A Jewish student holds up an Israeli flag in front of a student holding up a Palestinian flag on the edge of a pro-Israel rally at UC Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/Ben Weiss-Ishai)
A Jewish student holds up an Israeli flag in front of a student holding up a Palestinian flag on the edge of a pro-Israel rally at UC Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/Ben Weiss-Ishai)

UC Berkeley hit with lawsuit alleging it has not done enough to protect Jewish students

A nonprofit legal advocacy organization and a collection of Jewish professors and students sued UC Berkeley this week, alleging the university is violating the U.S. Constitution and a number of laws by failing to protect Jews from discrimination.

Central to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco, is the allegation that the university has not done enough to block multiple student organizations at Berkeley Law from banning outside speakers who support Zionism. The 36-page complaint also alleges a litany of instances of antisemitic harassment and discrimination against Jewish students, professors and others on campus, and accuses university leadership of failing to adequately respond to it.

J. was first to report the ban on Zionist speakers, which was spearheaded by Law Students for Justice in Palestine in August 2022. 

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the university to refuse to allow student groups to “exclude Jews,” a reference to the anti-Zionist bans, and to deny official recognition to any group that does. The nine law school affinity groups that originally supported the bans last summer have since swelled to 23, the complaint states. J. could not independently confirm the figure.

Kenneth Marcus, the lead attorney on the lawsuit, said his nonprofit, the D.C.-based Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, had warned Berkeley administrators publicly on a number of occasions that legal action was likely should the university not punish the student groups that refused to host Zionist speakers. Among them were the Queer Caucus, Women of Berkeley Law and Law Students of African Descent.

No action was taken against those groups, according to the suit. 

The law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, said even though he opposed the bans he could not discipline the students who passed them without violating their constitutional rights. Though the student groups are subject to certain university policies, they are officially independent of the law school. 

Meanwhile, antisemitism on campus has festered, according to the Brandeis Center and the plaintiffs in the suit. 

“We certainly wanted to give the University plenty of time to address the bylaw problem at the time. We gave them numerous opportunities to do that,” Marcus told J. Monday. “The university administration failed to address the problem. Now we’re seeing the foreseeable results, which is the situation has gotten much worse.”

The suit argues that antisemitism has run rampant at the university, particularly since the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7. In the weeks that followed, the Anti-Defamation League recorded a dramatic spike in antisemitic incidents across the country as Israel launched a retaliatory military campaign in Gaza. 

It specifically cites an incident on Oct. 25, when a Jewish undergraduate student holding an Israeli flag was allegedly hit over the head with a metal water bottle during a pro-Palestine rally. A spokesperson for the university told J. the incident is under investigation as a possible hate crime.

The complaint also references Jewish students and faculty who received “hate mail calling for their gassing and murder”; said a UC Berkeley faculty member delivered “an anti-Israel rant for 18 minutes” in front of hundreds of first-year students; mentioned pro-Palestinian protests that blocked traffic and included calls for violence against Jews and for the elimination of the State of Israel; and said Jewish students have reported “feeling afraid to go to class.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Brandeis Center and a group called JAFE, Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education, which is an arm of the Brandeis Center made up of students and professors who say they have been impacted by UC Berkeley’s actions.

Among the members of JAFE are Steven Davidoff Solomon, a Berkeley Law professor of corporate law and finance, who is not named in the court filing but volunteered to be interviewed. Solomon once led the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate, which meets regularly with campus leadership. He resigned from his position, he told J., because he felt “the university has failed to respond to what’s been persistent and deep-rooted anti-Jewish bias and antisemitism.”

Danielle Sobkin, an undergraduate student and co-president of Bears for Israel, and Hannah Schlacter, a second-year MBA student from Chicago, are also members of JAFE.

“Incidents affecting Jewish students were not being treated the same as other incidents affecting other students on campus,” Schlacter told J. “When Jewish students raised our concerns to the university we were not being taken seriously.”

UC Berkeley has for decades served as the site of pitched campus protests, and of outspoken pro-Palestinian activism. To many Jewish students, calls by classmates for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea,” or chants of “intifada, intifada,” for example, can feel threatening. Recently, controversy erupted after a teaching assistant offered extra credit to students if they attended a pro-Palestine protest — an assignment UC Berkeley leadership quickly vetoed, saying it violated university policy.

The school has taken steps in recent years to combat antisemitism. In fall 2019 it helped facilitate the launch of the Antisemitism Education Initiative, which conducts regular trainings with students, staff and administrators on anti-Jewish bias, including when criticism of Israel can bleed into antisemitism.  Leadership of the Initiative also advises the university administration on Jewish issues, and works closely with Berkeley’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. 

Some campus Jewish leadership took issue with the lawsuit’s portrayal of UC Berkeley as a place hostile to Jews.

Ethan Katz, a professor of European Jewish history, is a co-founder of the Antisemitism Education Initiative, directs the Center for Jewish Studies and chairs the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate.

Katz acknowledged he’s encountered problems in the recent past; he told J. last month that calls to “intifada” at campus protests are “very hard to hear.” He also called the administration’s initial statement following the Hamas massacre, which failed to condemn it by name, “very weak.”

Still, he said, Berkeley’s Jewish life and scholarship is renowned, and the administration is making a concerted effort, in his view. Leadership has been receptive to concerns raised by Jewish professors and students.

“We have this very unusual presence of an Antisemitism Education Initiative with our own director for that. We have the largest Israel studies program in the country. We have a thriving campus Hillel and campus Chabad,” he said. 

“Is that always enough in a moment of crisis for every individual student? No, it isn’t,” he said. But the claim that Berkeley has allowed the “longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism,” as the Brandeis Center argues, is “deeply problematic and deeply misleading,” Katz said.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof responded to the lawsuit in an emailed statement to J., saying the university “is committed to taking effective and appropriate action when policies are violated.

“As a public university, Berkeley does not have the legal right to stop demonstrations or expression that many may find toxic,” the statement said. “Hate speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States. Antisemitic speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States.

“However, if students believe that they have been subjected to or witnessed antisemitic harassment or discrimination, or if students believe that expression — whether it be written or chanted — is hindering them from accessing the educational resources of the university, we are urging them to report that immediately to our Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination,” the statement continued. “When that happens, they have been assured the campus will respond.”

The lawsuit is one of a handful of recent complaints the Brandeis Center has filed against American colleges and universities. In the past month, it filed two Title VI discrimination complaints with the Department of Education against the University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College. It also sent a “strong legal warning” to Harvard University. But the filing of a lawsuit against Berkeley — rather than an administrative complaint — reflects the allegations’ weight.

“With a case that is as serious and complex as Berkeley, we think a federal district court would be a more appropriate venue,” Marcus said.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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