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Brandeis Center files lawsuit against UC Berkeley for hostile campus environment

UC Berkeley professor: ‘There’s a group of students who feel free to say the nastiest slurs as long as they substitute Zionist for Jew’

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Campanile on the University of California in Berkeley campus

Citing claims of a “longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism” on the University of California, Berkeley’s campus, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a complaint on behalf of Jewish students on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that the campus is a “hotbed of anti-Jewish hostility and harassment,” Jewish Insider has learned.

The lawsuit, which names the University of California (UC) Regents, UC President Michael Drake, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and other officials as defendants, claims that since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel, antisemitism has been exacerbated at the school — citing several on-campus incidents of intimidation, harassment and physical violence against Jewish students.

UC Berkeley Jewish students wrote in the complaint that the school does so little to protect Jewish students, it feels as if the school is condoning antisemitism. They added that officials at the university display a “general disregard” for Jewish students.

“The concerns of Jewish students are not being taken seriously and incidents that are affecting Jewish students are not being treated the same as incidents that would affect another targeted minority on campus,” Hannah Schlacter, an MBA student at the school, told JI. 

The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by JI, details a pro-Palestinian rally following Oct. 7 in which a Jewish undergraduate who was draped in an Israeli flag was attacked by two protesters who struck him in the head with a metal water bottle. 

It further cites that Jewish students and Jewish faculty are receiving hate mail calling for their gassing and murder, and claims that many Jewish students report feeling afraid to go to class. Pro-Palestinian protesters, the suit continues, disrupted a prayer gathering by Jewish students and blocked the main entrance to campus, and a faculty member went on an 18-minute anti-Israel rant in front of roughly 1,000 freshmen in his lecture class. 

“Frankly, I’m not sure why a Jewish student would come to [Berkeley] law school,” UCB professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, who teaches an undergraduate class on antisemitism in the law, told JI. “There’s a group of students who feel free to say the nastiest slurs as long as they substitute Zionist for Jew and they repeatedly do that while the administration refuses to take steps to condemn it, to conduct training, to take measures they would take if it was discrimination against other minorities, and it’s disappointing,” he said, calling the lawsuit a “last resort.” 

UC Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky acknowledged rising antisemitism at the school in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “I am a 70-year-old Jewish man, but never in my life have I seen or felt the antisemitism of the last few weeks.” He noted that, “[t]wo weeks ago, at a town hall, a student told me that what would make her feel safe in the law school would be to ‘get rid of the Zionists.’” He added he had “heard several times that I have been called ‘part of a Zionist conspiracy,’ which echoes antisemitic tropes that have been expressed for centuries.”

Schlacter, who testified about antisemitism on campus to the University of California Board of Regents earlier this month, said, “When we look at the policy in place, it appears the policy is not being enforced for issues affecting Jewish students. When it isn’t enforced for our situation but is for other situations, that to me is discrimination.” 

“Moreover, policy not being enforced sends a message that when there are hate crimes against Jewish students, that is accepted because it will be swept under the rug,” she continued. “We’ve made efforts to speak to the administration and do not feel like we are taken seriously. There’s a disconnect between the asks students are making [and] the actions the administration is taking.”  

After Schlacter and other students met with UC Regents, the board committed $7 million to combating antisemitism and Islamophobia. “Seven million dollars distributed across 10 campuses per year, I’m not sure how far that will go,” she said. “Also, throwing money at the problem is not getting to the root, which is that Jewish students are being treated differently and policies are not being enforced when there’s Jewish students involved.” 

Schlacter said she does not want to see the campus anti-Israel group, Bears for Palestine, named for the school’s mascot, shut down, as several other schools have done with chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. “Disbanding those groups is not a long-term solution,” she said. “The long-term solution is looking at culture across the UC system. Why is there hostility and how do we combat that in the culture? What programs and initiatives can we launch to have a more truly inclusive culture?” 

Schlacter said she would like to see the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office employees be trained on identifying antisemitism.  

UCB Chabad Rabbi Gil Leeds, who is also a UCB alum and has served as the campus Chabad rabbi since 2007, said the antisemitism situation is worse than it’s ever been at the school. “Jewish students assaulted at rallies is a whole new level of hostilities that we haven’t seen,” Leeds said, noting that several students involved with Chabad are from Israel. “Police are scared to get involved because they are worried about greater violence. That shows you what we’re dealing with.” 

Leeds said there has been “tremendous fear and trepidation,” particularly last month when National SJP called for a “Day of Resistance” at campuses nationwide. “Our armed guard that day came prepared with tear gas, everything he thought he would need… the company that we contacted would not agree to send us an unarmed guard, that’s the level of intensity.” 

The lawsuit states that while antisemitism has increased since Oct. 7, it has long been prevalent on campus. It cites a decision last year by nine law school student organizations to amend their constitutions with a bylaw that bans any pro-Israel speaker. The numbers have now swelled to 23 groups, including academic journals that prohibit Zionists from publishing and pro-bono organizations that prevent Jewish students from receiving hands-on legal experience, training, supervision and mentorship. 

The ban denies Jewish law students networking opportunitIes provided to others; deprives them of earning pro-bono hours for state bar requirements; curtails their avenues for developing and improving legal research, writIng, and editIng skills; and limits their choices for obtaining academic credits towards graduatIon, according to the lawsuit, which notes this is all illegal under federal law and university policies.

”The situation at Berkeley has deteriorated to the point that something really needs to be done beyond just raising awareness. We’re facing antisemitism at campuses around the country, but Berkeley is especially bad. Of all places, Berkeley had a number of warnings that they needed to address antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and yet they failed to heed them,” said Kenneth Marcus, the Brandeis Center founder and a Berkeley Law school alum.

While the situation that was highlighted last year focused on the law school, Marcus said “it has certainly spread far beyond that and we have been getting reports throughout the university, including the undergraduate institution.” 

According to the complaint, Berkeley’s acquiescence to these discriminatory policies has helped give antisemitism free reign on campus in violation of the law. “This suit targets the longstanding, unchecked spread of antisemitism at the University of California Berkeley, which, following the October 7 Hamas attacks, has erupted in on-campus displays of hatred, harassment, and physical violence against Jews,” states the complaint. “Court interventIon is now needed to protect students and faculty and to end this anti-Semitc discrimination and harassment, which violates University policy, federal civil rights laws, and the U.S. Constitution.” 

Earlier this month, the Brandeis Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel International and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP launched the Campus Antisemitism Legal Line (CALL), a free legal protection helpline for college students who have experienced antisemitism. 

“After Oct. 7 there’s been a lack of moral leadership but when you look more closely, Jewish students [at Berkeley] have been discriminated against for well over a year,” the ADL’s Central Pacific regional director, Marc Levine, told JI. “It wasn’t just demonstration in support of Hamas’ attacks that this began. Student groups already were actively banning Zionists from participating in their activities.” 

Levine, a former California State assemblymember, called on local politicians to hold the University of California accountable for the “gutless response to antisemitism on campus.”

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