Complaint: Berkeley School District “Knowingly Allowed” Antisemitic Bullying

Complaint by Brandeis and ADL alleges that teachers at multiple Bay Area schools made antisemitic statements.
February 29, 2024
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A complaint was filed against Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) on Wednesday alleging that the district “knowingly allowed” a hostile climate against Jewish and Israelis to fester at their schools.

The complaint was filed by the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint lists the names of various teachers that have engaged in anti-Israel indoctrination that made Jewish and Israeli students feel “unsafe.” One example in the complaint is an art teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS) who has “spent significant class time imposing his antisemitic views on students by showing them violent pro-Hamas videos, projecting anti-Israel and antisemitic images during class.” These include “a projection of an image of a fist holding a Palestinian flag and punching through a Star of David” and “a picture on the outside of his door showing a young person with a keffiyeh around his neck, throwing a rock, under the words ‘WE GONNA FIGHT AGAINST APARTHEID!!’”

The complaint goes onto list three students who were so distressed by this art teacher’s anti-Israel propaganda they asked to be moved out of the class; in the class where all three were transferred, the teacher wore a “Free Palestine” patch, pins and stickers on her clothing during class.

Another alleged anti-Israel teacher at BHS is a history teacher who “recently required her students to respond to the following prompt in class: ‘To what extent should Israel be considered an Apartheid State?’” and showed “a one-sided anti-Israel video.” The teacher “could not find a video defending the Israeli side of the debate and that articles that opposed the apartheid narrative were ‘laughable,’” per the complaint. This teacher wrote a column for The Flipside, which describes itself as “an independent, non-profit publication dedicated to providing a forum for the unheard voices of our community,” that called “for ‘accountability’ of parents who complain about her teaching” and defended speaking “out against Zionist oppression”; further, she contended that BUSD should be standing by her rather than “trying to appease the Jewish families who object to her biased message,” according to the complaint.

BHS is not the only school in BUSD with alleged anti-Israel teachers. A history teacher at Willard Middle School allegedly gave “a hostile response” to a student’s presentation about her father being raised on an Israeli kibbutz. A second-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School is accused of hanging a Palestinian flag outside the window of her classroom following the Oct. 7 attacks and required students to hang sticky notes stating “Stop Bombing Babies”; the teacher then placed the sticky notes “outside of the classroom of the only Jewish teacher in the school,” per the complaint.

A Jewish parent complained to the school about the teacher, prompting the teacher to confront the parent at a school event, where she allegedly said, “I know who you are, I know who your f—ing wife is and I know where you live.”

The complaint also documents alleged instances of Jewish and Israeli students being bullied by other students, including a Jewish student at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School being told “you have a big nose because you are a stupid Jew” and “I don’t like your people.” A student at a BUSD school remarked, “Of course it was the Jews” after a science teacher mentioned that two girls, both of whom were Jewish, had erred during an experiment. And a Jewish student who gave a presentation to his ethnic studies class about his Jewish ancestry received a note on his desk with the name of his project written on it, except that the word “Jewish” was scribbled out and replaced with “free, free Palestine.” The complaint also alleges that BUSD teachers and administrators supported pro-Palestinian walkouts and protests on campus during regular school hours.

Despite receiving multiple complaints from parents, BUSD has yet to take any “meaningful” action to ameliorate the hostile climate against Jewish and Israeli students on campus, the complaint alleges. The complaint calls for a series of remedies to address the matter, including BUSD issuing a statement condemning antisemitism and acknowledging the importance of Zionism to the Jewish identity; enforcing the district’s ban against hanging antisemitic material on campus; and having an independent investigator determine the extent of the antisemitic climate at BUSD schools.

“It is beyond deplorable that in a moment of rising anti-Semitism both here in the U.S. and abroad that teachers and administrators at BUSD are falling down in their obligation to protect Jewish students,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “There is no more solemn or basic obligation than protecting our children from the moment when they walk into the doors of their schools, and to fail so monumentally that children feel forced to hide their Jewish identity for fear of reprisal is downright shocking. We must demand more from our educational leaders.”

“The eruption of antisemitism in Berkeley’s elementary and high schools is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”  – Kenneth Marcus

Brandeis Center Chairman Kenneth Marcus similarly said in a statement, “The eruption of antisemitism in Berkeley’s elementary and high schools is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It is dangerous enough to see faculty fanning the flames of antisemitism on college campuses, but to see teachers inciting hate in the youngest of grades while Berkeley administrators sit idly by as it continues to escalate by the day is reprehensible. Where is the accountability? Where are the people who are supposed to protect and educate students?”

BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said in a statement to the Journal, “Berkeley Unified stands against all forms of hate. This is a message we share widely and frequently in our school community. 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. We believe that classrooms are spaces where all students need to feel safe, seen, felt, and heard. We work to make these spaces responsive and humanizing for our diverse students, today and every day.

“The district continuously encourages students and families to report any incidents of bullying or hate-motivated behavior and vigorously investigates each and every report,” Morthel continued. “We stay in communication and work in collaboration with various members of our diverse community and have recently had focused conversations on these specific concerns. While we have not received official notification of the recent federal complaint, the district will work with the Office of Civil Rights in support of a thorough investigation. We remain committed to engaging with our community to ensure that BUSD is a district that lives up to its values of excellence, engagement, equity, and enrichment.”

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