Professor’s lawsuit says antisemitism is ‘entrenched’ at California College of the Arts

BY ANDREW ESENSTEN | J Weekly I JUNE 11, 2024

Jewish students and faculty at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco have faced pervasive antisemitism on campus since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, according to a lawsuit filed against the school in U.S. District Court on June 6.

In the complaint, art history professor Karen Fiss alleges that CCA has become a “political battleground” where the only acceptable narrative is that Israel is “genocidal and illegitimate.” Jewish students and faculty who challenge that narrative are subjected to harassment, social ostracism and disciplinary action in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the lawsuit.

“This entrenched bias not only violates fundamental principles of equality and academic freedom but also perpetuates a climate of fear and exclusion for Jewish members of the community,” the suit states. “By promoting a singular political narrative and vehemently delegitimizing all pro-Israel perspectives, CCA actively contributes to the propagation of antisemitic attitudes and stereotypes.”

Fiss, a CCA faculty member since 2013, also alleges in the suit that the school violated her Title VII rights as an employee by discriminating against her on the basis of her Jewish ancestry.

The suit states that CCA formally disciplined her after an encounter she had on campus with a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. On Oct. 26, Fiss came across an SJP table with a display that she found troubling because it included the phrase “from the river to the sea” and a map of Israel with the colors of the Palestinian flag covering the entire country. She asked one of the students at the table about her background and, upon learning she was from Kuwait, informed the student that Kuwait expelled thousands of Palestinians in 1991. Fiss also took a photo of the student and two other SJP members in front of the display after receiving their consent.

The student filed a complaint against Fiss, claiming harassment, and CCA mandated that Fiss delete the photo and participate in a series of trainings, including about diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Dr. Fiss was punished for doing her job simply and only because Dr. Fiss is a Jew committed to the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish State,” the suit states.

Fiss is seeking damages along with injunctions against CCA, including that the school takes action to “end the hostile environment for Jews on campus” and provide antisemitism education.

CCA, a private institution that receives federal funding, has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. A spokesperson said the school cannot comment on pending litigation.

Fiss is being represented by the Deborah Project, a firm that specializes in defending the rights of Jews and Israel supporters in educational settings. She is currently leading a study abroad trip for CCA students in Europe and declined an interview request. However, she told J. she is planning to teach at CCA again in the fall.

According to her suit, multiple Jewish students confided in her about antisemitic experiences they had on campus. One student dropped a class after an unnamed professor expressed “antisemitic ideology.” The student did not feel comfortable discussing her concerns about the professor with the chair of her program because the chair was posting anti-Zionist messages on his personal Instagram account. (The professor was not disciplined, the suit states.)

Another Jewish student shared with Fiss that her professor and other students tried to coerce her into participating in a walkout over the war and that she was “shut down” when she tried to offer her viewpoint. Fiss relayed this information to CCA leadership but did not receive a response, the suit states.

Fiss was one of two Jewish professors at CCA who filed a complaint with administrators about an Oct. 11 Instagram post by the Critical Ethnic Studies program that appeared to justify the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre of 1,200 people in Israel. The post, which included a photo of a pro-Palestinian protest and a sign reading “Decolonization Is Not a Dinner Party,” was “liked” by several CCA deans and other faculty members.

“Through this Instagram post and its endorsement by CCA leadership, the California College of the Arts effectively took the official position that Hamas’ actions were legitimate and that the mutilation, murder, and rape of Israelis on October 7 was the fault of the Israelis who were raped and murdered,” the suit states.

In December, Jonathan Wornick threatened to revoke his family’s seven-figure bequest to CCA unless the school apologized for the post, disciplined those responsible for it and allowed a third party to review CCA’s ethnic studies curriculum for antisemitism. CCA conducted an investigation and determined that the post did not violate its policies, though it was taken down during the investigation and was not reposted.

“The Fiss case along with our family’s is part of a national movement pushing back on the tide of what has become an intolerable environment for Jews on campus,” Wornick said in an email to J.

https://jweekly.com/2024/06/11/professors-lawsuit-says-antisemitism-is-entrenched-at-california-college-of-the-arts/

 

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