Mideast Debate Takes Root at UC Irvine

Times Staff Writer

UC Irvine has emerged as an unlikely flashpoint in the national Israeli-Arab debate.

The campus’ Muslim Student Union has drawn harsh criticism for last week’s “Holocaust in the Holy Land” programs. Events included a speech titled “Israel: the 4th Reich” and the construction of a mock Israeli security wall with students dressed as Israeli army officers conducting aggressive checkpoint searches.

The events at the public quad prompted a strong reaction from members of Jewish groups, who called it highly offensive to equate Israel with Nazi Germany.

These clashes have been the latest in years of tension, mistrust and back-and-forth accusations between activist Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine.


In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized. The next year, an antiZionism mural erected by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case.

Then, a group of Muslim students made headlines with their plan to wear graduation stoles of green -- a traditional color of Islamic identity -- as a show of Islamic unity. Jewish groups on and off campus decried them as a show of support for Hamas, a militant Palestinian group responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, which also uses green as its signature color.

At the heart of the UC Irvine issue is a fundamental question: Can one be aggressively opposed to the policies and even the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

Muslim Student Union leaders say yes; Jewish activists on and off campus say they aren’t so sure.

“Being against the existence of Israel does begin to push that line,” said Alex Chazen, president of Anteaters for Israel, a Jewish student group that takes its name from the university’s mascot.

If so, it’s a line that the Muslim Student Union seems determined to cross -- to the continuing outrage of Jewish groups.

“The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down. They are living in fear ... and it is about time they live in fear,” said Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based Islamic activist, during a May 15 speech on the campus quad. “The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or until we are victorious.”

UC Irvine is not the only campus in the nation dealing with the issue, but some leaders on both sides of the debate say the mood on the Orange County campus has been particularly intense.


“Irvine sticks out as one of the most radical campuses in the country,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel group that protested last week’s events at UC Irvine.

“The [Muslim Student Union] keeps bringing the most radical, fringe speakers they can find,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s anti-Semitism. They have a right to say whatever they want to say. I just wonder why they’re saying it.”

Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said she too was concerned about the lack of constructive discussion. “There’s no dialogue; there’s no interaction,” Lekovic said. “Both sides are just throwing rocks.”

Community leaders estimate the number of Muslim students at 1,000 and the number of Jewish students at 800 at the 24,000-student UC Irvine campus.


Jewish student leaders said that the university’s administration has selectively applied its free-speech ethos.

Last year, the Zionist Organization of America filed a federal civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming the administration was “overwhelmingly silent” and the on-campus atmosphere was “hateful, hostile and threatening” to Jewish students. The federal investigation is ongoing.

“Jewish students don’t feel supported. It’s frustrating when you feel you don’t have the backing of your own administration,” said Merav Ceren, a former president of Anteaters for Israel.

Caught in the middle is the UC Irvine administration, which has organized several abortive mediation efforts and defended the students’ rights to free speech under steady pressure to publicly condemn the Muslim Student Union.


“We’ve been trying to remain neutral on this,” said Sally Peterson, dean of students. “Everyone wants us to take a side.”

Kareem Elsayed, a spokesman for the campus Muslim Student Union, acknowledged that he and his fellow union leaders knew that using “holocaust” would probably be incendiary.

“That’s why we’re using that word, because it does conjure up bad memories,” he said. “We want to point out that the oppressed have become the oppressor.”

The new willingness to use provocative, confrontational language, Elsayed said, was party generational.


Many of the activist students at the university are the children of immigrants who never fully connected with the American political process or public discourse, he said. The immigrant generation often feared persecution in America, he said, after bringing with them emotional baggage from their homelands, where overt political activism could be dangerous.

But the second Palestinian Intifada, which started in 2000, and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have sparked a new activist spirit among young American-raised Muslims, many have said.

“This new generation speaks the language, knows our rights and knows American culture,” said Elsayed, a fifth-year student and son of Egyptian immigrants. “Unlike our parents, we’re not living with one foot here and one foot in the home country.”

Muslim Student Union leaders acknowledged that they have been pushing the envelope, but said that those boundaries have been warped by decades of pressure from pro-Israeli lobbying groups. The effect, they said, has been to make almost any criticism of Israeli policies or Zionist ideology off-limits.


Ali and other regular Muslim Student Union speakers said they were careful to toe a specific line. The enemy is not Jews or Judaism; it’s the “Zionist Jews,” Zionism as a philosophy and most definitely the state of Israel. To help further that distinction, the Muslim Student Union has featured several Jewish opponents of Israel.

The recent events featured DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein, author of “The Holocaust Industry,” and Rabbi David Weiss, an orthodox Jew who, for esoteric philosophical reasons, is an anti-Zionist opposed to the existence of Israel.

The rhetoric also takes aim at Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family -- both of whom are described as dictatorial American puppets.

In the background of the UC Irvine controversies is a growing intra-Muslim debate about tactics and strategy. Tellingly, many off-campus Muslim activists expressed reservations about the Irvine Muslim Student Union’s approach and choice of speakers, but also tended to write it off as the impetuousness of youth.


“If you haven’t been through a bit of radicalism in college, you’ve missed out,” said Hussam Ayloush, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They’re very harmless, nonviolent kids, but they’re very vocal.”

Still, some local Muslim leaders quietly acknowledged that they were no fans of Ali or his growing influence on local campuses. Ayloush questioned the wisdom of the Muslim Student Union deliberately provoking Jewish students by using “holocaust” or Nazi references.

“I wouldn’t have chosen those titles. But would I describe them as anti-Semitic? No,” Ayloush said. “That wouldn’t work out in real life. It would backfire. You wouldn’t even get Muslim attendance.”