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UC Berkeley sued over ‘unchecked spread of antisemitism’ on campus

A Jewish rights organization accuses Berkeley Law of allowing student organizations to exclude Jews who don't endorse their anti-Zionist creed.

(CN) — The Louis D. Brandeis Center filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force the University of California, Berkeley to halt what it claims is a "longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism" on the campus, which has lead to harassment and physical violence directed at Jewish people in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

At the core of the complaint filed in federal court are the policies enacted by student organizations affiliated with the Berkeley School of Law, which require members and guest speakers to disavow "Zionism."

These organizations' purported anti-Zionism, according to the Jewish advocacy group's complaint, amounts to discrimination against those who recognize the Jews' historic connection to the land of Israel, and, insofar as it is distinct from criticism of the state of Israel or opposition to the policies of the Israeli government, is a form of antisemitism.

"In spite of the recognition of anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism, no fewer than 23 Berkeley Law student organizations have enacted policies to discriminate against and exclude Jewish students, faculty, and scholars," the Brandeis Center says in its complaint. "Under these policies, Jewish students, faculty and guest speakers must deny a central part of 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 Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by Hamas, during which about 1,200 people were massacred, and Israel's bombing and invasion of Gaza in response, has prompted massive demonstrations around the world, including on college campuses, and caused a surge in reported antisemitic incidents in many countries.

In Southern California, a 69-year-old Jewish counterprotester was killed in an altercation with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator this month.

And at Berkeley, the Brandeis Center says, Jewish students have been the targets of harassment and physical violence after the Oct. 7 attacks. One Jewish student draped in an Israeli flag was attacked by two protesters who struck him in the head with a metal water bottle, according to the complaint. Jews on campus have been receiving hate emails calling for them to be gassed and murdered, and Jewish students have been afraid to go to class because of the pro-Hamas rallies.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Berkeley Law, wrote in an Oct. 29 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times cited in the lawsuit, that never in his life had he seen or felt the antisemitism of the last few weeks.

"I was stunned when students across the country, including mine, immediately celebrated the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7," Chemerinsky wrote. "Students for Justice in Palestine called the terror attack a “historic win” for the 'Palestinian resistance.'"

The Brandeis Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Jewish people, is joined in the lawsuit by the Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education, an organization of students, alumni and educators that includes a number of Berkeley Law faculty members.

Members of the Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education, who aren't identified by name in the complaint, claim they are excluded from participating in speaking events at the student organizations because it would require them to endorse these organization's anti-Zionism stance.

They fault UC Berkeley's leadership for not taking action against what they say are these organizations discriminatory and antisemitic policies and thereby allowing antisemitism to fester on campus. For its part, the university leaned on the First Amendment in a statement.

"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," the university said. "The university has long been committed to confronting antisemitism, and to supporting the needs and interests of its Jewish students, faculty, and staff."

The university added it doesn't have the legal right to stop demonstrations or expressions that many would consider to be offensive because these are activities that are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

"While censoring that expression is not an option, we do understand how upsetting and frightening some of the demonstrations have been for Jewish students, and the university is responding to their impact," the university said. "We are offering counseling support, arranging academic adjustments for impacted students when possible, and have issued clear statements about the campus’s position."

Chemerinsky said in a statement provided by the university that the picture painted by the Brandeis Center of Berkeley Law is "stunningly inaccurate" and ignored the First Amendment right of student organizations to choose their speakers.

The center accuses UC Berkeley of violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment, and of interference with right to contract based on race and violating the Civil Rights Act.

It seeks an injunction to stop the university from permitting student organizations to exclude Jews, to enforce its nondiscrimination policies so that Jewish members of the community aren't targeted and to take action to end the hostile environment on campus.

The Brandeis Center is represented by Eric George, David Carroll, John Coghlan, and Tara Helfman of Ellis George Cipollone O'Brien LLP.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Regional

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