The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has urged Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, to address troubling reports from Jewish students that they have been harassed, verbally and physically intimidated, and discriminated against on the campus. In a 13-page letter to the chancellor, the ZOA detailed the problems that Jewish students have been facing, expressing concern that Jewish and pro-Israel students are being deprived of a campus environment free from anti-Semitic hostility as required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). (To read the ZOAs letter to Chancellor Birgeneau, click here.)
According to student reports to the ZOA, the harassment and intimidation is coming from members and supporters of a student group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). At mock checkpoints constructed by the SJP, the groups members and supporters harass and intimidate passers-by. SJP members have held authentic-looking imitation guns at the checkpoints, in violation of school policy and the law. After students complained to the university administration about the SJPs misconduct, the SJP temporarily stopped using the guns. But when the group began using them again, the university reportedly ignored it.
In its letter to the chancellor, the ZOA described the SJPs so-called die-in held last March, during which SJP members lay on the ground on Sproul Plaza a major center of student activity obstructing traffic and blocking the walkway. The group held signs falsely and absurdly accusing Israel of starting another Holocaust, and equating Israelis with Nazis. Jewish students peacefully held their own signs to counter the SJPs false and hateful messages. In violation of the Jewish students rights, including their rights to assembly and free expression, the SJP blocked the Jewish students signs and tried to destroy them. A male SJP member physically pushed a female Jewish student who was holding a pro-Israel sign. SJP members cursed at Jewish students, followed them when they tried to move away, and encircled them in a threatening manner. They made anti-Semitic comments such as, The Jews are the chosen people, they dont care about anyone else, they only care about themselves. You think you have everything and that you can do whatever you want. You think you can just kill people. Jewish students described fearing for their physical safety, and some are now afraid or reluctant to wear anything that would identify them as Jewish or pro-Israel.
The ZOA described to the chancellor that Jews were physically assaulted at a campus hip-hop concert on November 13, 2008. The concert was sponsored by a student group called the Zionist Freedom Alliance (ZFA), with the help of another student group called Tikvah: Students for Israel (Tikvah). Members of the SJP deliberately disrupted the concert by draping Palestinian flags from the balcony directly over the concert stage. When three individuals (John Moghtader, a current UC Berkeley student; a recent graduate; and one of the performers at the concert) went up to the balcony to request that the SJP remove its flags, an SJP leader reportedly instigated a fight by striking the UC Berkeley graduate on the head. A scuffle ensued as the graduate defended himself and the performer came to his aid. John Moghtader did not participate in the scuffle; he reportedly broke it up. The SJP claimed that it displayed the Palestinian flags in response to offensive anti-Arab remarks at the concert. But students say that this claim was fabricated; there were no such remarks.
In its letter to the chancellor, the ZOA claimed that John Moghtader, a senator in the student government, has been unfairly targeted in an online petition that seeks to recall him from his position, allegedly because Mr. Moghtader has failed to conform himself to the highest standards of conduct. The ZOA stated that there is no proof of any wrongdoing on Mr. Moghtaders part or any evidence that he has failed to conform himself to such standards. According to the ZOA, Mr. Moghtader has been unflinchingly vocal in his support for the State of Israel, and has been criticized by other students for his beliefs and opinions. It is appalling and unacceptable to think that he is being publicly maligned and penalized for his beliefs and the exercise of his First Amendment freedoms.
The ZOA furnished evidence to the chancellor that the university administration has known about the problems that Jewish and pro-Israel students are facing, but has failed to address them. Minutes from a meeting of the student senate on March 3, 2008, show that Jewish students described being harassed and intimidated by SJP members. According to the minutes, Jewish students described the SJPs repeated violation of university policy and violations of Jewish students rights. Jewish students also described the SJPs refusal to follow requests by police and faculty to stop their intimidating tactics. And Jewish students described feeling unsafe on their own campus. The minutes reflect that Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard was present at the senate meeting, and that he acknowledged that those who violated Jewish students personal space and jeopardized their personal safety had engaged in a violation of the Code of Student Conduct. In its letter, the ZOA asked the chancellor how these infractions, which have occurred repeatedly, have never been the subject of disciplinary proceedings.
The ZOA also challenged the disparate treatment that Jewish and pro-Israel students have been unfairly subjected to, noting the way in which an incident in October 2008 was handled by the university. A small group of students went to a presentation by Holocaust minimizer Norman Finkelstein and publicly voiced their opposition to Finkelsteins opinions, disrupting Finkelsteins presentation for approximately 30 seconds. The students left peacefully and on their own, before the police could even be summoned, and Finkelsteins speech proceeded without a problem. The dean of students responded to this incident by publicly condemning Tikvah, the pro-Israel student group, in a message to the university community, even though Tikvah had neither sponsored nor endorsed the disruption.
The ZOA noted that the deans response was inappropriate for two other reasons. First, the dean had pronounced the pro-Israel groups guilt without first affording it the due process protections required by university rules and polices. Second, after the SJP had itself used the same form of protest (albeit in a more intensive and intrusive way), there had been a determination by then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl that such disruptions were not actionable or a violation of university rules. Last year, the SJP repeatedly interrupted the presentation of Arab and pro-Israel speaker Nonie Darwish. The police had to escort loud hecklers out of the lecture hall. Those who could not get into the event were beating on the walls outside. At another presentation by Middle East scholar Dr. Daniel Pipes in 2004, the SJP practically drowned out Dr. Pipes speech several times, chanting anti-Semitic phrases including Death to Zionism, Zionism is racism, and Israel out of Palestine. The police had to eject the protestors. After the Pipes spectacle, then-Chancellor Berdahl, issued a statement which said, Uncivil behavior, lamentable as it is, is not a crime, nor is it a violation of the Code of Student Conduct. Given that Tikvah had been condemned for conduct that it did not sponsor or endorse, and that the SJP has not been held accountable for its harassing and intimidating conduct, the ZOA questioned the disparate treatment by the university, commenting, Apparently, Jewish and pro-Israel actions that do not violate the code of conduct are to be condemned, but Palestinian Arab actions that do violate the code are to be ignored and tolerated.
The ZOA called on Chancellor Birgeneau to take several steps, including (1) publicly denouncing anti-Semitic and Israel-bashing speech and conduct whenever it occurs on the campus, by naming the offending speakers and programs as well as their sponsors, so that the university community will understand what is wrong and why, and so that the perpetrators will understand that their conduct is the problem; (2) requiring the dean of students to retract his condemnation of Tivkah, and apologize to Tikvah for maligning the group unjustly and without cause; and (3) ensuring that the investigation of the November 13th incident is handled fairly and in accordance with university rules and policies.
Morton A. Klein, the ZOAs National President, urged Chancellor Birgeneau to take these steps so that the anti-Semitic hostility and Israel-bashing at UC Berkeley can be addressed effectively, without further action on the ZOAs part: Chancellor Birgeneau responded exactly the way we would have hoped when an act of anti-Semitic vandalism occurred adjacent to the campus last September. He publicly condemned the vandalism as an anti-Semitic obscenity, and recognized how hurtful it was to Jewish students. The chancellor should be responding in the same direct and forceful way to the anti-Semitic speeches and conduct occurring right on his own campus. The speeches and conduct demonize Israel, and make false and hateful allegations against the Jewish State, including making comparisons of Israeli actions to those of the Nazis. These actions are no less anti-Semitic than the vandalism the chancellor publicly deplored. They breed hatred of Jews, and can have the same harmful impact on Jewish students. For the sake of his students emotional and physical safety and well-being, we urge the chancellor to become directly involved in confronting the anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing on his campus. This renowned university should no longer tolerate such conduct.