Swastikas on Lockers, Calls To ‘Kill the Jews’ Are What Pupils Face in Berkeley Public Schools, Complaint Alleges

A mother breaks down in tears while being interviewed by a reporter on what her child faces every morning.

Brandeis Center
A Palestinian flag and punching through a Star of David on display at an art class at Berkeley High School. Brandeis Center

Swastikas on lockers. Calls to “kill the Jews” and “eliminate Israel” echoing in the school hallways. A poster of a fist punching through a Star of David on a map of Israel, which one teacher calls “resistance art,” hanging in a classroom. Jewish students being asked by their non-Jewish peers to say what “their number is,” a reference to Nazi concentration camps. 

The year is 2024, not the late 1930s. This is happening not at Berlin. It’s happening at Berkeley, California, a hub for progressive thought and a bastion of so-called inclusivity. The individuals behind this messaging include teachers and administrators. To a shocking degree, students, some as young as pre-kindergarteners, are the targets.

That’s the picture painted by a federal complaint filed with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The lawsuit, filed by the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center for human rights, alleges rampant antisemitic bullying and harassment at K-12 public schools in Berkeley’s unified district.

When a parent tries during a telephone interview with this reporter to describe what is happening to her child in the school she attends at Berkeley, she breaks down and cries. Her anguish, and that of others like her, is fueling a new legal strategy.

The Brandeis Center has traditionally worked on college campuses but is expanding the focus to K-12 schools in light of the deluge of phone calls it has received from California parents after October 7. In recent months, the Office for Civil Rights has received complaints of antisemitism in public school districts, including Oakland, San Francisco, and Chicago. 

The complaint argues that school administrators have looked the other way and, in some cases, encouraged the historic rise in antisemitism targeting the nation’s youngsters in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attacks. The district at Berkeley, meanwhile, insists that it is committed to making all of its students feel welcome and that reports of bullying will be “vigorously” investigated.

“Berkeley Unified stands against all forms of hate,” the district’s superintendent, Enikia Ford Morthel, tells the Sun. She says the district “continuously encourages students and families to report any incidents of bullying or hate-motivated behavior and vigorously investigates each and every report.” 

Ms. Morthel says Berkeley Union has yet to receive an official notification of the complaint, but “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.”

Yet when more than 1,300 Berkeley community members penned a letter detailing “the district’s lack of care for our students’ physical and psychological safety in school,” Ms. Morthel and Berkeley’s board of education said they couldn’t investigate the issue due to a lack of evidence and advised concerned parents to direct their complaints to the local office of civil rights. 

“Even with Hamas footage on a GoPro camera showing people being violently murdered, Jews still weren’t believed,” a Berkeley United parent, Ilana Pearlman, tells the Sun. “So I was having this almost out-of-body experience, seeing it happen in real-time in America, in the most progressive, supposedly inclusive area of Berkeley.”

A poster promoting a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war at Berkeley High School. Brandeis Center

It’s been 120 days and Ms. Pearlman has yet to get an answer to any of her complaints. “In a school district that touts itself as the most inclusive and progressive, they put so much money into diversity, equity, inclusion — except for the Jews.” Ms. Pearlman, whose ninth-grader son, Ezra, is Black and Jewish, says she feels a “a deep sense of foreboding about how bad things are going to get.”

“I moved to Berkeley thinking it was inclusive of everybody. I was totally wrong,” the mother of a 13-year-old enrolled in Berkeley Unified, Chiara Juster, tells the Sun. “If this were any other minority group, I don’t believe this would be happening.”

A week before the war at Gaza broke out, Ms. Juster’s daughter was called a “midget Jew” in school. She was afraid to go back. When she finally did, the first day she returned she encountered in her classroom signs calling for a cease-fire at Gaza and a Palestinian flag. She told her teachers the displays made her uncomfortable, and they advised her to go to one of the school’s clubs to learn “the truth” about Gaza, Ms. Juster says. 

“It really made me concerned about whether my child was being presented with objective facts and unbiased information as children should be in a history class,” Ms. Juster shares. So too was she worried about putting down on paper for a family heritage project that her daughter was a fourth-generation Jew. “It makes me shudder to think that my great-grandparents came here to escape name calling,” Ms. Juster says, “and yet my daughter is being called names.”

