University of California, Berkeley sued by major civil rights group over ‘unchecked spread of antisemitism’

Preceding the massacre of Oct. 7th and even more so after, instances of hate speech, threats, exclusion, and even assault have been prevalent on campus with Jewish students fearful for their safety.

By Dion J. Pierre, The Algemeiner

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has filed a lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley for allegedly failing to address surging antisemitic hatred on campus, arguing the school has allowed a hostile environment to fester and neglected to stop campus groups from requiring Jewish students and faculty to denounce Zionism.

“This suit targets the longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism at the University of California Berkeley, which, following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, has erupted in on-campus displays of hatred, harassment, and physical violence against Jews,” said the complaint filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday. “Court intervention is now needed to protect students and faculty and to end this antisemitic discrimination and harassment, which violates university policy, federal civil rights law, and the US Constitution.”

The complaint, obtained by The Algemeiner, argued that anti-Jewish discrimination was prevalent on campus long before Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel last month.

“For over a year, student organizations at Berkeley Law have been enacting and enforcing policies that confront Jews with an unthinkable unlawful ultimatum: Disavow an integral component of your Jewish identity — Zionism — or be denied the same rights and opportunities enjoyed by other members of the campus community,” the document read.

The lawsuit, which requested from the court an injunction on excluding Zionists from student clubs and faculty groups, also named as defendants the regents and other leaders of the University of California, as well as Berkeley Law School.

The complaint provided several examples of antisemitic harassment and exclusion on campus, including a bylaw banning Zionists speakers that 23 Berkeley Law groups adopted in Sept. 2021, campus groups Women of Berkeley Law and the Queer Caucus requiring support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel to join its ranks, and the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law, and Justice banning Zionists from submitting articles and speaking at its events.

The campus environment worsened after Hamas’ Oct. 7 onslaught across southern Israel, in which the Palestinian terror group murdered over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 others as hostages to Gaza, according to the complaint. Indeed, the suit alleged that hate mail and death threats have been sent to Jewish students, that Jewish students have opted not to attend class because walking through campus risked encountering angry pro-Palestinian supporters, and that an anti-Israel demonstrator bashed a Jewish student draped in an Israeli flag over the head with a metal water bottle.

“On campus, you have students out in the open being attacked, and the university won’t call it a hate crime. That’s a problem,” Hannah Schlacter, a second-year student at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, told The Algemeiner. “There’s a policy in place for how to handle a hate crime, and the [University of California Police Department] did not follow it, and when the student asked why, my understanding is that they didn’t follow the policy in place; they just made up different excuses.”

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Schlacter added that Jewish students were victims of a double standard, being the only minorities not protected from discrimination by the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

“A big reason I feel anger and disappointment is the realization that the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that I thought I would be included in don’t apply to me,” she continued. “This is so much bigger than just the Berkeley campus.”

Brandeis Center founder and chairman Kenneth Marcus, who graduated from Berkeley Law, told The Algemeiner that conditions at the school required a legal remedy.

“The situation has only deteriorated over the past year, as well as spreading to other parts of the university. And since Oct. 7, it has gotten so bad that it became clear that we couldn’t wait any longer before taking legal action,” Marcus explained. “There has been actual physical assault and a very seriously escalated problem on campus. Many other campuses have problems too, but Berkeley is unusual in that it had such a challenging situation even before Oct. 7, as well as a history of administrators declining to take appropriate action, which has made the situation worse.”

On Tuesday, a UC Berkeley spokesperson denied the Brandeis Center’s allegations, saying that the school has “long been committed to confronting antisemitism, and to supporting the needs and interests of its Jewish students, faculty, and staff.” The spokesperson cited as evidence the school’s establishment in 2019 of a “groundbreaking” Antisemitism Education Initiative.

Additionally, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky shared a statement with The Algemeiner defending the school.

“Berkeley Law is dedicated and works hard at being a conducive learning environment for our Jewish students and all of our students,” Chemerinsky said. “The complaint filed by the Brandeis Center paints a picture of the Law School that is stunningly inaccurate and ignores the First Amendment. For example, 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.”

The school did not address its handling of the alleged assault on a Jewish student.

The Brandeis Center argued in its complaint, as it has successfully argued in the past, that forcing Jews to denounce Zionism and excluding Zionists from campus activities is not protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

“Anti-Zionism is discrimination against those who recognize the Jews’ ancestral heritage — in particular the Jews’ historic connection to the land of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland — as key components of their Jewish identity,” the complaint argued. “The United States, along with at least forty-two other nations, has recognized that demonizing, delegitimizing, and applying a double standard to Israel — all forms of anti-Zionism that are distinct from criticism of the State of Israel or opposition to the policies of the Israeli government — are forms of antisemitism.