Jewish groups sue University of California over ‘unchecked’ antisemitism

A pair of Jewish organizations filed suit against the University of California (UC) system, UC Berkeley and school administrators on Tuesday over allegations of a “longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism” at UC Berkeley.

The 37-page suit, filed Tuesday in the Northern District of California by the Louis D. Brandeis Center and the Jewish Americans For Fairness In Education (JAFE), claims antisemitism has been allowed to “take root and grow” at the UC Berkeley School of Law (Berkeley Law) for over a year.

The suit argues intervention is needed, especially in the wake of militant group Hamas’ surprise incursion against Israel last month that killed over 1,200 people and sparked an ongoing conflict in Gaza. In the weeks that followed Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, a surge in antisemitic incidents was reported in several parts of the U.S. and in Europe.

The suit accuses nearly two dozen student organizations at UC Berkeley Law of practicing policies that force Jewish students to go against their Jewish identities in order to participate in such groups.

It points to a handful of the 23 student organizations’ practices, including the Berkeley Law Legal Services organizations, which it says require Jewish students to take a “Palestine 101” training program that “emphasizes the illegitimacy of the State of Israel.” In the Women of Berkeley Law, the Queer Caucus at Berkeley or the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the suit claims the groups require members to agree with their support of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which is focused on “dismantling” the modern state of Israel.

“Under these policies, Jewish students, faculty and guest speakers must deny a central part of their cultural, ancestral heritage and a fundamental tenant of their faith in order to be eligible for the same opportunities Berkeley accords to others,” the suit stated.

Pointing to an “Exclusionary Bylaw” adopted by student organizations that prohibits speakers with Zionist views from addressing them, the plaintiffs claimed the ban is in fact unrelated to that viewpoint, but rather a ban on “Jewish persons.”

The suit argues UC Berkeley’s failure to enforce antidiscriminatory policies to address the “Exclusionary Bylaw” ban on Zionist speakers and the “exclusion and hostility” towards Zionist students violates the Equal Protection and Free Exercise clauses of the U..S. Constitution, along with the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

“Conditioning a Jew’s ability to participate in a student group on his or her renunciation of a core component of Jewish identity is no less pernicious than demanding the renunciation of some other core element of a student’s identity—whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity,” the complaint said.

“While we appreciate the concerns expressed by the Brandeis Center, UC Berkeley believes the claims made in the lawsuit are not consistent with the First Amendment of the Constitution, or the facts of what is actually happening on our campus,” Dan Mogulof, assistance vice chancellor for UC Berkeley told The Hill.

Mogulof claimed the university has been “long committed to confronting” antisemitism and pointed to the school’s “Antisemitism Education Initiative” started in 2019. He added the university has worked with the initiative’s director in the wake of the Hamas attacks and compiled a list of actions the campus is taking to support Jewish students.

The complaint further argued these practices violate the university’s rules for registered groups that prohibit membership restrictions based on race, color, national origin and religion. The suit is asking the court to require the school and other named defendants to enforce their nondiscriminatory policies on an evenhanded basis and take action against the “hostile environment on campus.”

The suit further accuses the school of failing to address antisemitic incidents reported on campus in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. It claims Jewish students have received hate e-mails calling for their gassing and murder, and that some have reported they are afraid to go to class and pass through “pro-Hamas rallies” on their way. In one incident, the complaint said a Jewish student draped in an Israeli flag was attacked by two protestors and hit in the head with a metal water bottle.

Along with the UC school system and Berkeley Law, other defendants named in the suit include UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, UC Berkeley President Michael Drake and Benjamin Hermalin, the executive vice chancellor and provost of UC Berkeley.

Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said the lawsuit “paints a picture of the law school that is stunningly inaccurate and ignores the First Amendment.”

“Student organizations have the First Amendment right to choose their speakers, including based on their viewpoint. Although there is much that the campus can and does do to create an inclusive learning environment, it cannot stop speech even if it is offensive,” Chemerisnky shared in a statement with The Hill.

Several other schools across the U.S. have experienced inflamed tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, with both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests and counter-protests taking place among students. Students testified earlier this month in a House hearing, where some claimed their schools’ diversity programs are not doing enough to speak out against antisemitism.

Updated at 2:15 p.m.

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