SAN FRANCISCO -- The federal government has dismissed allegations that three University of California campuses failed to effectively respond to claims of anti-Semitism that arose out of pro-Palestinian events at the schools.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said in letters sent last week to leaders at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine that the protests, teach-ins, lectures, graffiti and heated confrontations that gave rise to the claims didn't constitute harassment of Jewish students.
In its Aug. 19 letters to the universities, the Education Department said in most cases the activities at issue were acceptable expressions "on matters of public concern directed to the university community" and "not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment" was interfering with Jewish students' educations.
"In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience," Zachary Pelchat, the leader of the team tasked with investigating the complaints, wrote. "In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment."
The complaints were brought under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities such as public universities that receive federal funding.
Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who filed the complaint dealing with UC Santa Cruz, said Wednesday that she found the government's decision to dismiss all three complaints on the same day would exacerbate the tensions and have a chilling effect on supporters of Israel.
"The message the federal government sends with the closure of these three Title VI complaints, which is to say almost all the complaints of their kind that have been launched in the U.S., is that not only are Jewish students not protected, but anyone who speaks out on their behalf is not protected either."
Rossman-Benjamin said she plans to appeal. The Department of Education has a quasi-judicial board that hears appeals in civil rights cases.
As part of its investigations, which started at Irvine in 2007, Santa Cruz in 2011 and Berkeley in 2012, the department interviewed and surveyed students. Representatives from the Office of Civil Rights also visited the Berkeley campus in March, when a Jewish student group hosted a "Israel Peace and Diversity Week" and opponents of Israel's policies in the West Bank staged a counter-demonstration featuring a mock bus painted with the words "No Palestinians."
The allegations the Education Department investigated stemmed from a variety of events dating back more than a decade.
At Berkeley, they included claims that anti-Jewish comments were made at meetings to discuss a student senate bill calling on the university to divest from companies that support Israel's military in the Palestinian territories. Rossman-Benjamin alleged that officials at Santa Cruz did not respond quickly enough when graffiti depicting swastikas along with the Star of David surfaced on campus and that some of her Santa Cruz colleagues failed to intervene or joined in when students were verbally attacked for defending the Jewish state.
The Irvine complaint chronicled contentious exchanges between Jewish and Muslim students, including a claim by a student wearing a pro-Israel T-shirt to an event hosted by the Muslim Students Association that she was yelled and cursed at. Federal officials concluded, however, that in most cases students sympathetic to the Jewish state were targeted for their political views, not national origin.
The chancellors of the Santa Cruz and Berkeley campuses, George Blumenthal and Nicholas Dirks, issued statements applauding the conclusions the Education Department reached.
"This campus values the free and open expression of ideas, and we diligently safeguard our students' civil rights," Blumenthal said. "We are, therefore, pleased that these allegations have been thoroughly investigated and dismissed."