Has an Israel lawfare group declared open season on US students?

Cars are parked next to a tall building

An Israeli lawfare group filed a complaint with the US Department of Education against UC Berkeley. (Coolcaesar)

An Israel-based group has filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the University of California, Berkeley over a recent pledge by law students to not host speakers who support Israeli apartheid.

The International Legal Forum, headquartered in Tel Aviv, is funded by and works for the Israeli government to target the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

The lawfare group claims that Jewish students have been “discriminated against” at the law school, and that the US government should investigate allegations of “deep-seated anti-Semitism” under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace has argued that the complaint is “a clear escalation” in efforts to weaponize a favorite Israel lobby tactic: alleging that critics of Israel and its state ideology Zionism are anti-Semitic.

“It is also, as far as I can tell, the first time an Israeli NGO [non-governmental organization] has openly taken a role in attacking US academia,” Friedman tweeted.

Even though a major Israel advocacy group admitted that these anti-Semitism allegations are bogus, and that Jewish law students are not facing any bigotry from supporters of Palestinian rights, the university administration has allowed Israel lobby groups to smear, harass and doxx the students.

Anti-BDS lobbyists

It has long been a tactic of Israel lobby groups to file complaints with the Department of Education alleging that universities fail to protect Jewish students by allowing Palestinian rights activity to take place.

The filing practice was pioneered by Kenneth Marcus, a pro-Israel activist and former head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, an Israel lobby group.

Marcus was appointed by the Trump administration to lead the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education and put in charge of adjudicating the type of complaints he had helped pro-Israel advocates craft.

Marcus resigned from the Department of Education in 2020 after it was revealed that he gave the Zionist Organization of America special treatment in reopening a complaint against Rutgers University.

Since the anti-racism pledge went public in August, Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine has faced countless threats and attacks from local, national and international Zionist advocacy groups which have attempted to portray the students as calling for a ban on Jews.

The spurious allegations were amplified by Marcus when he alleged that the UC Berkeley law students were bringing back “Jewish-free zones” and claimed that anti-Zionism “is flatly anti-Semitic.”

The International Legal Forum’s CEO, Arsen Ostrovsky, an Israel-based lobbyist, filed the complaint to the Office for Civil Rights along with Florida attorney Gabriel Groisman.

Groisman is a longtime anti-BDS political figure and is a supporter of Florida’s hardline, right-wing governor Ron DeSantis.

While mayor of Bal Harbour, Florida, Groisman passed anti-BDS ordinances in 2015. He subsequently ushered in legislation under which criticism of Israel’s institutionalized racism is treated as anti-Semitism.

Civil rights experts are pushing back against the International Legal Forum and the implications in its complaint that Jewish students are being harmed by the anti-Zionism pledge.

The Palestine Legal group says UC Berkeley “must not only vigorously defend the legality of the solidarity bylaw, it must act to protect Palestinian students and allies and ensure that Berkeley students remain free to use their voices to demand freedom, justice and equality for all, including Palestinians.”

Stalled process for Palestinian student’s complaint

Meanwhile, as the Department of Education processes the Israel advocates’ complaint against UC Berkeley, it seems to have stalled opening an investigation into a complaint filed nearly two years ago by a Palestinian student against Florida State University.

Palestine Legal attorneys sent a letter to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of the group’s client, Ahmad Daraldik, who was subjected to anti-Palestinian harassment after he was elected as student senate president in 2020.

Daraldik was targeted by lawmakers around the US and by Israel lobbyists who smeared him as an anti-Semite and called on the university to take action.

He and Palestine Legal filed a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights in April 2021.

The legal group says that the complaint “is the first claim involving Palestinian national origin discrimination to be received by OCR.” Palestine Legal says that fact is acknowledged by the federal agency itself.

According to Palestine Legal, the Office for Civil Rights says a complaint must be resolved within 180 days of receipt.

But Daraldik’s complaint exceeds that timeline “by a factor of three – and we have received no explanation or justification as to why,” the civil rights group states.

In contrast, the group adds, Title VI complaints filed by Israel advocates against Palestine-related speech or activism at universities have received rapid responses from the Office for Civil Rights.

“There is no reason it should take [20] months,” Radhika Sainath, senior attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

“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.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.

Sainath explained that Daraldik expects to graduate in the Spring, but that the OCR’s delay “is contributing to his harm.”

“It’s really tiring for him,” she said. “He went through quite a lot and I think was excited to be able to fight back and file this complaint – and there’s no reason it should be taking so long.”

Moreover, she added, the delay in opening the investigation is creating a chilling effect for other Palestinian students around the US.

“The OCR is sending a message to schools that it’s okay to tolerate anti-Palestinian discrimination,” Sainath said.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).