Federal officials investigate allegations of anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley

A protester shouts during an Apartheid week protest on February 28, 2012. A lawsuit is underway as a result of these protests.
Tony Zhou/File
A protester shouts during an Apartheid week protest on February 28, 2012. A lawsuit is underway as a result of these protests.

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Federal officials are investigating a complaint filed against UC Berkeley alleging that protests staged on campus have created an anti-Semitic environment.

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office confirmed this week that it is investigating allegations from a complaint filed in July by attorneys representing UC Berkeley alumni Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy.

“(The civil rights office) received a complaint alleging that Jewish students at the university were harassed and subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of their national origin,” reads a statement released by the U.S. Department of Education Press Office. “And, that the university failed to respond promptly and effectively to notice of the hostile environment. The complaint is under investigation.”

The complaint alleges that the campus has persistently failed to curtail anti-Semitic behavior from annual Israeli Apartheid Week demonstrations, which are organized by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine to raise awareness of the conditions of Palestinians in Israel.

The complaint cites a 2010 Apartheid Week demonstration in which students from SJP and the campus Muslim Student Association participated in a mock checkpoint that included fake barbed wire and fake AK-47 firearms.

SJP member Tom Pessah said the aim of Israeli Apartheid Week is to demonstrate inequalities in Israel.

“No one is stopped at checkpoints other than the actors in the demonstration — everyone knows that,” said SJP member Mariah Lewis.

Felber and Maissy filed a lawsuit against the university in March 2011 alleging that it had failed to mitigate a climate averse to Jewish students. The suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in December of 2011.

“The administration has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the opposing parties in an attempt to ensure that the rights of all persons are respected, and to minimize the potential for violence and unsafe conditions,” the dismissal ruling stated.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said campus officials have remained committed to maintaining a safe and welcoming climate for all students and to protecting free speech rights.

“Speech criticism of Israeli governmental policy is not necessarily anti-Semitic,” Mogulof said. “One can object deeply to the policies of Israel. Our students should have a right to protest what they believe to be an unlawful and immoral action.”

Mogulof said that the campus will provide the same information to the civil rights office that it provided judges with during the Felber and Maissy lawsuit and said the complaint seems to be a way to shop for more venues and courtrooms to tell the university to violate the constitutional rights of students involved in the demonstrations.

“The real story here is a massive assault on free speech and a coordinated effort to silence the legitimate political speech of students critical of Israel,” said Liz Jackson, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, in an email. “The factual allegations are simply untrue.”

Contact Alyssa Neumann at [email protected]