Fighting anti-Semitism at the U of California

For several years, the University of California has faced some of the most serious charges of anti-Semitism in North American higher education.

New developments provide hope that the University will turn this situation around. Last week, Jewish students settled an anti-Semitism lawsuit against the university’s Berkeley campus.

The settlement is modest, but it is a step in the right direction.

Almost simultaneously, the university’s systemwide campus climate committee issued a remarkable report which acknowledges that “Jewish students are confronting significant and difficult climate issues as a result of activities on campus which focus specifically on Israel, its right to exist and its treatment of Palestinians.” The climate committee’s recommendations, together with the Berkeley settlement, provide a blueprint for combating campus anti-Semitism if university leadership has the will to do so.

The Berkeley lawsuit was based on numerous anti-Jewish incidents, including one in which a Jewish student was rammed from behind by a pro-Palestinian activist pushing a loaded shopping cart. The students had little leverage in their negotiations, since the federal district court had already dismissed most of their claims. Under the settlement, Berkeley promises to consider – not to actually adopt – two new policies. One would ban certain imitation firearms on the Berkeley campus, like those that have been used to simulate supposed IDF abuses.

The other would restrict protests that block pedestrian thoroughfares. These proposed policies will definitely help, and the university should promptly adopt them. The settlement will not solve Berkeley’s anti-Semitism problem, but it will not solve Berkeley’s liability problem either; The students’ lawyers have subsequently filed a similar complaint with the federal Departments of Justice and Education.

The new administrative complaint covers much the same ground as the old district court complaint, so the Berkeley litigation is far from over.

The Berkley settlement came at around the same time as the long-awaited report of the university’s campus climate committee. The committee’s work was instigated by a series of anti-Semitic incidents at the university’s campuses at Irvine, Santa Cruz and elsewhere. Some observers had feared that it would be a whitewash, since committee members were hand-picked by university officials.

In fact, it is a well-balanced report, primarily authored by Anti-Defamation League national education chairman Richard Barton and NAACP California president Alice Huffman. The committee concludes that anti-Israel campus activities “portray Israel and, many times, Jews in ways which project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.” The committee also notes that many Jewish students are less concerned about anti-Semitism than they are about the university’s failure to provide accommodations for religious holidays or kosher dining options.

The committee’s most important finding has to do with double standards. “What came through in our discussions,” Barton and Huffman write, “was a sense from Jewish students and others of a double standard when it comes to the themes and language used by those protesting Israel and its policies.”

It is heartening to read such candor in an internal report, although it is unfortunate that the university has taken so long to acknowledge this.

“Specifically,” the report continues, “Jewish students described the use of language and imagery which they believe would not be tolerated by faculty and administration, or would at least be denounced with more force, if similar themes and language were directed at other groups on campus.”

The UC report recommends many important changes, such as reviewing policies under which university sponsorship is afforded to unbalanced and biased events such as “Israeli Apartheid Week.”

The committee also sensibly urges university administrators to better address Jewish students’ dietary needs and accommodate religious holiday observance.

The most important recommendation, however, urges university officials to adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism, such as the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which clearly explains when anti-Israel incidents should also be considered anti-Semitic.

For a university to solve its anti-Semitism problem, it needs to acknowledge that it has a problem, and doing so means adopting a clear definition which describes the situations that may properly be called anti-Semitic. These are important, long overdue reforms. Together with the policies being considered by the Berkeley campus, the campus climate committee’s recommendations should be quickly adopted.

The writer is president and general counsel at The Louis D. Brandeis Center.