Civil rights complaint charges Berkeley Unified tolerates antisemitism

Berkeley High School (Photo via Google Maps)

Two Jewish civil rights organizations filed a federal civil rights complaint against Berkeley Unified on Wednesday on behalf of Jewish families, charging that their children have been “subjected to severe and persistent harassment and discrimination” since the escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza began in October.

District principals and administrators failed to protect these children despite repeated reports of student misconduct and some teachers’ antagonism, the complaint says. The district has “knowingly allowed” schools to become “viciously hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students,” the complaint said. As a result, the complaint said, ”The environment is so bad that Jewish and Israeli students are often afraid to go to school.”

The 41-page complaint by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League is the one of three antisemitism cases in the Bay Area and four nationwide filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against a public school district since the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis by Hamas and invasion of Gaza by the Israeli military in response, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The complaint charged that students took the lead from pro-Palestinian teachers who organized unauthorized walkouts in October and again this month. Students from the MLK Middle School chanted “Kill the Jews,” “KKK” “Kill Israel,” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase that implies the elimination of Jews from their nation.

The district issued a statement Wednesday. While stating it had not yet received the complaint, the statement read in part: “We acknowledge the difficult moment we are in and the pain some members of our community are experiencing due to the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza. … The district continuously encourages students and families to report any incidents of bullying or hate-motivated behavior.”

The complaint cited a history teacher at Berkeley High School who expressed antisemitic stereotypes in class, showed a one-sided perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and asked students to respond to the prompt, “To what extent should Israel be considered an Apartheid State?”

The district’s response, the complaint said, was to transfer Jewish students who complained to another class, instead of enforcing district policy that prohibits a teacher from using “his/her position to forward his/her own historical, religious, political, economic or social bias.”

The complaint charged that indoctrination began in one second-grade classroom in Malcolm X Elementary, where the teacher hung a Palestinian flag in the window, visible to parents walking into school, and encouraged students to write “Stop Bombing Babies” on sticky notes as an exercise in anti-hate messages. They were then attached to the wall outside a classroom with the only Jewish teacher, the complaint alleges.

On Jan. 16, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education notified Oakland Unified that it had received a complaint that the district discriminated against students on the basis of their shared Jewish ancestry.

The complaint alleges that teachers led an unauthorized teach-in on Palestine during the Dec, 6 school day and taught elementary school students that a “free Palestine means the annihilation of Jews.” The department will investigate whether the district failed to respond as the federal law requires to harassment of students by district employees.

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