a low cement wall with the words "University of California, Davis" written on it
A sign on the campus of UC Davis. (Photo/Flickr-Christian Ostrosky CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

New federal complaint accuses UC Davis of failing to protect Jewish students

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A new federal complaint takes aim at UC Davis, accusing the university of failing to respond adequately to a “pervasively hostile” atmosphere for Jewish and Zionist students.

The 29-page complaint, filed Monday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, describes dozens of incidents, ranging from a professor of comparative literature stating that “all Israeli residents are legitimate targets” at an Oct. 18 campus event, to a Jewish student being told she could not work as a party DJ because of her support for Israel, to Jewish students getting “gagged at” while walking on the campus quad.

The complaint was filed by the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice (SCLJ), a partner organization of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit focused on supporting Israel and combating antisemitism.

The complaint alleges that UC Davis is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.” UC Davis administrators have responded to the alleged conduct “with indifference and a failure to enforce any policies to protect Jewish students,” the filing states.

It is only the latest complaint filed with the DOE describing deteriorating conditions at U.S. universities for Jews, Israelis or both since Oct. 7. A large number of campuses, including UC Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UCLA and Brown University, have been similarly accused.

UC Davis already faces a related federal investigation that became public in December.

Still, the new complaint is striking in its breadth, listing repeated expressions of support from pro-Palestinian activists at UC Davis for the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and of Palestinian resistance “by any means necessary.” It also documents discrimination by student groups against anyone whom they perceive as “Zionists,” described in social media posts and at protests as genocidal, as liars, “settlers,” “colonizers” and “racist pigs.”

There have also been recurring protests at which demonstrators call for the elimination of Israel and commit acts of vandalism, according to the complaint.

Gabriel Gaysinsky, a Jewish student activist and elected member of the student senate, described the atmosphere for Jewish students, particularly those known to show even glancing support for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel.

“It’s just mind-boggling. There’s been a huge spike” in incidents since Oct. 7, the UC Davis junior told J. in a recent interview, noting that he and other Jewish students experienced some of that before the outbreak of the current war. “Especially after getting into the public sphere and running for student government, I have been jeered at and harassed. Both online and in person.”

Gaysinsky said that he was “gagged at” by a pro-Palestinian activist when he wore a kippah on campus during a Jewish holiday. According to the complaint, one particularly vocal on-campus activist has a history of “harassing Jewish students on the UC Davis quad — calling them ‘zios’ and making gagging noises in their vicinity.”

In a statement emailed to J. on Tuesday, a UC Davis spokesperson said that the university is “committed to fostering a climate of equity and justice where all can feel welcome and thrive, free of harassment or discrimination.” The statement said university leaders “have been meeting with student leadership and reaching out to student groups to hear their specific concerns” and pointed to the “Addressing Antisemitism” page on its website.

“Free speech is strongly protected by university policy and the First Amendment,” the statement noted. “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.”

SCLJ said the university has not done nearly enough.

The complaint lays out a series of extreme social media posts by activists affiliated with the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a registered student organization, and on its Instagram account.

The complaint states that a repost from UC Davis SJP on Oct. 7 described the terrorist attack targeting civilians that killed 1,200 people in Israel as an “uprising” carried out by “our comrades in blood and arms” and proclaimed that “we indisputably support the Uprising.”

Another screenshot shows a meme reposted by UC Davis SJP stating that “all settlers are complicit even if they are unarmed” and “we come to resist, not to compromise.” On multiple occasions, its social media posts have also claimed that the Oct. 7 attacks were “Israeli propaganda,” according to the complaint. One post calls Zionists “racist pigs.”

On Oct. 10, the filing notes, the UC Davis SJP advised followers for their own safety to avoid “any engagement with zionists or zionist groups” or even “conversations with zionists.”

Antisemitic graffiti is “rampant on campus,” the complaint also alleges, whether “scrawled in pen, painted on buildings or pasted on other surfaces.” The atmosphere has led Jewish students to try to hide elements of their identity for their own safety, the complaint states.

“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,” according to the complaint.

Students perceived to be Zionists have been excluded from campus events, the complaint alleges. Last semester, a Jewish student had been asked to DJ a rugby team party. But “in the aftermath of the October 7 attack, she posted support for Israel on social media as part of her Jewish identity. On or about October 26, the rugby team rescinded the invitation, with words to the effect that they disapproved of her ‘politics.’”

The complaint alleges that a UC Davis housing co-op included in its collective rules that “Any actions of racism … [Z]ionism … will result in removal from the house.”

SCLJ claims that UC Davis “has failed to remediate these issues” — and even when the university has weighed in, it has shown a lack of transparency, exemplified by the case of Jemma Decristo, a faculty member who went viral for an Oct. 10 social media post threatening “Zionist journalists” with violence.

UC Davis Chancellor Gary May called the post “revolting” in an Oct. 19 statement and said it was being investigated. Decristo’s name was removed from the Department of American Studies website. But to date, the university has not revealed publicly whether an investigation has been completed or whether Decristo has faced any consequences.

The campus Hillel responded to the complaint in a statement Monday, saying that little progress had been made on addressing the campus climate.

“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,” Hillel board president Barry Klein said in the statement. “We hope that this complaint will lead to the administration taking more effective actions to address these issues.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.