Lawsuit accuses UC Berkeley Law School of ‘unchecked spread of anti-Semitism’

A Zionist organization sued the University of California on Tuesday, accusing the UC Berkeley Law School of promoting anti-Semitism and discriminating against Jews by allowing student groups to bar Zionists as speakers at their meetings.

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“Zionism is an integral component of Jewish identity,” attorneys for the Louis D. Brandeis Foundation said in a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco. “Anti-Zionism is discrimination against those who recognize the Jews’ ancestral heritage — in particular the Jews’ historic connection to the land of Israel.”

The suit says it “targets the longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism at the University of California Berkeley.”

They cited a policy announced in August 2022 by Law Students for Justice in Palestine and now followed, according to the suit, by 23 of the 100 organizations in the 1,100-student law school. Saying Zionism is used to justify the displacement and oppression of Palestinians, the groups have adopted bylaws saying they would not invite pro-Zionist speakers, who describe Israel as a Jewish state.

The lawsuit said the climate on campus has become more hostile since the Oct. 7 assault on Israel by military forces from Hamas, which rules Gaza, followed by weeks of attacks by Israel’s military on Gaza and the West Bank.

“A Jewish student draped in an Israeli flag was attacked by two protesters who struck him in the head with a metal water bottle,” Brandeis lawyers said. “Jews on campus have been receiving hate emails calling for their gassing and murder. And Jewish students have reported being afraid to go to class, which would require them to pass through the pro-Hamas rallies taking place in Berkeley’s main thoroughfares.”

The lawsuit asked a federal judge to prohibit the university from funding or recognizing “any student organization that excludes Jews.” But the student groups say they do not exclude Jews or Zionists, only pro-Zionist speakers. And UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Tuesday the university “has long been committed to confronting antisemitism, and to supporting the needs and interests of its Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”

He cited UC Berkeley’s establishment last year of an Antisemitism Education Initiative, the first of its kind by a major university, with workshops and lectures on Zionism and discrimination against Jews. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a message to students Nov. 3 that hateful speech and actions against either Jews or Palestinians “has no place on our campus or in our discourse.”

Christ also said she condemns “the harassment, threats, and doxxing that have targeted our Palestinian students and their supporters,” as well as the “alarming increase in antisemitic expression in our country, in general, and on our college campuses, in particular.”

UC President Michael Drake announced last week that the university was establishing an office to combat discrimination and would provide training against both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

But Steven Solomon, a UC Berkeley law professor and a plaintiff in the suit, said Jewish students at the school are not being protected. 

“The students are cowed, they’re fearful, harassed. Some of them are not attending class,” Solomon told the Chronicle Tuesday. “They’re dehumanized in ways that would not be tolerated for any other group on campus.”

In a column published by the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 16, Solomon described the student groups that rejected Zionist speakers as antisemitic and urged law firms not to hire any of his students who agreed with the groups.

The law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, has said he disagrees with the student organizations’ exclusion of Zionist speakers — a policy, he told the groups, that might bar him from speaking because he supports “the existence of Israel.” But he has also said they have a right to invite only speakers who agree with their views.

The new lawsuit, with its attacks on the policies and climate at the school, “describes a place that doesn’t exist” and gives short shrift to the students’ constitutional right of free speech, Chemerinsky said Tuesday.

The student groups’ rejection of pro-Zionist speakers was challenged last November in a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by two lawyers, who said in their complaint that the groups’ policies were “contributing to the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty and staff.” 

In response to that complaint, Zoha Khalili, an attorney at Palestine Legal, said the student groups “care about human rights” and have a legal and moral right to boycott Zionist speakers.

Chemerinsky said the law school filed its response to the complaint early this year. He said the Department of Education notified a number of law schools this month that their policies were being investigated and that UC Berkeley was not on the list.

But in Tuesday’s lawsuit, the Brandeis Foundation said that in order to join or meet with groups at the Berkeley law school, “Jewish students, faculty, and guest speakers must deny a central part of their cultural, ancestral heritage and a fundamental tenet of their faith.”

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

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