UC Berkeley under federal investigation after protesters disrupt Israeli speaker

School officials say they will cooperate with investigation after denouncing protesters’ ‘overtly antisemitic expression’

Illustrative: Students protesting Israel's war against the Hamas terror group in Gaza at the University of California, Berkeley's Sather Gate on October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Liedtke)
Illustrative: Students protesting Israel's war against the Hamas terror group in Gaza at the University of California, Berkeley's Sather Gate on October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Liedtke)

JTA — The violent disruption of an Israeli speaker’s appearance on campus last month has triggered negative headlines and a criminal investigation at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, the school is facing a federal discrimination investigation, too.

The United States Department of Education announced the investigation into Berkeley’s handling of antisemitism on Tuesday, just a week after the incident — in one of the clearest signs yet that the department is moving unusually swiftly in responding to campus discrimination claims involving the Israel-Hamas war.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced the Title VI “shared ancestry” investigation at Berkeley along with four other new investigations joining a quickly growing list of discrimination claims since October 7, when the Hamas terror group attacked Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 253 hostage and triggering the war.

The department does not reveal publicly why it is investigating a particular school, but a spokesperson for the university confirmed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that its investigation “has to do with the events of February 26th.”

On that day, hundreds of violent anti-Israel protesters on campus forced the cancelation of a planned lecture by Ran Bar-Yoshafat, an Israel Defense Forces reservist and senior leader at the Kohelet Policy Forum, which backed Israel’s recent judicial reforms.

The protesters blocked the venue, smashed windows and, according to witnesses, physically attacked some students who tried to attend the event. University police ordered the venue evacuated at the last minute and said they could not guarantee student safety.

The investigation timeline is notable because, although the department has vowed to open every Title VI complaint it receives for investigation regardless of merit (and has opened many related to antisemitism since October 7), it has typically taken weeks or even months for a complaint to trigger a response. The swift action in Berkeley comes amid widespread press attention about the incident, which stood out for reports of physical violence.

It was not immediately clear who filed the Berkeley complaint, another piece of information that the education department does not make public.

The university spokesperson did not elaborate on the investigation but said officials would cooperate fully with the investigation. The chancellor and provost issued a statement Monday condemning the incident as “unacceptable” and said some Jewish students had experienced “overtly antisemitic expression,” and said the school had opened a criminal investigation. (Because Title VI investigations focus on how the university responded to incidents of antisemitism, prompt action to curb antisemitism can bolster a university’s case.)

Of the four other new investigations the department announced Tuesday, at least three of them, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Illinois Wesleyan University and Middlebury College in Vermont, also involve allegations of antisemitism.

The first two complaints were filed by Zachary Marschall, a conservative Jewish writer who is the editor-in-chief of the website Campus Reform and has had at least 12 of his Title VI complaints opened for investigation to date, all at universities where he has no current connection. Both allegations involve the universities’ handling of pro-Palestinian campus protests.

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators rally near Columbia University in New York on November 15, 2023. (Spencer Platt/ Getty Images via AFP)

A spokesperson for Swarthmore told JTA the school had only received notice of the complaint, not the complaint itself, and could not comment.

“Despite the fact that the complaint seems to have come from someone unaffiliated with the College, we take it very seriously, and we are committed to complying with the law and collaborating with the Department of Education as it conducts its review,” the spokesperson said, adding that the college has publicly condemned “antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of discrimination within our community.”

An Illinois Wesleyan University spokesperson said it would “seek to understand the complaint more fully and will fully comply with the OCR’s investigation of the matter.”

Middlebury’s investigation was triggered by a complaint last month from the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, an affiliate of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs. The complaint alleges the university did not appropriately communicate with Jewish students in the days following October 7, including around a planned vigil they hoped to hold, and that officials were slow to provide them with police protection.

“We look forward to working with OCR as their investigation explores the allegations against Middlebury outlined in our Title VI complaint,” Yael Lerman, director of StandWithUs’s legal operations, said in a statement.

A Middlebury spokesperson told JTA, “We are proud of how our students, faculty, and staff engage peacefully, openly, constructively, regularly, and rigorously on deeply concerning issues such as antisemitism, Islamophobia and the Israel-Hamas war,” and said the school was pursuing dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students.

A fifth Title VI investigation was opened this week at SUNY Rockland Community College. A spokesperson for the college did not return a request for comment.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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