Is The University Of California System Becoming A Safe Space For Antisemitism?

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UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a statement from University of California-Davis (UC-Davis).

  • The University of California system, made up of 10 college campuses, has suffered a series of antisemitic incidents for decades and recent reports have indicated that the pattern may continue if something doesn’t change.
  • In 2013 the DOE investigated UC Berkeley after Palestinian students created “mock military” roadblocks around parts of the university in protest of Israel’s policies and harassed Jewish students, according to the Times.
  • “The University of California system has had very significant antisemitic incidents going back 20 years,” Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The University of California (UC) school system has struggled with a long history of antisemitism while recent events and reports indicate that pattern may be set to continue.

Antisemitism has been a popular topic of discussion over the past year, but one college system, in particular, has remained in the national spotlight after students and faculty have pushed anti-Jewish sentiment on campus. The 10 campuses that make up the UC system have been dealing with antisemitism for decades, but the trend appears to be continuing today as multiple schools in just the last year have been the subject of a host of antisemitic incidents(RELATED: University Launches Investigation Into Pork Put Outside Jewish Student’s Dorm)

At the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) an event for students titled “Anti-Muslim Racism, Palestine, And White Supremacy” is featuring a panel of professors including George Washington University (GWU) associate professor Lara Sheehi. The GWU professor is under investigation for alleged antisemitic comments and behavior during her class towards her Jewish students, including telling one student that “it’s not your fault that you were born in Israel.”

Sheehi argued in an article for CounterPunch that as an “Arab women professor” she was used to being told she had to prove that “I am not antisemitic.” The GWU professor also argued that she had “ample” evidence proving that the claims made by her Jewish students were false but also did not explicitly deny telling a student that they shouldn’t feel bad about being born in Israel, only calling the statement a “tag-line” used by “right-wing media.”

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a non-partisan educational organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that Sheehi’s invite to UCLA was “very disappointing.”

“While we recognize that speakers with a history of alleged antisemitism have the right to share their views regardless of how abhorrent they are, it is also essential that the UC Board of Regents and respective UC administrators recognize the consequences that such harmful rhetoric can have,” Rothstein said. “In the spirit of the UC principles against intolerance, StandWithUs calls on UC leaders to condemn biased speakers and events and to demonstrate timely efforts needed  to ensure an inclusive UC environment.”

Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a “nonprofit corporation established to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all,” had similar concerns about the event.

“The University of California system has had very significant antisemitic incidents going back 20 years,” Marcus said. “I’m no fan of cancel culture but here we have a situation in which UCLA is responding to credible allegations of antisemitism by giving a podium to the accused antisemite, and they are actually going out of their way to amplify the antisemitic speech.”

UCLA’s event isn’t the first time UC educators have pushed antisemitic beliefs, according to the LA Times. In 2016, a UC Berkeley class was designed to look at the history of Palestine and Israel through “the lens of settler colonialism.”

The class was canceled after less than a week when Jewish students and advocates claimed it was full of antisemitic tropes and did not give a balanced view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the class was reinstated not long after when pro-Palestine advocates and students argued that the class’ content fell under the protection of free speech.

The school claimed that it had made some changes to the class, but Jewish advocates argued revisions made no substantial impact and would continue to push a false narrative that Israel was occupying Palestine, according to the Times.

More recently, a handful of student organizations, led by UC Berkeley School of Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine, adopted bylaws that prohibited inviting any speakers that support Israel as a form of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which encourages businesses and organizations to cut any ties to Israel in protest of the “Israeli occupation” of Palestine. The bylaws caused a serious outcry from Jewish students and even the law school’s dean, who pointed out in a letter, that under the bylaws he would not even be allowed to speak at any of the participating chapter’s events.

As a result, the Department of Education stepped in and announced that it was investigating the law school to determine whether anti-Jewish discrimination was taking place. The DOE did not respond to the DCNF’s inquiries on the status of the investigation.

Over a decade earlier in 2012, the DOE investigated the school after UC Berkeley Palestinian students created “mock military” roadblocks around parts of the university in protest of Israel’s policies and harassed Jewish students, according to the Times. The department later dismissed the investigation claiming that despite the targeting of Jewish students, the behavior did not “constitute actionable harassment.”

