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Dive Brief:

  • Two Jewish groups are suing the University of California system and its Berkeley campus, alleging they’ve allowed a “longstanding, unchecked spread of anti-Semitism,” according to federal court documents filed Tuesday.
  • The Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights nonprofit, alleged that at least 23 student groups at the UC Berkeley School of Law are excluding Jewish students, faculty and academics by requiring them to disavow Zionism.
  • Campus leaders have intentionally not enforced the university’s antidiscrimination policies in an evenhanded way, the lawsuit says. It alleged the student groups’ rules violate civil rights laws, the U.S. Constitution and UC-Berkeley’s own policies.

Dive Insight:

The lawsuit comes almost two months after Hamas, a militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The strike killed roughly 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government

In response, Israel declared war, and as of Nov. 23, at least 13,000 people in Gaza have been killed, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said. 

Colleges have become a lightning rod for disputes over the war, as they often do in times of political upheaval. Tensions are flaring as student protesters face off against one another, and campuses across the country have seen a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks.

In response to the attacks, the Brandeis Center launched a sister organization, Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education, with the goal of filing lawsuits meant “to protect Jews from harassment and discrimination.” JAFE is a plaintiff in Tuesday’s lawsuit.

The two groups allege Jewish people have been denied the right to compete for opportunities on UC-Berkeley’s campus because of policies they describe as anti-Zionist. 

For example, students must complete a “Palestine 101” training program to volunteer through several Berkeley Law Legal Services organizations, the lawsuit said. The training “emphasizes the illegitimacy of the State of Israel,” it alleged.

While forms of Zionism vary, the lawsuit cites the Anti-Defamation League’s definition: “The movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.”

The lawsuit describes Zionism as “an integral component” of Jewish identity. It also argues anti-Zionism differs from criticism of Israel or its government.  

“Imagine, in this day and age, asking members of the LGBTQ community to remain ‘in the closet’ as a condition of membership in an authorized student group,” the lawsuit said. “No such imposition is required — or would be remotely tolerated — of other students, who remain free to participate fully in student organizations without disavowing or hiding any part of their identities.”

The lawsuit also names as defendants the heads of the University of California system and the Berkeley campus, as well as the system’s board of regents and other officials.

The latest Israel-Hamas war is roiling other college campuses. 

High-profile donors have cut ties with colleges over their responses to the war. In Florida, conservative leaders attempted to ban chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine from the state’s public universities, depicting them as Hamas sympathizers. The system’s leader walked back the pressure campaign over legal concerns, but it is still facing a federal lawsuit from a SJP chapter. 

At least two high-profile private institutions — Columbia University and Brandeis University, which shares its namesake with the Brandeis Center — have suspended or banned their campus chapters of SJP.