ON FEB. 28, two Jewish civil rights organizations filed a complaint with the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights urging an investigation into the “virulent wave of antisemitism” aimed at Israeli and Jewish students in Berkeley Unified schools. The “bullying and harassment” started after the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas of Israelis and the brutal retaliation by the Israeli army in Gaza.

This week, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League expanded its 41-page complaint, amplifying its request for an investigation, stating that “the already-hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students” has worsened.

“Jew hatred is escalating at an alarming level,” the updated complaint said.

The complaint asserts that the district has “created a hostile environment that leaves Jewish and Israeli students feeling marginalized, attacked, frightened, and alienated to the point where many feel compelled to hide their Jewish or Israeli identity.” It cited the hostile atmosphere at school board meetings where Jewish parents were taunted, including one mother who said her son and other students were called “dirty Jews” and “kikes,” an epithet for a Jew.

“Non-Jewish students are led by their teachers’ example to believe that they can freely denigrate their Jewish and Israeli classmates, telling them, e.g., that ‘it is excellent what Hamas did to Israel’ and ‘you have a big nose because you are a stupid Jew,’” the complaint said.

Berkeley, synonymous with decades of protests, from the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam War through Black Lives Matter protests, is now a flash point of acrimony over how the Palestinian and Israeli conflict is being taught in its schools, including a district-adopted Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that views Israel and Zionists as oppressors.

The resulting antisemitism is also why district Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel was summoned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for questioning at a Republican-led House hearing titled “Confronting Pervasive Antisemitism in K-12 Schools.”

‘A small group of very entitled parents’

Ford Morthel could not be reached for comment this week, but in a recent school board meeting she said she viewed the civil rights complaint as “an opportunity to further examine our practices, procedures and policies and to ensure compliance with federal laws and to make sure that we are truly advancing towards our mission and our values for all of our students.”

She said the district “will fully engage with the Office of Civil Rights to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the allegations presented.”

Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, declined to comment. But in a comment at the April 10 school board meeting, he said, “Never have I seen such personal attacks or the attempt to micromanage our educators.”

“I’m not claiming that teaching controversial topics in a community that has starkly different opinions is an easy task, but our teachers should be able to do this without the threat of a district complaint being outed in the media or threatened in random emails,” he said. “If something is not exactly right, it will be corrected. But the tactic of an attempted wholesale silencing of valid perspectives about a global conflict does not serve the goal of educating our students and preparing them for the wider world.”

In comments during school board meetings, some teachers said parents’ complaints were an effort to squelch discussion of what they described as the Israeli genocide in Gaza. At a recent meeting, Christina Harb, a Palestinian American teacher, said,  “A small group of very entitled parents who are uncomfortable with the reality of what’s happening are trying to conflate the issue of Palestine with the issue of antisemitism, undermining the seriousness of both issues.”

“If something is not exactly right, it will be corrected. But the tactic of an attempted wholesale silencing of valid perspectives about a global conflict does not serve the goal of educating our students and preparing them for the wider world.”

Matt Meyer, Berkeley Federation of Teachers president speaking at April 10 BUSD board meeting

But Ilana Pearlman, an outspoken Jewish parent of two Berkeley Unified students with a child heading for transitional kindergarten, dismissed that criticism, and said that Berkeley children have been the victims of their peers and teachers acting badly. She says she keeps hoping it will end.

“When I’ve spoken at school board meetings, I’ve made a very important distinction to only discuss overt cases of antisemitism. So nobody can come at me with wild accusations of suppressing anti-war voices,” she said. “I’ve stuck to just the bare-bones facts of Jews being called stupid at elementary schools, of another parent of a second grader who told me students are calling Jewish students baby killers.

“What I’m really finding troubling is not only are we not being believed, but there’s this approach of digging heels in further to say that we’re making up bogus lies,” she said. “I want for our kids to be safe, and I want for the classrooms to stop being politicized. And what that looks like is leaders leading and denouncing antisemitism in its tracks as it’s happening.”

