Jewish groups sue UC Berkeley over spread of anti-Semitism | WORLD
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Jewish groups sue UC Berkeley over spread of anti-Semitism

The lawsuit says the school failed to protect students on campus

A student protest at the University of California, Berkeley on Oct. 16 Associated Press/Photo by Michael Liedtke

Jewish groups sue UC Berkeley over spread of anti-Semitism

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Jewish human rights organizations have reported a spike in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States, especially on university campuses.

Now, two Jewish organizations allege that the University of California, Berkeley, has allowed the “longstanding, unchecked spread of anti-Semitism.” A lawsuit filed last week in federal court cites multiple incidents of intimidation, harassment, and physical violence against Jewish students on campus.

“Court intervention is now needed to protect students and faculty and to end this anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment, which violates university policy, federal civil rights laws, and the U.S. Constitution,” the 37-page lawsuit states.

The complaint is among the first lawsuits against colleges and universities following anti-Israel demonstrations. In November, Jewish students filed a similar suit at New York University.

In California, the Jewish organizations are also suing the university for allowing student groups to discriminate against Jews and supporters of Israel. The suit cites policies enacted by at least 23 groups of law students that exclude from membership or from being guest speakers anyone who identifies as a Zionist or who refuses to disavow Israel. According to the suit, these policies violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and the university’s own policies.

These policies discriminate against an integral part of many Jews’ identities, said Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, one of the organizations that filed the suit.

Many Jews have an affinity and connection to Israel as their homeland and heritage, Lewin said. Jews will often express that believing Israel has a right to be a self-governed state is an expression of what it means to be Jewish.

“It’s that piece of their Jewish identity that they are now being told they have to disavow in order to be accepted on campus, in order to fully engage [in] these spaces on campus,” Lewin said. “This would be akin to suggesting, I think, to a Catholic that they have to disavow the Vatican, or to a Muslim that they have to distance themselves from Mecca. It would never be tolerated.”

The suit also states that Jewish students in UC Berkeley School of Law must complete a “Palestine 101” training program to be allowed to volunteer in opportunities provided through several Berkeley Law Legal Services organizations. The training “emphasizes the illegitimacy of the state of Israel,” the suit said.

Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said in a statement that the suit “paints a picture” that is “stunningly inaccurate.” He added that “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.”

Lewin said the lawsuit also raises concerns about fear Jewish students have felt on campus. Recent demonstrations, including an instance where a Jewish student was hit in the head with a metal water bottle, have made some students feel unsafe to leave their dorms. She said that students have gone to university administration with complaints of discrimination for years with no results.

“What [universities] need to do is recognize, call out, and address the demonization, marginalization, and exclusion of Jews that’s taking place on their campus,” Lewin said. “It’s time for them to demonstrate true leadership and to educate the campus community that demonizing any portion of the campus population is unacceptable.”

However, these claims are inconsistent with students’ First Amendment rights to free speech, Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor in UC Berkeley’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs said in a statement. While the suit lists multiple instances of demonstrations on campus that made Jewish students feel unsafe, Mogulof said these are protected expressions of speech.

Though the demonstrations can be “upsetting and frightening” for Jewish students, the university has offered counseling support and academic accommodations, he said.

“The university has long been committed to confronting anti-Semitism, and to supporting the needs and interests of its Jewish students, faculty, and staff,” Mogulof said. He pointed to the university’s creation of the Chancellor’s Committee on Jewish Student Life in 2015 and the Antisemitism Education Initiative in 2019.

This case could have ramifications for universities across the country, said Brad Jacob, an associate dean and professor at Regent University School of Law. Because of Berkeley’s prominent reputation, the lawsuit could affect how all schools approach anti-Semitism, he said.

Jacob said the case is difficult to sort out. The university is a public institution that is required to protect the free speech rights of all its students. However, it is also obligated to protect the safety of students. The line between these two sides isn’t always intuitively obvious, he said.

“Berkeley is not responsible for the opinions of its students, but it’s responsible for maintaining an environment that students can be free of fear [in],” Jacob said. “I don’t envy a court trying to sort this out and figure out where that line is.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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