Berkeley K-12 Schools, Erupting in Antisemitism, Come Under the Scrutiny of Congress, Education Department

‘They’re breeding the next generation of antisemites,’ an attorney says of the Berkeley Unified School District.

AP/Jacquelyn Martin
The superintendent of the Berkeley United School District, Enikia Ford Morthel, speaks during a congressional hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools. AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Graffiti in a school bathroom reads “Kill Jews.” On a bus stop used by many students, more graffiti reads “Kill all Zionists.” A 6-year-old student hears his classmates at the playground say “Jews are stupid.” He has since refused to return to school. Welcome to elementary school in the age of antisemitism.

Those are just a handful of the dozens of incidents that have taken place at the Berkeley Unified school district in California, which has around 9,000 students enrolled, since October 7. Even after the Brandeis Center and the Anti-Defamation League filed a lawsuit against the district with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in February, the bullying and harassment of Jewish and Israeli students there appears to be snowballing.

“They’re breeding the next generation of antisemites,” attorney Robin Pick, who is overseeing Brandeis’s complaint, tells the Sun of Berkeley’s administrators. That complaint was expanded earlier this month to include a slew of fresh allegations of civil rights violations. Last week, the Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the complaint. The next day, Berkeley’s superintendent, Enikia Ford Morthel, testified before the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“Antisemitism is not pervasive in Berkeley Unified School District,” Ms. Ford Morthel told lawmakers. She said that the district received and investigated nine complaints of antisemitism. Asked about whether those investigations have led to any firings, she said, “I can’t speak about personnel matters, but I can tell you that we do follow up and we do take action.” 

Ms. Ford Morthel told the Sun after the complaint was initially filed in March that “Berkeley Unified stands against all forms of hate,” and the district “continuously encourages students and families to report any incidents of bullying or hate-motivated behavior and vigorously investigates each and every report.” 

That was the education committee’s first K-12 hearing on antisemitism. Before then, it had targeted antisemitism within higher education. Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, alongside committee members like Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, has grilled the presidents of Harvard, Penn, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia on the issue. Brandeis, too, has traditionally worked on college campuses and is now expanding its scope to K-12 schools. 

“In some ways, it’s worse, because these are children as young as five or six years old,” Ms. Pick says. They’re captive audiences in these classrooms. They see their teachers as authority figures. They’re extremely impressionable. They don’t have the level of freedom as students do in college.” As a result, she warns, what’s happening in Berkeley classrooms amounts to “indoctrination.”

At King Middle School last week, just two days after Ms. Ford Morthel’s testimony, students as young as sixth graders joined administrators in a pro-Palestine walkout that stopped in front of Berkeley’s Jewish Community Center, where young children were in daycare and preschool. “That opened the floodgates for antisemitism in the classroom,” a Berkeley United parent, Ilana Pearlman, tells the Sun. 

“The virulent antisemitism we are seeing is intrinsically connected to the district’s inability to acknowledge and act on the problems we’ve been blowing the whistle on in the wake of 10/7,” Ms. Pearlman says. While Ms. Ford Morthel cites nine complaints of antisemitism, she has counted more than 80. 

It’s “highly likely” that the OCR will determine, in its investigation, that the Berkeley district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, says Ms. Pick. That would risk federal grants to Berkeley Unified, which accounted for more than $4 billion, or 2 percent, of its 3022-2023 budget. Public K-12 schools get an average of 8 percent of their funding from federal sources. 

Revoking this funding would be unprecedented. At least in the fifty years since the passage of Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in programs receiving federal dollars, the Sun has not found one instance of the Department of Education revoking funding from a school for non-compliance. 

Regardless, funding is a stick the government can use to ensure the civil rights are protected. “Generally what we see is that when their federal funding is at risk, that’s when we start to see some change,” Ms. Pick says. “We’re hoping to see it before then.”

The fight for Jewish students at Berkeley is sparking a counter movement. ​​After the Brandeis complaint was filed, a group of Jewish parents, BUSD Jewish Parents for Collective Liberation, put out a statement claiming that most of the allegations were either false or exaggerated. They said that reports of antisemitism are being used as “as a harassment tactic” intended to pressure the school district into cracking down on teaching about Palestine. 

The Bay Area branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee has submitted their own civil rights complaint to the OCR. The groups say they are “urging an immediate investigation into the hostile environment of anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic discrimination within Berkeley Unified School District.”  

Meanwhile, Berkeley parents are being called out by name on Instagram accounts that pledge “to mobilize the city of Berkeley to support Palestine.” One post of videos of adults near protestors asserts that “Zionist Adults Are Targeting Palestinian Children.”

“Those of us who have been outspoken are being horribly harassed and doxxed, including by BUSD employees,” Ms. Pearlman says. 

Ms. Pick argues that if any other group were targeted, the public schools in a city touted as one of the most inclusive in the country would be taking action. “We are only asking that the same level of response be given for Jewish and Israeli students.”

Correction: The Berkeley Unified School District has around 9,000 students enrolled. An earlier version of this story misstated the district’s ranking in terms of enrollment in the state.

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