(JNS.org) The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) dismissed complaints against three University of California (UC) schools—UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Irvine—which had alleged that anti-Israel activity on campus, and the schools’ insufficient response to that activity, created a hostile environment for Jewish students.
An Israel Apartheid Week poster. Two UC Berkeley students whose complaint was rejected by the Office for Civil Rights said Israel Apartheid Week created a hostile environment for Jewish students. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Filed by two students in 2012 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the UC Berkeley complaint referred specifically to “Israel Apartheid Week,” an annual Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions event put on by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, promoting the comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.
At UC Santa Cruz, the complaint centered on two campus events, including one moderated by a university professor, that featured speakers who were critical of Israel but no speakers offering the alternative perspective; two planned events that never took place, including a “teach-in” titled “Understanding Gaza” that students claimed would be a “one-sided politically motivated event”; and several incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti.
The UC Irvine complaint chronicled incidents including a rabbi being cursed at an anti-Israel demonstration and a student wearing a pro-Israel t-shirt being cursed and yelled at during a Muslim Students Association event.
The Department of Education added protection of Jewish students from anti-Semitism to Title VI in 2010. But after its investigation, OCR concluded in its reports on both schools that the complaints “constituted expression on matters of public concern directed to the university community.” OCR said the campus events in question “do not constitute actionable harassment,” and that at UC Santa Cruz, the school “took prompt action” to investigate and to remove the anti-Semitic graffiti.
“In the university environment, 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. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment,” OCR said.
Reacting to the OCR decisions, Kenneth L. Marcus—former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and current president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), told JNS.org, “Every case stands on its own. We strongly support every student’s freedom of speech, but we also believe that harassment of Jewish students needs to be taken seriously. LDB will continue to support students and faculty who have legitimate claims to civil rights violations on the basis of their Jewish ethnicity.”
Rabbi Aron Hier, director of campus outreach for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement that the OCR “failed to address the concerns of American Jewish families, many of whose children have been subject to intimidation, physical and verbal abuse because of their Jewish identity and support for the State of Israel.”