjamin runs the Amcha Initiative, a group that targets professors and students who voice support for Palestinian rights.
Joel Siegal, an attorney for the students at Berkeley, told the Los Angeles Times that he may file an appeal against the decision.