When a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, dismissed claims that the university had failed to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campus, many thought that it could create a watershed moment for Berkeley. Leading the fray was The Daily Californian, which made the almost Panglossian prediction that the report “could mark a new era for the campus community.”
Though I wish that the Daily Cal’s conclusion was correct, the fact is that the OCR’s conclusions are limited only to the legal matter of the university’s liability with regards to the civil rights of minority students. Although the OCR acknowledged the occurrence of hostile acts directed against Jews, they concluded that because there is no law compelling the university to prevent students from being personally offended or hurt, the university made no legal infractions. Indeed, for the OCR to have taken action, they would need evidence that the university had failed to stop direct coordinated actions against Jews. Given that the issues faced by Jewish students come from a widespread general bias across the entire student body and not from a single organization, the OCR would never find Berkeley to be legally liable, no matter the degree of hostility faced by Jewish students.
However, as any Cal student or alum could likely confirm, Berkeley has chosen to commit itself to principles beyond the law. The university’s well-known dedication to protecting student rights and concern with matters of justice is at the very core of our identity. These values, even if not made explicit in federal law, explicitly bar the actions that led to the legal complaint filed with the OCR. The report may legally exonerate Cal, but it does not excuse the university, faculty and students from the grave moral failing of our community in dealing with the baseless hatred in our midst.
It is an incontrovertible fact that over the past several years, Jewish students at Berkeley have had to deal with numerous hate incidents, including verbal, written and physical assaults. Jewish students have been called horrendous, unprintable things. They have been shoved and pushed. In campus housing, the past several years have seen repeated occurrences of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti.
Taken together, all this serves to reinforce the idea that Jewish students are not welcome at UC Berkeley, simply because of their ethnoreligious background. This assertion is not simply mine. When the University of California chose to examine the actual situation on campus (separate from the OCR’s legal investigation), the subsequent 2012 report concluded that Jewish students across our system are a minority facing rampant discrimination and harassment across all aspects of college life. The report from the Department of Education does not abrogate the conclusion of the university’s own report, nor does it suddenly mean that we have erased anti-Semitism from our campus.
It may be easy to ascribe recent anti-Semitic incidents to a few extreme voices in the debate on the complex situation in the Middle East, but the truth is that prejudice against our campus’s Jewish minority is a widespread and pervasive problem that extends far beyond a few flashpoint issues.
Before I even arrived at Cal, I encountered anti-Semitism from UC Berkeley students. On the Berkeley 2017 Facebook group, several students directed anti-Semitic vitriol at me. The students who used such abusive language had not even set foot on campus, yet they were already perpetuating the campus’s adverse attitude towards the Jewish community. Now that the cyberbullies I dealt with online have begun classes at Cal, I fear they will find a welcome environment for their acrimonious viewpoints.
As a Jew, nothing would make me happier than to see a new Berkeley, one truly welcoming to all people. However, if we make the mistake of assuming that a single report on a minor legal issue can ameliorate this severe problem, then we risk seeing our campus continue to become a more and more hostile place for Jewish students. The day after the Daily Cal published an editorial that the OCR report could mean real change in Berkeley, UCPD announced that a swastika had been drawn on a door in Clark Kerr — the dorm in which I now live.
The university was quick to condemn this insidious graffito and has taken small steps, such as sending out campuswide emails, to combat this unacceptable action. While this represents a good start, there remains a great deal of work to do if we are to change Berkeley for the better.
Throughout much of our history, we, the students of the University of California, Berkeley, have stood as a beacon to the world of the values of justice, tolerance and diversity — values that stand in sharp contrast to our reputation today. Throughout the wider Jewish community, Berkeley (along with the rest of the UC system) has become a byword for Jewish students struggling against a campus climate that opposes them. In fact, last year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, my rabbi in San Diego warned our congregation that the UC system — and Berkeley in particular— were hotbeds of anti-Semitism.
When I chose to come to Berkeley, I made the conscious choice to believe that Berkeley could come to move beyond the troubles of recent years and once more become the internationally renowned beacon of peace and diversity it once was. Despite the recent hateful incidents on campus, I still believe we can move forward, so long as all members of our community strive to eradicate the scourge of hate present throughout our campus. No matter your religious affiliation, ethnicity or background, Berkeley students must stand in solidarity against the propagation of prejudice on our campus. Only then can begin a new, brighter era for our community.
Elijah Z. Granet is a freshman at UC Berkeley.