Observed incidents of antisemitic behavior

The district has not responded to “scores of complaints” by parents, and neither the school board, which has regularly heard evidence from parents at meetings, nor has Ford Morthel intervened or indicated concern, the complaint said.

With names redacted, the complaint and follow-up cited dozens of instances of antisemitic behavior based on firsthand observations and students’ accounts to their parents.

“In every case and every incident that we listed, there was notification, and sometimes parents begged for help with certain things, and there was either not an adequate response or no response,” said Marci Miller, a California-based attorney with the Brandeis Center.

The complaint details the following:

On Oct. 18, Berkeley teachers promoted an unauthorized walkout of school without parental permission in support of Gaza. Students from Berkeley High chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase that implies the elimination of Jews from Israel. Students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School also walked out. Parents said they heard students say “Kill the Jews”, “F— Israel” and “Kill Israel.” A second walkout occurred on March 20.

A ninth-grade art teacher at Berkeley High showed violent pro-Hamas videos and papered his classroom walls with anti-Israel and antisemitic images, including a fist holding a Palestinian flag pushing through a Star of David. A girl in the class ran from the class “shaking and crying”; her parents complained about the hostile environment. She was transferred to another class, where the teacher began wearing a “Free Palestine” patch on her clothing. After CNN and other media cited the first art teacher in reports on antisemitism in the district, the district put the teacher, identified as Eric Norberg, on paid administrative leave.

“In every case and every incident that we listed, there was notification, and sometimes parents begged for help with certain things, and there was either not an adequate response or no response.”

Marci Miller, a California-based attorney with the Brandeis Center

Right after Oct. 7, a second-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary displayed a large Palestinian flag facing students and teachers walking to school in the classroom window. She had her class write “anti-hate” messages on sticky notes, including “Stop Bombing Babies,” which the teacher posted outside the classroom of the only Jewish teacher in the school, the complaint alleged.

The complaint said that in all cases where Jewish parents complained, the district’s response has been to transfer students to other classes but not to discipline or confront the teacher. Shuttling students between classes to separate them from hostile teachers does not comply with federal civil rights laws, which require training and intervention for the offending teachers and for the larger school community as well.

The complaint said that the district has disregarded its own policy on teaching controversial issues by allowing teachers to impose one-sided views of the Gaza conflict. The district’s rules restrict a teacher from using “his/her position to forward his/her own religious, political, economic or social bias” and require that “all sides of the issue are given a proper hearing, using established facts as primary evidence.”

Jewish parents in Berkeley are also opposing the renewal of a contract for developing an ethnic studies curriculum in partnership with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium. It’s offering a version of ethnic studies that the California School Board rejected and that Gov. Gavin Newsom has criticized

This proposed curriculum, which is under development and has not been publicly released, is scheduled to be taught throughout K-12 starting next fall. In their letter to the school board, the parents called it “a non-inclusive, biased, divisive, and one-sided ideological world view.”

After teachers this year developed lessons on the Israel-Palestine conflict for ninth graders, parent Yossi Fendel sued the district for the lesson plans he charged were denied to him. The lawsuit also claims that the lessons he was allowed to view were biased against Israel and violated the district’s policy on teaching controversial issues, the publication Berkleyside reported.

Details on the hearing

In her appearance Wednesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.), Ford Mortel was joined by officials from the schools in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. The morning session, which began at 7:15 a.m. PDT, is the first time lawmakers have focused on charges of antisemitism in the K-12 schools. 

“Antisemitic incidents have exploded in K-12 schools following Hamas’ horrific October 7 attack. Jewish teachers, students, and faculty have been denied a safe learning environment and forced to contend with antisemitic agitators due to district leaders’ inaction,” Bean said in a news release. “This pervasive and extreme antisemitism in K-12 schools is not only alarming — it is absolutely unacceptable. This hearing will allow Committee members to hold the leaders of the most embattled school districts accountable for their failure to keep Jewish students and teachers safe.”

The Education and Workforce Committee has previously grilled college presidents over their responses to campus antisemitism, leading to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Columbia University’s president recently also faced tough questioning.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.