Jewish Groups’ Lawsuit Alleges University of California Has Let Campus Anti-Semitism Go Unchecked

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
November 28, 2023US News

A pair of Jewish advocacy organizations are suing the University of California and UC Berkeley in particular, alleging they’ve allowed anti-Semitism and the harassment of Jewish students to go virtually unchecked on their campuses.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal court in San Francisco on Tuesday by the Louis D. Brandeis Center and the related Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education (JAFE). The Brandeis Center is a legal advocacy organization focused on anti-Semitism in K–12 and college and university campuses. The Brandeis Center also serves as the parent organization for JAFE.

The 36-page federal complaint accuses University of California leaders of allowing numerous campus student organizations to discriminate against Jewish students by requiring their members to renounce Zionism and the state of Israel as a condition of participation.

In particular, the lawsuit states that no fewer than 23 student organizations in the UC Berkeley School of Law require members to support the mission of the Israel Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or have imposed organization bylaws that prohibit hosting guest speakers who hold Zionist views.

The plaintiffs contend the policies of these student groups amount to “anti-Zionism,” which the plaintiffs insist is a form of anti-Semitism that is distinct from criticism of the State of Israel or opposition to the policies of the Israeli government.

Zionism is a movement that emerged in the late 19th century that called for the establishment of a Jewish state and has subsequently supported the modern state of Israel in the same land once held in antiquity by the ancient Israelites. Over millennia, this land has seen inward and outward migration, forceful displacements, cultural exchange, and genetic mixtures. The formation of the modern state of Israel in the mid-20th century involved the displacement of Palestinian people who had inhabited the land prior to the Zionist movement and has served as a point of contention between the modern Israeli state and the Palestinian people of the region.

The plaintiffs argue that Zionism is as integral to Jewish identity as religious tenets of Judaism, such as the Sabbath and kosher dietary restrictions.

“Not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish State is integral to their Jewish identity,” the plaintiffs further contend.

The plaintiffs argue the policies of these UC Berkeley student organizations force Jewish students, faculty, and guest speakers to “deny a central part their cultural, ancestral heritage and a fundamental tenet of their faith in order to be eligible for the same opportunities Berkeley accords to others.”

The complaint asserts the University of California is liable for violating the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs argue that the bylaws of student organizations that exclude pro-Zionist speakers also violate the rights of Jewish scholars to contract with those student organizations.

The complaint further contends that because the University of California is federally funded and those funds flow to the student organizations whose bylaws require members to renounce Zionist sentiment, the University of California is violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VI states no organizations receiving federal financial assistance can exclude individual participation on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently warned colleges and universities that Title VI applies to shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, and that these colleges and universities are required to prohibit discrimination against individuals on campus who are “perceived to be” Jewish or Israeli.

The plaintiffs also argue that the student organizations that adopt policies to exclude pro-Zionist sentiments are in violation of the University of California’s policies on nondiscrimination, but that the University of California is failing to enforce these policies. The complaint argues that this failure to enforce the University of California’s nondiscrimination policies has created an environment that is hostile toward Jewish individuals.

The complaint notes that following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, Jewish individuals on University of California campuses have been receiving hate emails containing violent threats, and Jewish students are afraid to attend their classes because doing so would require them to pass by “pro-Hamas” campus rallies. The complaint notes at least one recent incident in which a Jewish student who draped himself in an Israeli flag was attacked by two protesters who struck him in the head with a metal water bottle.

Berkeley Officials Say Lawsuit Conflicts With First Amendment

In an emailed statement to NTD, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the legal claims raised by the Brandeis Center and JAFE are not consistent with UC Berkeley’s efforts to confront antisemitism on campus. He noted a Nov. 3 statement from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, in which she condemned antisemitic expressions and “calls for Israel’s elimination” on campus.

Mr. Mogulof said UC Berkeley is continuously advising students to reach out to the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination if they believe they have been subjected to antisemitic harassment or discrimination or activities hindering their education.

UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky also disputed the legal basis for the complaints raised by the Brandeis Center and JAFE.

“The complaint filed by the Brandeis Center paints a picture of the Law School that is stunningly inaccurate and that ignores the First Amendment. For example, student organizations have the First Amendment right to choose their speakers, including based on their viewpoint,” he said. “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.”

NTD News also reached out to the University of California system for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

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