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Berkeley schools chief will testify at congressional hearing over antisemitism charges

As fallout over the Israel-Hamas war grows, the head of the embattled Berkeley public school district is being summoned to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of congressional members amid allegations of antisemitism in her schools.

Berkeley Unified Supt. Enikia Ford Morthel said Monday that she would travel to the nation’s capital for a May 8 hearing to field elected officials’ questions in the latest chapter of congressional inquiries into campus antisemitism that previously contributed to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The hearing in the House Education and Workforce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), comes as the district of 9,100 students battles accusations that it has become an unwelcome place for Jews since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza.

In March, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League filed a federal complaint with the Department of Education over “severe and persistent” harassment and discrimination against Jewish kids enrolled in Berkeley schools. It said school leaders “knowingly allowed” a “viciously hostile” anti-Jewish environment.

The center, which is run by a former Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights under President Trump, has lodged similar complaints against multiple higher education institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College. It also sued the University of California and UC Berkeley officials in the fall over allegations of campus antisemitism.

Last week, a Jewish parent in the Berkeley district, Yossi Fendel, also sued the district, saying it failed to adequately respond to his requests to release ninth-grade teaching materials about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That lawsuit was filed with the Deborah Project, a legal group that focuses on antisemitism in schools.

The Brandeis center and the Deborah Project did not reply to requests seeking comment.

Pro-Palestinian parents in the district, including a Jewish group called Berkeley Unified School District Jewish Parents for Collective Liberation, have said that people making complaints conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. As a result, they have widely labeled pro-Palestinian activity, such as lessons on Israelis and Palestinians and student protests, as anti-Jewish, according to the pro-Palestinian parents.

Morthel will be joined at the hearing by New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks and the board of education president of Montgomery County, Maryland, Karla Silvestre. The school districts, which are among the largest in the U.S., have also seen intense activism over the Israel-Hamas war and reports of anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab incidents.

A spokeswoman for Berkeley schools said that Morthel, who previously worked in schools in San Francisco and Hayward, “did not seek this invitation.”

“As our superintendent has shared many times, Berkeley Unified celebrates our diversity and stands against all forms of hate and othering, including antisemitism and Islamophobia,” the spokeswoman, Trish McDermott, said in a statement.

“We strive every day to ensure that our classrooms are respectful, humanizing, and joyful places for all our students, where they are welcomed, seen, valued, and heard. We will continue to center our students and take care of each other during this time.”

The Berkeley Unified School District Jewish Parents for Collective Liberation, which includes about 60 parents, said Monday that the May hearing is “part of the MAGA Republican war on education.”

“Jewish children are safe and thriving in Berkeley’s diverse schools,” the statement said. “As Jewish Berkeley parents, we reject the notion that there is rampant antisemitism in our schools; it is simply not true. A handful of parents have painted a false picture of our city in the national media, fueling the national right-wing attack on education.”

“These congressional hearings are not about Jewish students’ well-being,” the group continued. “This is part of the MAGA Republican war on education that is restricting public school students’ right to learn.”

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