A decision by the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights may leave Jewish students at UC Berkeley feeling even less at home than ever. But some say it may well be the impetus for them to step up and speak out on this campus, well known for student-led BDS movements.
The Office for Civil Rights dismissed complaints filed by Jewish students against UC Berkeley for “failing to respond promptly and effectively to notice of the hostile environment” created on campus by anti-Israel protests.
In its decision, the OCR wrote: “In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a reasonable circumstance that a student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants describe do not constitute actionable harassment.”
The attorney representing the students, Joel H. Siegel, told lubavitch.com that he would consider appealing the decision. He pointed to the US Justice Dept.’s decision in the Compton Cookout case, in which a racist-themed party organized by UC San Diego students used racial stereotypes, offending the school’s African American students. In that case the Justice Department forced UC San Diego to enter into an agreement to implement measures to prevent racial harassment on campus, and respond appropriately when that occurs.
The Compton Cookout “was offensive, and we all agree that what happened at Compton was offensive,” said Siegel. “It’s equally offensive when you have people on campus dress up as Jews and act as bloodthirsty barbarians,” he argued. The focus of the complaints was an event set up by student radicals during the Palestinian students’ 2012 Apartheid week, in which students dressed in army uniforms with AK 47s, staged a mock military checkpoint at the center of campus.
“We see it as a passion play in which Jews were portrayed as blood thirsty barbarians, and we know where that ended,” Siegel said.
Students Find A Jewish Haven at UC Berkeley
Mrs. Bracha Leeds, who is director of Chabad at UC Berkeley campus, is hoping that Jewish students at Berkeley will respond by wearing their Jewish identity more visibly, more proudly. “This is, after all, about protecting freedom of expression, so Jewish students should feel empowered to identify religiously,” she said.
Bracha and her husband Rabbi Gil Leeds, at UC Berkeley since 2007, frequently field calls from parents of incoming freshman, inquiring about what they read in the media.
“Many Jewish students considering UC Berkeley are concerned about the BDS campaigns and the anti-Jewish activities that are so widely covered by the media,” she says. So she and her husband work energetically to create a safe, lively and inspiring environment at Chabad.
“We obviously want to encourage students who choose Berkeley to feel comfortable as Jews here, and we work to foster Jewish identity and pride among them.”
Of Berkeley’s 30,000 students, Rabbi Leeds estimates that roughly 3-4000 are Jewish.
Many of them gravitate to Chabad of Berkeley for the programs and services it offers, but especially, says sophomore Michaela Fried, because being in an environment that is “more anti-religious than most schools, it’s great to have someplace to go and talk about G-d, religion and where people understand why you keep kosher and Shabbat.”
To date, UC Berkeley does not offer a formal kosher meal plan. However, Rabbi Leeds has been working with the administration to change that. “The university has been very cooperative, and is working with us on creating a kosher dining facility on campus. The university also publicize the availability of kosher food at Chabad in their student literature, and allow them to use points for kosher meals here, which is helpful to us.”
UC Berkeley An Ideal Place for Jewish Expression
Looking at the decision, the Leeds are hopeful that Jewish students will recognize the opportunity to become more inspired to express themselves as Jews, and raise their voices for Israel in the din of anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
Chabad has had a presence at Berkeley since the early 1970s, when waves of Jews on spiritual journeys had their first encounters with Judaism.
“Berkeley was the epicenter of political, social and religious non-conformity and although mostly renowned for its anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, the Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that this very same “non-confirmist” energy could actually be channeled to help Jews proudly embrace their unique identity as Jews no matter what the cultural conventions around them may be.”
The rabbi recalled how the Rebbe’s message helped him reconnect with his Jewish roots while studying at UC Berkeley over 13 years ago.
“It is specifically in a school like UC Berkeley that Jewish students should feel comfortable contributing to the climate and spirit of diversity and multiculturalism with our collective narrative. As one of the most pluralistic places on the planet, where difference is cherished, we should be proud of who are.”