Complaint from Israeli lawfare group prompts investigation over student group challenging Zionism
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has announced that it’s launched a probe into the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. According to an email obtained by Jewish Insider the investigation will determine whether the school acted appropriately in response to a complaint “from Jewish law students, faculty and staff that they experienced a hostile environment at the law school based on their shared Jewish ancestry.”
This past summer, the campus group Law Students for Justice in Palestine developed a bylaw in support of Palestine, which called on other student organizations to refrain from inviting Zionists speakers to the school or holding events “in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” Nine groups immediately signed onto the pledge.
Pro-Israel groups push phony narrative
The effort was immediately mischaracterized by pro-Israel groups across social media and even mainstream outlets. Kenneth Marcus, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights chairman and assistant secretary for civil rights under former president Donald Trump, published an Op-Ed in Jewish Journal op-ed made the spurious claim that Berkeley Law was establishing “Jewish free zones.” He also asserted that anti-Zionism of any kind is antisemitic.
“Anti-Zionism is flatly antisemitic,” reads the article. “Using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick. Like other forms of Judeophobia, it is an ideology of hate, treating Israel as the ‘collective Jew’ and smearing the Jewish state with defamations similar to those used for centuries to vilify individual Jews.”
The “Jewish free zones” lie also found a home in Newsweek, where Toronto-based writer Laura Rosen Cohen inexplicably claimed that they are becoming a “new progressive trend.” Cohen warns of a “civilizational decline” if Palestine campus activism continues.
“Is it any surprise that law students think it’s ok to bar Jewish speakers when a member of Congress feels comfortable doing the same thing for the progressive movement writ large?,” reads that article. “This isn’t something progressives are ashamed of, but something they are proud of. Which is why society more broadly must firmly reject this discrimination when it comes for Jews.”
The phony narrative was even embraced by some liberal celebrities on Twitter. Singer and actress Barbra Streisand tweeted the Marcus op-ed with the caption, “When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad anti-Semitism?” Comedian Sarah Silverman shared it and wrote, “9 student law groups from UC BERKELEY Ban any Jews who believe Israel should be able to exist. Even those (MOST JEWS) who are against occupation and who fight for a two state solution. This is just the beginning. PLEASE help fight anti-Jewish racism.”
In August, Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky sent an email to student leaders expressing concern about the bylaw and pointing out that he was a supporter of Israel, but he dismissed the allegations of “Jewish-free zones” as ridiculous.
“The Law School’s rules are clear that no speaker can be excluded for being Jewish or for holding particular views,” wrote Chemerinsky in The Daily Beast. “I know of no instance where this has been violated..Ironically, most students and faculty in the Law School were unaware of this controversy or paid little attention to it. After the first couple of weeks of the semester, it was virtually never mentioned. But some media outlets have brought it worldwide attention.”
In October, over two dozen pro-Israel groups (including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, and Christians United for Israel) wrote a statement calling for the school to be sanctioned. “Jewish faith and identity for millennia have been anchored by the desire to restore sovereignty in our indigenous homeland, the core idea of Zionism,” it reads. “Like observing Shabbat and kosher dietary laws, Zionism is vital to the consciousness of many, if not most, Jews.”
International Legal Forum
The Department of Education’s investigation comes in response to a complaint filed by pro-Israel, right-wing lawyer Gabriel Groisman and International Legal Forum CEO Arsen Ostrovsky. The International Legal Forum is an anti-BDS group based in Tel Aviv and funded by the Israeli government.
“We said we’d act, and we did!” tweeted Ostrovsky. “Now the Office for Civil Rights has launched investigation against UC Berkeley Law School, in response to our claim against them for antisemitism, over exclusion of Zionist speakers! We will not stand idly by as Jewish students are being attacked.”
Days before the investigation was announced, Palestine Legal posted a Twitter thread detailing the situation. “The complaint is wrong on both the law and the facts,” it reads. “It claims to represent the interests of Jewish students, but the lawyers who filed the complaint have no apparent ties to the UC Berkeley community. So what do they want?”
“They want UC Berkeley to take valuable resources away from educating students and instead do PR for the right-wing Israeli line: teaching that Zionism is integral to Jewish identity,” it continues. “They want a *government entity* to dictate what is and isn’t a *legitimate Jewish belief*”
In Electronic Intifada, Nora Barrows-Friedman points out that Palestine Legal filed a complaint against Florida State nearly two years ago for allegedly fostering anti-Palestinian racism against its client Ahmad Daraldik. “There is no reason it should take  months,” Palestine Legal senior attorney Radhika Sainath told Barrows-Friedman. “If there’s nothing there, then they should dismiss it. But we have 22 pages of facts, maybe more, talking about the anti-Palestinian, hostile environment that Ahmad faced. [The complaint] is now stuck in purgatory.”
Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Appeal, and Truthout. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.