Sacramento Bee Article: Jewish, Israeli students file civil rights complaint against UC Davis. ‘Atmosphere of hostility’

Federal complaint describes a pervasively hostile and antisemitic campus climate at UC Davis, details incidents of unlawful discrimination and harassment against Jews

Ishani Desai – The Sacramento Bee (TNS)-Apr 2, 2024

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An international nonprofit filed a federal civil rights complaint Monday on behalf of Jewish, Israeli and Zionist students and stakeholders at UC Davis alleging the university turned a blind eye and failed to protect them from antisemitic harassment.

StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice — a partner with nonprofit StandWithUs that describes itself as supporting Israel and combating antisemitism — said the university has “tacitly” endorsed speech by employees that allegedly violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Each incident outlined in the complaint has led to a “toxic climate” culture in which campus members must hide their identities due to fears of physical harm, according to the complaint filed to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Jewish and Israeli students report taking Israel pins off their backpacks, skipping class, and missing sleep for fear that the atmosphere of hostility and selective impunity at UC Davis will lead to physical harm to their persons,” the complaint said.

The U.S. Department of Education also launched an investigation into UC Davis and nearly 90 other campuses across the nation in December after an “alarming” rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination erupted at schools amid the Israel-Hamas war that began in October.

Federal education officials declined to say what incident or incidents at UC Davis sparked the probe, which was launched Dec. 14.

The university, when it receives a complaint of antisemitism or other offensive behavior, “immediately” reaches out to affected people to provide support and resources, Bill Kisliuk, a university spokesman, wrote in an email. The allegations are reviewed under the university’s anti-discrimination policy, he wrote.

“Our top priority is to provide support and guidance to any member of our community who may be impacted by harmful speech or offensive behavior, to ensure that they are not restricted in their participation in UC Davis programs or activities,” Kisliuk wrote.

StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice said it’s asking the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate all antisemitic incidents, require the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism and provide training of Jewish identity and antisemitism.

Graffiti, physical harm and more

The complaint filed by StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice lists a series of incidents in which it says UC Davis failed to address a hostile campus atmosphere.

They include antisemitic graffiti and accusations staff members allegedly blurred lines between professional duties and their personal ideological beliefs when speaking about Israelis and Palestinians, according to the complaint.

The allegations also list physical harm experienced by students.

A third-year student putting up “hostage fliers” on Oct. 18 was “violently assaulted” after asking a person why they were taking down the posters. His shirt was torn and he was punched in the face, the complaint said.

“This assault was reported by the victim to the police,” the complaint said. “At the time of submitting this Complaint, the (StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice) is unaware of any investigation or response by UC Davis.”

A UC Davis police spokesperson said the incident happened just off campus in the city of Davis. Lt. Dan Beckwith, a spokesman with the Davis Police Department, was expected to provide an update into the investigation.

UC Davis has a comprehensive program for addressing harassment and discrimination, Kisliuk wrote.

“UC Davis is committed to fostering a climate of equity and justice where all can feel welcome and thrive, free of harassment or discrimination,” he said.

He also noted UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May has been working with the city of Davis and Yolo County under the “Hate-Free Together” campaign to stem the rising epidemic of hate.

“Antisemitism is antithetical to our values and our campus codes of conduct and is unacceptable under our principles of community,” University of California President Michael Drake and the 10 UC chancellors — including May — said in a Nov. 13 statement. “It will not be tolerated.”

The complaint also lists a social media message threatening Jewish American journalists as an example that contributed to the campus’ atmosphere of apparent hostility. It appears to have been posted by Jemma Decristo, an associate professor of African American studies.

Decristo wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that there was easy access to Jewish reporters who spread propaganda and misinformation.

“They can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more,” the post showed. The post included emojis of a knife, an ax and red drops.

UC Davis launched an investigation in October to determine if Decristo violated the school’s code of conduct.

More than seven months after the post was made, it remained unclear if Decristo was still an employee of UC Davis. On Monday, Kisliuk referred back to May’s statement on Oct. 19in which May called the comments “revolting.”

He added the college must examine if speech is protected under the First Amendment to determine further disciplinary steps.

“Free speech is strongly protected by university policy and the First Amendment,” Kisliuk wrote Monday. “As a public university, UC Davis cannot discipline individuals for speech protected by the First Amendment. Even when allegations center on protected speech, the university provides resources and explores supportive measures for the affected parties.”

Students concerned about the lack of safety or lacking equal educational opportunities can report concerns on this website.

Barry Klein, the board president of Jewish student organization Hillel, said in a statement that he hopes the complaint will spur further reform on campus.

“Hillel at Davis and Sacramento has tried to work with the administration to protect Jewish and Israeli students on campus, but harassment and discrimination still run rampant at UC Davis,” Klein said in the statement. “We hope that this complaint will lead to the administration taking more effective actions to address these issues.”

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