Several years later in 2015, a report released by the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting antisemitism in “institutions of higher education in America,” found that four UC schools held all but one of the top spots in the 10 worst schools for antisemitism with significant Jewish populations. UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and  UC Santa Cruz made the second, third, fourth and fifth spots respectively with UC Barbara coming in 10th place.

“UC campuses, on average, had almost 3 times the number of total anti-Semitic incidents as the average U.S. school most popular with Jewish students, 3.5 times the number of targeting incidents, and 2.3 times the number of incidents of anti-Semitic expression,” the report read.

That same year, a group of more than 100 UC professors signed a letter urging the school system to adopt the U.S. State Department of antisemitism to combat the “alarming increase in anti-Semitic activity” on campus.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of AMCHA, told the DCNF that because Jewish students don’t fall under the protected minority status of many other groups, they don’t receive the same due process when they are targeted.

“The biggest problem is that for Jewish students there are two standards for how universities treat harassment … but Jewish students have not been treated fairly,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

In 2022, a report released by StopAntisemitism, which describes itself as the “leading non-partisan U.S based organization” combating anti-Jewish hate, gave a failing grade to both UCLA and UC Berkeley because of past incidents and Jewish students reporting that they felt unsafe on campus.

UC Berkeley Asst. Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof told the DCNF that the university recognizes the “rising tide of antisemitism” and noted that is “one of the reasons we respond quickly to address antisemitic incidents and support our Jewish community.”

“Among the “robust programming” referred to above by the ADL, is UC Berkeley’s Antisemitism Education Initiative, launched by members of our faculty in 2019, “Mogulof said. “We also take great pride in our kosher dining facility—the first of its kind in the UC system; a vibrant Hillel chapter; the broad range of other Jewish student groups; and the aforementioned Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies; The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life; and our Center for Jewish Studies.”

Mogulof also pointed to a 2022 Anti-Defamation League’s statement praising the campuses Hillel community, Jewish program and “Israel-related course offerings,” and explained that the university has a “strong stance against BDS.”

UC Davis also struggled with several antisemitic incidents in the past year. In February 2022, during a Zoom presentation by Israeli chemist Sason Shaik, multiple individuals joined the call and started “broadcasting antisemitic messages,” according to a press release.

Later that summer, four men dressed in black holding antisemitic held banners on an overpass bridge claiming that “the Holocaust is an anti-white lie” and “Communism is Jewish,” according to the Times. Several months afterward in October, several swastikas were found in a first-year-student dormitory, according to a university press release.

A UC Davis spokesperson told the DCNF that the university’s Principles of Community reject all forms of discrimination.

“UC Davis is partnering with the city of Davis and Yolo County to create Hate-Free Together, a community-wide framework to combat the recent string of local hate incidents and prioritize the well-being and safety of all residents,” the spokesperson explained.

All of the incidents at UC Davis were condemned by university leaders, a step that Marcus noted was an improvement from the past, but he also pointed out that many of these statements by UC schools were “weak.”

“It’s a good sign that UC [campus] chancellors are condemning antisemitism, this is an improvement from past years,” Marcus said. “The fact is they need not only to speak in clear plain terms but also to back it up with action.”

Rossman-Benjamin also pointed out that those statements had done little to improve the climate for Jewish students on college campuses, particularly when the complaints had to do with Israel.

“I talked about the sympathy of the campus community when the antisemitism is motivated by classical sources … but when it’s motivated by anti-Zionism nobody cares,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “Not only does nobody care, they actually would get upset if the university were to address it … so there is no motivation, in fact, there is an incentive to complain when Jewish students say, ‘[anti-Zionism] is hurting me.'”

Marcus suggested that UC officially recognize that the U.S. adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism in 2016 to start, but, just this week, the Berkeley student senate rejected a resolution to adopt the IHRA, claiming that it would restrict freedom of speech, preventing pro-Palestine activists from criticizing Israel, according to the Jewish News of California.

“It is both disconcerting and unsurprising that so many undergraduate political activists are opposing efforts to support the civil rights of Jewish Americans,” Marcus told the DCNF.

UC, UCLA, GWU and Sheehi did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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