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 be the impetus for them to step up and speak out on this campus, well known for student-led BDS campaigns.
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. Siegal, told lubavitch.com that he would consider appealing the decision. He pointed to the US Justice Department’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 Siegal. “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 AK47s staged a mock military checkpoint at the center of campus.
“We see it as a passion play in which Jews were portrayed as bloodthirsty barbarians, and we know where that ended,” Siegal said.
Students Find a Jewish Haven at UC Berkeley
Mrs. Bracha Leeds, director of Chabad at UC Berkeley campus, is hoping that students will respond by wearing their Jewish identity more visibly, more proudly. “This is, after all, about protecting freedom of expression, so 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 the young couple works hard 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 3,000 to 4,000 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. But 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. It’s also publicized the availability of kosher food at Chabad in its student literature, and allows 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 come away with the desire 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 Jews on spiritual journeys had their first encounters with Judaism, often on this campus.
“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-conformist' 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 some 13 years ago.
“It is specifically in a school like UC Berkeley where Jewish students should feel comfortable contributing to the climate and spirit of diversity and multiculturalism by sharing our collective narrative. At one of the most pluralistic places on the planet, where difference is cherished, we should enjoy feeling proud of who are.”