A former Jewish student at UC Berkeley has filed a lawsuit against the university contending it violated her civil rights when it did not protect her against attacks from a pro-Palestinian student.
Jessica Felber filed the lawsuit in the Northern District Court on March 4, almost one year to the day Husam Zakharia, the head of Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine, allegedly rammed her with a shopping cart filled with toys, according to the suit.
Felber, then 20, was a member of the pro-Israel Tikvah group, which had often clashed on campus with Students for Justice in Palestine. Felber was holding a sign stating “Israel Wants Peace,” on March 5, 2010 as part of an event for Israel Peace Week. The rally had been called to counteract rallies held on behalf of Israel Apartheid Week.
The lawsuit contends that the University of California financially supported Students for Justice in Palestine and an affiliate group, The Muslim Student Association, but tolerated its attacks on Jewish students expressing support for Israel.
“SJP and Zakharia have been involved in other incidents on campus to incite violence against and intimidate Jewish and other students,” states the lawsuit. “Defendants knew of this history of incitment and intimidation yet took no reasonable step to adequately control Zakharia or other student members of the SPJ.”
UC Berkeley intends to vigorously fight the lawsuit, said Dan Mogulof, the university spokesman. “UC Berkeley is committed to maintaining an inclusive and respectful campus environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone, without regard to religion, race, ethnicity or ideology,” he said in a statement. “The University is also committed to enforcing the law and protecting the rights of free expression for every single member of the campus community. On legal and factual grounds we completely reject the complaint’s unfounded claims and allegations, and we intend to very vigorously contest this lawsuit.”
A call to the political action committee of the Muslim Student Association had not been returned by press time.
The complaint also contends that “physical intimidation and violence were frequently employed as a tactic by SJP and other campus groups in an effort to silence students on campus who support Israel”.
The university has tolerated “the growing cancer of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses” that violates the rights of Jewish and other students “to enjoy a peaceful campus environment free from threats and intimidation.”
“Berkeley is the founding space of the Free Speech Movement,” said Joel Siegel, the San Francisco attorney for Felber. “It’s about free speech. People shouldn’t be allowed to stifle speech through actions which endanger students. That’s what’s happening.”
The suit calls for damages and a jury trial.
Zakharia was arrested on suspicion of battery after the March 5, 2010, incident, according to the Daily Californian. Felber eventually got a restraining order against Zakharia.
The question of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians is a contentious one on campus. There have been numerous clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups in recent years, as well as arguments over calling for divestment in Israel.
UPDATE 2:45 pm: Dan Mogulof’s comments were updated.