Protest at UC Irvine against Israeli official still reverberates


More than two weeks after 11 students were arrested at UC Irvine for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador, the incident continues to draw sharp reactions from Jewish, Muslim and civil liberty organizations.

But the loudest voices are being raised far from campus, all but drowning out the sentiments of students.

A New York City-based Zionist group quickly urged college-bound students to drop UC Irvine as a consideration and asked donors to rethink their pledges. A leading Muslim civil rights group asked that charges be dropped against the protesters -- even though charges have not been filed. A state assemblyman requested that the Muslim Student Union be banished from campus. And some painted the university as embroiled in Muslim-Jewish conflict.

“I’m Jewish, and I only hear about this stuff at UCI when I’m off campus,” said David Meyer, a UC Irvine political science professor who studies social movements.

The repeated interruptions of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech Feb. 8 are the latest in a series of incidents dating back nearly a decade between Muslims and Jews on campus. But the sense among some is that the publicity UCI draws is out of proportion with the attention drawn by other universities, where protests and conflict might pass largely unnoticed.

“Orange County is such a conservative area and Irvine is such a conservative city, there’s not that much in the form of activism and rocking the boat, you might say,” said Reem Salahi, a civil rights attorney representing the students, known as the Irvine 11.

“I think it’s very hard not to stir up controversy when you’re talking about Israel-Palestine, and then, compound that with a very conservative county, it causes fireworks,” Salahi said.

Although the pro-Palestinian students at Irvine are organized and vocal, their activism doesn’t necessarily reach the level of some other universities, like those that have begun divestment campaigns, Salahi said.

Isaac Yerushalmi, former president of Anteaters for Israel (the school mascot is the anteater), said that although protests and clashes are not uncommon on college campuses, UC Irvine tends to have passionate students.

“UCI has developed this reputation,” said Yerushalmi, “I think for the most part, because the Muslim Student Union -- they’re not afraid to introduce controversial things.”

Reaction to the protest of the ambassador’s speech was swift.

The Zionist Organization of America -- which for years has logged complaints against the campus’ Muslim Student Union as being anti-Semitic -- urged donors and students to avoid UCI, saying the university allows bigotry and discrimination. The Anti-Defamation League and five UCI student leaders publicly opposed the boycott and called it counterproductive. But the ADL said the university is not a hospitable place for Jews.

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated the Zionist Organization’s accusations of anti-Semitism at UCI and found that the allegations “did not raise an inference of national origin discrimination” or were dealt with promptly and effectively by the university.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Lawyers Guild asked that charges against the Irvine 11 be dropped, though the Orange County district attorney’s office has not filed charges.

Salam Al-Marayati, who heads the Muslim Public Affairs Council, penned a piece for the Huffington Post titled, “Free 11 Muslim Students Representing America’s Conscience.” The piece ran a week after the incident, in which the students were held by campus police only for the duration of the speech and never taken into custody, a university spokeswoman said. The council has asked the university to investigate the students’ arrests.

This week Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) sent a letter to UCI Chancellor Michael Drake requesting that the Muslim Student Union be banned from campus because it goes against “the university’s imperative to provide an education in an atmosphere of academic liberty, free of coercion and conducive to meaningful debate and free inquiry.”

DeVore said he was qualified to weigh in on the matter because, among other things, he studied Arabic overseas and helped secure U.S. support for Israel’s antiballistic missile.

The Muslim Student Union has said that the protest was carried out by individuals and that the group was not involved.

“I think these kind of things happen on all campuses,” said current Anteaters for Israel President Moran Cohen, who was born and raised in Israel. “It seems like sometimes people forget that the conflict is over there and not at UCI.”

Students on campus say that tension between Muslims and Jews does exist but that it does not rise to the level characterized by outside groups.

Positive interfaith dialogue events get little or no attention off campus, Yerushalmi said.

“That’s not to say there aren’t problems, but the media definitely makes it seem like UCI is not a safe place for Jewish students, which is not true,” he said.

Neither Drake nor Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez would comment, a stance the school said it adopted to avoid feeding the controversy.

Salahi, the attorney, said much of the attention given to the Feb. 8 incident was because of the university’s arrest of the students. That in turn, was a product of outside pressure, she said.

“If this had happened in a vacuum and there wasn’t this history . . . I can guarantee you the university wouldn’t have done half or a fourth of what they did,” she said. “I do believe the university is trying to make political martyrs of these students.”