Controversial events scheduled at UC Irvine next week with such provocative titles as “Holocaust in the Holy Land” and “Israel: The Fourth Reich” are sparking outrage among Jewish students who are asking administrators to denounce aspects of the event.
Jewish students and community leaders say the program is the latest in a string of offensive incidents at the university. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights is investigating anti-Semitism at UCI, the first probe of its kind at a college.
“Instead of the university being a place for dialogue and discussion of important issues, it’s being turned into a platform for hate speech and bigotry,” said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, a spiritual advisor at colleges in Long Beach and Orange County.
“This is intentionally inciting and hateful toward the Jewish people of the campus.”
A complaint filed by the Zionist Organization of America in New York on behalf of Jewish students at UCI prompted the ongoing investigation, said Kenneth L. Marcus, former head of the office and director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“There are things that are happening on campuses all over the country, but Irvine seems particularly severe to me,” said attorney Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization’s Center for Law and Justice.
Federal officials say they have seen an escalation in anti-Semitism at universities across the country since 2000, prompting the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to issue a report on the topic last month. The report, unrelated to UCI, urges university leaders to set a moral example by condemning hate speech.
The latest UCI controversy is centered on the Muslim Student Union’s “Holocaust in the Holy Land” program scheduled throughout next week.
Kareem Elsayed, 20, a member of the group, defended the program titles. The dictionary definition of “holocaust” does not include Jews, he said.
“I do understand why they’re upset, but of course I disagree,” Elsayed said. “We have been doing this kind of programming for years. No matter how you slice it, they are not pleased with the fact that we’re criticizing the apartheid state of Israel. We change the name each year. Each year, there’s a commotion.”
The Southern California Council on American-Islamic Relations also defended the students’ right, calling the terms debatable, potentially offensive words that stop short of attacking a religion.
“We should allow students to debate these topics; otherwise we’re not going to go forward in this community,” council spokeswoman Sabiha Kahn said.
Some Muslims disagreed.
Ijaz Sayed, president of the Ahmadi Muslim Student Assn. at UCI, said, “You’ll never find us holding an event like that.... We all have to live on this Earth together and somehow create peace here.”
Jewish student representatives and Jewish community leaders said they did not want university officials to cancel the event, just criticize the language.
“We understand that anti-Zionism week is something we cannot stop because of the university’s free-speech policies,” said Alex Chazen, 20, president of Anteaters for Israel and the Hillel Jewish Student Union.
“But when it comes to the term ‘holocaust,’ it creates a completely different emotion. It’s disrespectful.”
UCI officials said they would not criticize the event.
“This is an issue of free speech,” said UCI’s dean of students, Sally Peterson, adding that it would be illegal to prevent the program. “Hate speech is also protected speech.... There’s no law against being a jerk, basically.”
Anticipating the controversy, Chancellor Michael V. Drake issued a campuswide message Tuesday.
He made no mention of the “Holocaust in the Holy Land” but encouraged those on campus “to show appreciation for one another, for people of diverse opinions, backgrounds and cultures and for ideas that may be different from their own.”
Muslim students faced their own woes in February when college Republicans displayed controversial Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad and incited international riots. They protested with posters that read “Yes to Freedom of Speech, No to Hate Speech.”
UCI officials allowed that event to continue.
The tension between Jewish and Muslim students goes back several years. In 2002, the Muslim Student Union posted a sign that read “Israelis Love to Kill Innocent Children.” The complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights also contended that students had been physically threatened and were afraid to wear clothing or jewelry identifying them as Jewish.
Attempts at federal mediation, which could have resolved the complaint, failed after the Zionist Organization of America broke off talks last summer because it did not believe the university was willing to change, Tuchman said.
Last month, the Commission on Civil Rights said anti-Semitism should not continue under the guise of political discourse.
“The fact that it takes place in a public lecture or that it presents itself as being foreign-policy related doesn’t make it any less anti-Semitic,” Marcus said.
“University leadership has a moral obligation to make clear that there are limits on civilized discourse.”