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UCI tries to cope with tensions between Jewish groups, others

Supporters join hands during a pro-Israel rally Thursday at UC Irvine.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

The UC Irvine Jewish community hosted a rally near the campus’s Langson Library on Thursday that had participants singing and dancing to live music and waving American and Israeli flags as they moved about to tunes such as “We Shall Overcome” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

While the gathering was a joyous occasion for the participants, it came after a month’s worth of tense relations between the campus Jewish community, its allies and a host of other groups, including the Muslim Student Union, which sponsored an anti-Zionism week that coincided with Yom Hashoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, on May 4.

Tensions reached new heights by the middle of the month, when UCI’s chancellor, Howard Gillman, issued a campuswide alert May 19 that said anti-Israel protesters “crossed the line of civility” when they disrupted a film screening the night before.

Rabbi Blue, center, plays guitar and dances with a supporter during Thursday's pro-Israel rally at the UC Irvine campus.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

According to media reports, the showing of “Beneath the Helmet,” a film about Israeli soldiers, took an unexpected turn when about 50 people shouted outside the event, forcing campus police to intervene and escort attendees away from the commotion and profanity. Former Israeli soldiers were in attendance, scheduled to talk in a panel discussion about their military experiences.

Among the demonstrators’ chants were “Long live the intifada,” a phrase associated with pro-Palestine beliefs against the Israeli occupation.

According to Gillman’s alert, the protesters interrupted the screening, blocking classroom exits to the extent that participants “feared for their safety” and called campus police.

“While this university will protect freedom of speech, that right is not absolute,” Gillman said. “As I mentioned in a campus message at the beginning of the academic year, threats, harassment, incitement and defamatory speech are not protected. We must shelter everyone’s right to speak freely — without fear or intimidation — and allow events to proceed without disruption and potential danger.”

UCI police and administrators are investigating the incident.

Supporters dance around Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, of the Rohr Chabad at UC Irvine, and Rabbi Blue, holding the microphone, during a pro-Israel rally Thursday at UC Irvine.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

In Facebook statements posted this week, Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestine group, called the May 18 protest “wholly peaceful.” The statements said participants — which included members of black, Muslim, Latino and Native American student groups, among others — didn’t violate campus policy or block exits.

They alleged that UCI Republicans and pro-Israel groups falsified details of what happened.

“Our demonstration was held to protest the presence of military and police forces on campus, which threaten the lives of black and brown people every day,” Jewish Voice for Peace said in a Facebook statement Wednesday. “The connections between the Israeli Defense Forces and military, colonial and genocidal regimes all over the world are numerous, and we wholly condemn them.”

The organization said students have “consistently challenged police and military presence on UCI’s campus, only to face harsh consequences by administration and by conservative media outlets.”

It added that having the Israeli soldiers on campus that evening triggered harsh feelings from students “who have lost land and loved ones as a result of the Israeli occupation.”

“In talking about providing a ‘safe environment’ for all students on campus, administration’s double standards must be acknowledged,” the group said.

Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, co-director of the the Rohr Chabad at UC Irvine, speaks during a pro-Israel rally Thursday at UCI. “Our message here today is that we will be allowed to celebrate our Judaism,” Tenenbaum said. “We will be able to advocate for our cause, the pro-Israel cause.”
Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, co-director of the the Rohr Chabad at UC Irvine, speaks during a pro-Israel rally Thursday at UCI. “Our message here today is that we will be allowed to celebrate our Judaism,” Tenenbaum said. “We will be able to advocate for our cause, the pro-Israel cause.”
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

On Thursday, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, co-director of UCI’s Rohr Chabad, addressed a crowd of about 100 people without opposition.

He noted that the afternoon rally coincided with Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday.

In a news release issued Wednesday, Tenenbaum said Rohr Chabad was originally planning a beach barbecue for the holiday, but after the disruption at the “Beneath the Helmet” screening, it chose to hold a “high-profile event” on campus instead.

“Our message here today is that we will be allowed to celebrate our Judaism,” Tenenbaum told the crowd. “We will be able to advocate for our cause, the pro-Israel cause.”

Tenenbaum said the UCI Jewish community “will not be intimidated. We will not be run off our campus. We will express our views. We will stand in true solidarity and support for the state of Israel and their right to defend themselves against the threats that they are threatened with every single day.”

In an interview Friday, Thomas Thorkelson, vice president of the Orange County Interfaith Network, said discord among religious communities at UCI isn’t new.

He added that UCI’s struggles are indicative of conflicts seen on campuses nationwide.

“It’s an unfortunate situation when ideas have to be presented in a way that they will create an atmosphere of anxiety and fear,” Thorkelson said. “Then the people who have that anxiety sometimes react in a way that exacerbates the issue instead of respectful listening and respectful attempting to understand the viewpoint of the other side.”


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