The Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Tristan Harward via Wikimedia Commons)
The Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Tristan Harward via Wikimedia Commons)

Department of Education to investigate UC Berkeley amid law school Zionism controversy

The federal government will be looking into whether UC Berkeley met its responsibility to protect the civil rights of Jewish students, faculty and staff after some affinity groups at the law school pledged to bar outside speakers who support Zionism.

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) advised two pro-Israel lawyers who filed a complaint against the university last month that their complaint had been received, and that the office would investigate their allegation — that Berkeley ran afoul of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by not responding adequately when nine affinity groups pledged, at the urging of a campus pro-Palestinian group, not to invite pro-Israel speakers.

The pledge came in a bylaw written by Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, also an affinity group. It says student organizations that adopt it agree not to invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views … in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” Since August, at least five more student groups have adopted the measure, according to an Oct. 14 report in Jewish Currents, bringing the total to 14.

Student affinity groups, formed around a shared identity or interest, are recognized by the law school but are optional to join. Among those to approve the bylaw were the Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the Queer Caucus and Women of Berkeley Law.

Members of the Jewish Student Association at Berkeley Law spoke out sharply against the measure, saying it made some Jewish students feel they were no longer welcome in those groups.

The OCR notice made no claim as to the merits of the complaint, only informed the lawyers, Gabriel Groisman and Arsen Ostrovsky, that the office would be looking into the matter.

We initiated this claim because we said ‘enough is enough’ and decided that we must stand up for the Jewish students at UC Berkeley

Specifically, OCR will be looking into “whether the University failed to respond appropriately in the fall 2022 semester to notice from Jewish law students, faculty, and staff that they experienced a hostile environment at the law school based on their shared Jewish ancestry.”

The development marks the latest claim in a series made recently against American universities charging hostility toward Jewish students tied to their support for Israel; the complaints, including against the University of Vermont, SUNY New Paltz and NYU, are usually filed with help from activist groups such as the Louis D. Brandeis Center.

The Brandeis Center, a nonprofit formed “to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people,” was founded by Kenneth Marcus, a Berkeley Law graduate who thrust himself into the middle of the controversy with an op-ed published in the Jewish Journal on Sept. 28 with the provocative title “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones.” Marcus served as secretary of education for civil rights under President Trump and helped craft the controversial 2019 executive order on antisemitism that critics said could impinge on legitimate criticism of Israel.

And yet it was not Marcus and the Brandeis Center who filed the current complaint against Berkeley, but rather two lawyers on opposite ends of the globe; Groisman, a South Florida attorney, is a former small-town mayor of Bal Harbour who once spearheaded anti-BDS measures there, and Ostrovsky is the CEO of the International Legal Forum, a Tel Aviv-based NGO that fights “legal battles against terror, antisemitism and the de-legitimization of Israel.”

“We initiated this claim because we said ‘enough is enough’ and decided that we must stand up for the Jewish students at UC Berkeley, who have been facing an unprecedent[ed] wave of discrimination and antisemitism on campus,” the attorneys said in a joint statement Thursday. “We applaud the OCR for making the principled decision to launch a formal investigation.”

Channeling complaints through the Office of Civil Rights is not a new tactic by legal advocates challenging the treatment of Jewish students. In 2005, the Zionist Organization of America filed a similar complaint against UC Irvine, alleging Jewish students who wore T-shirts with Stars of David or pro-Israel messages were insulted and threatened, and that the university did not do enough to address the problem.

Erwin Chemerinsky
Erwin Chemerinsky

Administrators at Berkeley, including law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, have criticized the anti-Zionist bylaw; Chemerinsky called it “very troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed.” Yet both he and Chancellor Carol Christ have continued to maintain students’ free speech rights and have resisted calls by pro-Israel groups to sanction the affinity groups.

In a statement, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley said it had been made aware of the inquiry and that it would fully cooperate.

“The campus has in place strong anti-discrimination policies that support our belief in and compliance with what we understand to be the values and obligations enshrined in Title VI and the First Amendment,” the statement said.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.