UC Berkeley announced that on July 11, alumni Brian Maissy and Jessica Felber dropped their lawsuit accusing UC Berkeley and the UC system of failing to address anti-Semitism on campus during 2010 protests.
The lawsuit originates from an incident on March 5, 2010 when Felber, plaintiff and member of Tikvah: Students for Israel, was allegedly assaulted by former Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) leader Husam Zakharia with a shopping cart at an Apartheid Week event. At the time, Felber was holding a sign stating “Israel wants Peace.”
The lawsuit accusing the university of not assuaging a harsh environment against UC Berkeley Jewish students was filed in March 2011.
In December 2011, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the case with the ruling that the university did not infringe on the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and that it was not legally obligated to intercede in political campus disputes. However, the case continued through an appeal of the court’s ruling.
Felber and Maissy agreed to dismiss the lawsuit with the understanding that the university will consider implementing two possible changes to its policies on campus demonstrations after gathering campus opinion. The university is not required by law to do so.
In June, UC president Mark Yudof assembled a group of 17 people to comprise the Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. The members include students, faculty and administrators from UC campuses as well as leaders from various racial and religious groups.
According to a July 13 press release from the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the group was tasked with identifying, evaluating and sharing “promising practices” at institutions across the state and nation. They monitored the progress and method of each campus toward ensuring healthy conditions that supported the university’s mission and provided equal opportunities for all UC constituents. Many of the factors that were discussed and evaluated dealt with race and religion.
“Both groups of students said UC could provide more and better accommodations for religious and cultural practices on campuses,” the release stated.
This included having space available for meditation or prayer, more halal and kosher food options and appropriate gender-specific living space for Muslim women.
“The report found that negative experiences for both groups of students were most common when outside speakers — known for their provocative stances toward Israel and Jews or for their fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric — participated in campus events… Both groups said they thought that UC administrators were biased against them in how they responded to or enforced campus regulations during some of these incidents,” stated the release.
The two feasible alterations the university will consider regarding demonstrations stem from the UC Berkeley “Apartheid Week,” during which mock checkpoints that are organized by SJP and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) are established. Students carry fake weaponry and question classmates about their religious backgrounds to simulate conflict at checkpoints on occupied Palestinian territory.
One of the alterations is limiting the use of mock firearms on campus to only when “it would be obvious to a reasonable observer that the imitation weapon is not a real weapon.”
According to lawyer Joel Siegal, the fact that members from SJP or the MSA did not carry imitation firearms at Apartheid Week 2012 demonstrates one of the aspects in which the lawsuit was successful.
The demonstrations protesting Palestinian treatment by Israelis are staged at Sather Gate, a crowded area on the UC Berkeley campus. The second potential policy change would be to allow pedestrians an unimpeded path during protests at Sather Gate.
The efforts by UCOP to make UC campuses healthier learning environments for Jewish and Muslim students are not effective, according to former SJP Co-President at UC Davis Lyla Rayyan, who was a member of the student group that met with UCOP earlier in the year.
“They admitted that there is nothing much they can do, other than make recommendations that we all knew wouldn’t amount to much. UCOP turned a political discussion into a Muslim-Jewish problem and there are many Jewish students that have come out saying their testimonies and experiences were left out of the report because they were not pro-Israel,” Rayyan said. “All in all, the UCOP’s efforts were probably a nice gesture that will do nothing for the issue at hand.”
The settlement also acquits the university from reimbursing the plaintiffs for their legal costs and paying them monetary damages.
Once the lawsuit was settled, both plaintiffs were graduated alumni and therefore did not retain the ability to seek redress from the court, thereby leading to the Title VI complaint filed by Joel Siegal and Neal Sher — Felber and Maissy’s lawyers — to the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice on June 9.
“The university needs to be consistent. When the republican club sold baked goods at different prices the university issued a statement acknowledging it being offensive or after Compton cookout [called] for town meetings to acknowledge that offense,” Siegal said. “Yet year after year, the university allows the Apartheid Week performance and other anti-Israel demonstrations which go beyond the vale of criticism of Israeli government policies, but instead demonize Jews and attempt to delegitimize the very right of the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance. A breach of Title VI by schools can result in loss of federal funding.
Most recently, the group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) released a statement asking President Yudof to table the report “until a methodologically sound and even-handed report can be conducted.”
Tikvah: Students for Israel at UC Berkeley, Aggies for Israel and the MSA were unable to be reached for comment.
The report findings can be seen at Universityofcalifornia.edu/news.
LILIANA NAVA OCHOA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.