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Students sue UCLA over a “Jew Exclusion Zone”

The lawsuit says the campus discriminated on religious grounds

The barricade surrounding the pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus of UCLA, May 1 Getty Images/Photo by Etienne Laurent/AFP

Students sue UCLA over a “Jew Exclusion Zone”

Three Jewish students filed a federal lawsuit against UCLA’s president and leadership on Wednesday. The lawsuit alleges that school leaders allowed a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus to violate students’ constitutional rights by keeping them from accessing all of campus.

Two law students and an undergraduate are asking the court to hold the college accountable for leaders’ failure “to ensure unfettered access to UCLA’s educational opportunities and to protect the Jewish community,” according to the lawsuit. The students filed the 74-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

“UCLA knowingly allowed Jews to be excluded from the heart of its campus,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the students. “The university was aware [the encampment] was all very anti-Semitic. People were chanting things like ‘death to the Jews,’ and yet the university chose to allow those people to have control over who’s allowed to access certain parts of the campus.”

In April and May, protesters set up an encampment at Royce Quad, one of the most-frequented areas on campus, according to the lawsuit, which includes classroom buildings and the main undergraduate library. For about a week, the encampment blocked Jewish students and faculty from going to classes, offices, and the library and subjected them to chants of anti-Semitic language, according to the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit dubbed the encampment area a “Jew Exclusion Zone” that used barriers to physically block people from passing through. To enter the area, a person allegedly had to pledge their commitment to the activists’ views and have someone within the encampment “vouch” for their loyalty, the lawsuit said. Once a person was inside the barriers, the demonstrators then gave them wristbands and “other forms of identification.”

The lawsuit added that in numerous instances, protesters locked arms to prevent people who refused to disavow Israel from entering. It also alleged that UCLA leadership instructed security staff to discourage unapproved students from attempting to enter the parts of campus blocked by the encampment.

The encampment affected each of the plaintiffs in different ways. Eden Shemuelian, a law student, had to detour around the encampment to access the law school’s library when studying for a final exam. Yitzchok Frankel, another law student and father of four, changed his regular routes through campus. Campus security blocked sophomore Joshua Ghayoum, a history major, from accessing the library and other public spaces, according to the lawsuit.

UCLA violated multiple constitutional rights of the students by allowing the encampment, Rienzi said, including the students’ free exercise of religion, which protects them from unequal treatment on the basis of their faith. The university is not allowed to enable the protesters to exclude students from parts of campus because of what they believed, he said.

Rienzi also pointed to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which gives students equal security under the law, and the First Amendment’s free speech rights, which he said should prohibit them from being required to pledge certain views.

The university’s actions violated civil rights laws that go back to the Ku Klux Klan era, Rienzi added.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an order telling UCLA that its actions were illegal and unconstitutional, Rienzi said. “I’m not interested in a statutory win . . . the truth is this behavior is flagrantly unconstitutional and violates federal and civil rights laws. It’s important to win on that ground,” he said.

As of Thursday, UCLA said it had yet to be served the lawsuit, Mary Osako, UCLA vice chancellor for strategic communications said in a statement.

“We will review and respond in due course,” Osako said. “UCLA remains committed to supporting the safety and well-being of the entire Bruin community.”

This isn’t the only lawsuit UCLA faces. In May, then-student Liana Nitka sued the school weeks before her graduation. Nitka alleged her alma mater tolerated “campus terrorists” during the protests, and she said UCLA failed to protect her and other Jewish students.

Other schools are facing encampment-related lawsuits, as well. At the University of California, Davis, a disabled U.S. military veteran who is Jewish sued the school in May for a violation of his First Amendment rights. He alleged that university officials’ failure to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment kept him from expressing his religious beliefs.

In April, an anonymous Jewish student at Columbia University in New York City sued the school, claiming the campus encampment had disrupted the student’s education and failed to provide a safe learning environment.

Columbia settled the lawsuit last Tuesday, with the school promising to provide 24/7 walking escorts and safe entrances to campus. The university also agreed to provide accommodations “for students who were displaced from campus and couldn’t finish exams or other important assignments.”

Rienzi said he hopes a ruling in this latest lawsuit against UCLA shows other schools that they can’t can’t idly let encampments occur.

“They are simply not allowed to say ‘Eh, it’s just Jews.’ And yet, that’s essentially what [UCLA] said this time,” Rienzi said. “We would hope to establish precedent that would make it clear to everybody—what honestly should have been clear to everybody—that you just can’t do that.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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