In another moment, the 13-year-old’s teacher commented that there would be “good music” at an upcoming school dance, not “Klezmer music,” referring to the musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Ms. Juster says she was struck by this kind of hostility, especially since her family does not regularly practice Judaism or go to synagogue — “we have the biggest, sparkliest Christmas tree on the block,” she says.

On the door of Berkeley Unified art classroom hung a picture of a young person with a keffiyeh around his neck, throwing a rock, under the words “WE GONNA FIGHT AGAINST APARTHEID!!” Brandeis Center

Microaggressions grew into macroaggressions, with more serious harassment of Jewish students taking place on playgrounds and in hallways, according to the complaint. At one elementary school, a teacher asked her second-grade students to write “messages of anti-hate” on sticky notes. In decorative handwriting she wrote, “Stop Bombing Babies,” and inspired other students to write the same message and post it outside the classroom of the only Jewish teacher at the school. 

Another striking instance outlined in the complaint was a “walkout for Palestine” that took place on October 18 at a Berkeley middle school, Martin Luther King, Jr. Students aged 11-14 years old sang chants like “kill the Jews,” which soon morphed into shouts like “KKK,” followed by laughter. 

The children seemed to know the chants were controversial, Ms. Pearlman recalls, but didn’t know what they meant as they searched for approval in their teachers’ eyes. “It could’ve been a teachable moment,” she says. Instead, she says the middle school’s vice president remained silent. Teachers and administrators had handed out fliers to promote the event and helped students organize in the school amphitheater. 

“When a school environment breeds a culture of acceptance around the spread of antisemitism,” the head of national litigation for the ADL, James Pasch, tells the Sun, “it enables students to do and say things that they otherwise wouldn’t do.”

Antisemitism is becoming “institutionalized,” Ms. Pearlman says. Mr. Pasch describes it as “systemic” in California and America at large. The ADL has documented a 360 percent surge in acts of antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and assault across the country, as well as a 140 percent increase in incidents taking place at schools. That’s compared to the same point in time last year, which already saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents since the ADL began tracking the issue in 1979. 

Berkeley Unified is charged with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects students at federally funded institutions from discrimination on the basis of their race, color, or national origin, including an actual or perceived shared ancestry. Failure to comply with Title VI could jeopardize federal grants to the schools in question.

ADL’s goal is not to secure financial damages, but to spark reform within K-12 institutions and universities, Mr. Pasch says. “It’s incumbent on Berkeley Unified to sit down at the table with us and come up with policy solutions that will stop the current antisemitism in the district and to put proper protocols in place to ensure that these events do not reoccur.”

Second grade students at Malcom X Elementary School were instructed to write ‘Messages of anti-hate’ by their teacher, who wrote, ‘Stop Bombing Babies.’ Brandeis Center

Teachers’ unions might be part of the problem, as administrators are facing pressure from unions to use antisemitic materials in school. “They are afraid to act and get into the crosshairs of some of the bad actors,” the vice chairwoman and general counsel at the Brandeis Center, Rachel Lerman, tells the Sun. “I think they’re hoping that everything will blow over and they won’t have to go up against the unions.”

The next step for Brandeis is litigation against the antisemitic teachings that are becoming increasingly commonplace. “We do want to challenge curricula,” Ms. Lerman says, though that’s typically outside the purview of the Office of Civil Rights. “We are very much looking for ways to do that and have some things in the works.”

The instances of antisemitism, for now, seem inescapable. Lining a Berkeley bus stop where pre-kindergarten students are dropped off after school were graphic images of children at Gaza with their faces blown off. When Ms. Pearlman went to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from school that day, her daughter pointed to a poster of a dead child and asked, “Is that child sleeping?”

“I wasn’t ready to talk about war with my daughter,” Ms. Pearlman says, her tears audible over the phone. The school told her the posters were not on school property, and the city said they were protected by the First Amendment, so Ms. Pearlman took down 40 of the posters herself. “I’ve never pulled down anything political except for this,” she says, but in this case, “I didn’t want anybody else to be traumatized.”

What’s happening at Berkeley and other districts across the country supersedes the war in the Middle East. It’s a matter of parents and their children. “This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about a war,” Ms. Juster asserts. “It’s about the school failing to provide an objective and unbiased education to these innocent, open young minds. It’s about a school district that fosters discrimination based on ethnicity, but only if you’re a Jew.”

The New York Sun

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