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Students riding bicycles and walking near an arched entrance on the UC Berkeley campus

The congressional probe comes weeks after attendees of a scheduled talk by an Israeli lawyer at UC Berkeley said they were assaulted and called slurs by pro-Palestinian protesters who shut down the event.

Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images


 

The House committee that castigated the now-resigned presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania for their responses to antisemitism on campus has launched a probe of the University of California at Berkeley.

“We have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of UC Berkeley’s response to antisemitism on its campus,” Representative Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, wrote Tuesday in a letter addressed to Dr. Michael Drake, president of the UC system; Carol Christ, chancellor of Berkeley; and Richard Lieb, chair of the UC Board of Regents.

The committee is also investigating antisemitism at Harvard, Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has called the president of Columbia University to testify next month about similar issues at her institution.

In its letter to Berkeley’s leadership, the committee, which is also considering legislation that would temporarily revoke access to federal financial aid for colleges that don’t adequately protect free speech on campus, referenced numerous alleged instances of antisemitism on Berkeley’s campus before and after the Israel-Hamas war started on Oct. 7, 2023.

Foxx characterized some recent incidents as “particularly troubling,” including one that turned violent last month.

On Feb. 26, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters broke two windows and a door of the Zellerbach Playhouse located on campus, and reportedly assaulted and directed slurs at attendees of a talk by Ran Bar-Yoshafat, a lawyer and Israeli reservist, before the university evacuated the venue. (On Monday, Bar-Yoshafat returned to campus and gave his presentation without incident, according to the university.)

While the majority of campus protests that have taken place across the country since the war started have been peaceful, the violence that erupted at Berkeley followed other forcible disruptions at Cooper Union a small, private college in New York, and at Columbia University.

Christ, Berkeley’s chancellor, and Benjamin Hermalin, executive vice chancellor and provost, condemned the protestors’ actions on Feb. 26 as “an attack on the fundamental values of the university,” and said they would “do everything possible to preclude a repeat of what happened.” The university has since launched a criminal investigation into the incident.

However, that hasn’t satisfied the House committee, which said in the letter that Berkeley’s “response to the incident failed to identify the riot as an act of anti-Jewish hate.”

The committee set a deadline of April 2 for the university to hand over a bevy of documents dating back to 2021. The committee says these documents will help its members evaluate Berkeley’s antisemitism response. The requested documents include those related to reported antisemitic incidents, hiring in the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures and foreign donations, with an emphasis on any from Qatari sources.

“We will provide a comprehensive response to the committee’s questions and concerns,” Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for executive communications, said in an email. “UC Berkeley has long been committed to confronting antisemitism, and to supporting the needs and interests of its Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”

As evidence of that commitment, Mogulof noted that Berkeley established the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate in 2015 and launched the Antisemitism Education Initiative in 2019.

However, the congressional committee’s letter lists numerous alleged examples of antisemitism on campus that have happened since then—including antisemitic harassment of Jewish students and faculty. It also cited a 2023 Brandeis University study that said Berkeley was among the universities with “highest antisemitic hostility.”

Ron Hassner, a political science professor at Berkeley and one of the targets of the antisemitic harassment detailed in the letter, has slept in his office for the past two weeks in protest of the university’s antisemitism response, according to USA Today.

About 20 other faculty members from other California universities have started sleeping in their offices to support Hassner, who is calling for staff training on mitigating antisemitism and Islamophobia and a policy that would allow heckled speakers to return to campus to finish their presentations.

“The last term was the most difficult of my career,” Hassner, who’s been a professor for 33 years, told USA Today. “Everybody in the Berkeley leadership is deeply embarrassed by professors and students who speak out of line and behave in unprofessional ways.”


Berkeley is one of about 50 higher education institutions the Education Department has decided to investigate due to allegations of shared-ancestry discrimination since the war began. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires federally funded institutions to protect students from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

Although the law doesn’t explicitly address religious discrimination, it protects students of any religion from discrimination, including harassment, “based on a student’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, or citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity,” according to the Education Department.

Tyler Coward, lead counsel of government affairs for The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said while Congress has the authority to investigate allegations that higher education institutions are out of compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws and provide recommendations to the Education Department, lawmakers should do so thoughtfully.

“They should be transparent about the facts and the evidence they have,” he said. “They should also be very careful not to chill or ask for punishment of constitutionally protected free speech.”

In reviewing the committee’s letter to Berkeley, Coward noted that some of the examples it cites as evidence of unchecked antisemitism are more clear cut than others.

“Some of the facts in this letter give rise to the possibility that the institution is in violation of federal anti-discrimination law,” Coward said. “That said, there’s an awful lot of constitutionally protected speech cited in this letter and I think that’s a problem.”

While the committee’s letter outlined numerous incidents that involved physical altercations, it also cited an Oct. 7 social-media post from a pro-Palestinian student group supporting resistance in Gaza as evidence of “a pattern of deeply troubling incidents and developments at UC Berkeley.”

“There’s a lot of nuance involved here,” Coward said. “But when it comes to speech, a student group’s statement in support of Palestinians falls pretty clearly on the line of protected political expression.”

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