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CampusTurmoil

Jewish students and activists call UC Irvine a hotbed of anti-Semitic harassment

by Marc Ballon

March 10, 2005 | 7:00 pm

At a Muslim Student Union (MSU) event at UC Irvine, Amir Abdel Malik Ali speaks to a crowd of 150 about Zionist control of the American media, Zionist complicity in the war in Iraq and Zionists' ability to deflect justified criticism. Jewish students at the Orange County school say the campus, at times, has become a hostile and hateful place.

At a Muslim Student Union (MSU) event at UC Irvine, Amir Abdel Malik Ali speaks to a crowd of 150 about Zionist control of the American media, Zionist complicity in the war in Iraq and Zionists' ability to deflect justified criticism. Jewish students at the Orange County school say the campus, at times, has become a hostile and hateful place.

 

In the center quad at UC Irvine, Amir Abdel Malik Ali stands before a crowd of 150, his hands clutching a podium bearing the message, "Desperation of the Zionist Lobby."

"Zionism is a mixture, a fusion of the concept of white supremacy and the chosen people," the Oakland-based Muslim religious leader and teacher told the audience at the Feb. 2 Muslim Student Union (MSU)-organized event.

Malik Ali unleashed an attack about the Zionist control of the American media, Zionist complicity in the war in Iraq and Zionists' ability to deflect justified criticism.

"You will have to hear more about the Holocaust when you accuse them of their Nazi behavior," he told the group of mostly Muslim students.

At a time when Israeli and Palestinian leaders are taking baby steps toward a peaceful two-state solution, Malik Ali made it clear that he had a different vision.

"One state. Majority rule," he said to rousing applause. "Check that out. Us. The Muslims."

Not So Quiet On Campus

Once a sleepy suburban university, UCI has joined the ranks of Columbia University and UC Berkeley as a hotbed of anti-Zionism. The situation has become so tense that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights -- in reaction to a complaint filed by the conservative Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) -- is investigating allegations of anti-Jewish harassment at UCI and administration indifference.

In recent years, UCI Muslim student groups have invited speakers like Malik Ali to attack Israel and its supporters in language that has the unmistakable ring of anti-Semitism.

Pro-Israel students say they have been sworn at and intimidated by Muslim students. They say that a few pro-Palestinian activists have followed Jewish students around campus, pushed placards in their faces equating Zionism with Nazism and, in one instance, threatened violence.

Muslim students and some UCI faculty members say that Jewish groups have exaggerated the problems and, at times, contributed to campus tensions by taking their slanted case to the media at every opportunity. Others argue that UCI is a hospitable place for the vast majority of the university's 750 to 1,000 Jewish students, and that the loudest complaints come from a core of pro-Israel advocates who confuse anti-Zionism, or criticism of Israel and its supporters, with anti-Semitism.

To be sure, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment have become ever more common at American universities. In recent years, campus support for divesting university funds from Israel has grown, reflecting the decline of the Jewish state's standing since the beginning of the second intifada. Still, UCI students and their activist supporters say the frequency and intensity of anti-Zionism and sometimes anti-Semitism at UCI has earned the school a particularly tarnished reputation.

"It's been a struggle as a Jewish student here," said Larry Mahler, a 21-year-old UCI senior active in several Jewish groups, including Hillel and fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. "It's hard to be openly proud and celebrate my heritage. I feel uncomfortable and feel [other students] won't accept my Judaism to the same extent they accept other cultures and religions."

UCI senior Osman Umarji, MSU's 22-year-old president, refuted accusations that the advocacy group he heads engages in anti-Semitism. He said MSU once donated food left over from an event to a Jewish student group meeting nearby on campus.

MSU guest speakers, including a few of Jewish origin, make clear distinctions between Jews and Zionists, Umarji said. In his opinion, Zionists illegally occupy Palestinian land and, like the Nazis, force those under their control to wear ID tags and to live in squalid conditions. Despite his support for the end of Israel as a Jewish state, Umarji said he hopes for better relations with UCI Jewish student groups.

"The door is open to much more amicable relations," he said. "If Zionist student groups have a problem, they should come to me, and we can work together to solve it."

University officials say they offer a tolerant, safe environment for all students, and have met with Jewish and Muslim organizations whenever problems have arisen, including the controversy over green stoles worn by some Muslim students at last year's graduation.

Administrators add that they want to address ZOA's grievances through mediation and dialogue. To help defuse campus tensions, UCI has held a series of forums on such subjects as hate crimes and Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The university also plans to introduce a new course, Imagining the Future, which will bring Muslim, Jewish and Arab students together in teams to develop viable solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, said he has been on three UCI panels in the past year, and has spoken about the similarities between Judaism and Islam, including their Semitic roots and shared veneration for Abraham, Jacob, Moses and other prophets.

"The more we know about each other's religion and our other commonalties, the more we will work together," he said.

Mark LeVine, a UCI associate professor of Middle Eastern history, said that outside advocacy groups on both sides have stoked tension between Jewish and Muslim students for their own selfish purposes. He said their fear mongering might have helped them with fundraising efforts, but it has widened the cultural, ideological and political chasm on campus.

"My sense is that the majority of Muslim and Jewish students here are not that politically active and don't primarily relate to each other based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorism," said LeVine, himself Jewish.

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

Whether or not most Jewish and Muslim students get along, they both have strong feelings about the UCI administration. Whereas Muslim activists appreciate officials' willingness to protect their freedom of expression, some Jewish students and advocacy groups charge the administration with failing to publicly condemn what they characterize as anti-Semitic hate speech. They say that UCI deans and chancellors have ignored repeated requests to take a stand against intolerance, and that their indifference has contributed to a hostile atmosphere on campus.

"The school has turned a blind eye long enough for it to appear OK for these extremists to escalate their hate speech," said Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, an advocacy group that has worked extensively with the Anteaters for Israel student group at UCI. "This makes pro-Israel students on campus feel marginalized."

However, Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Committee, praised the efforts of UCI administrators to encourage intergroup dialogue and create a good learning environment for all students.

Manuel N. Gomez, UCI vice chancellor of student affairs, said he has rarely denounced controversial speech on campus, because he would have to spend an inordinate amount of time doing so if he responded to every real or perceived slight. Instead, he places his faith in unfettered free speech.

"Your views are going to be challenged at any great university," Gomez said. "If they're not, I'm not sure what kind of education young people are receiving."

Some Jewish students and advocacy groups say that their concerns go beyond the UCI administration's unwillingness to speak out on their behalf. They claim that the campus has, at times, become a hostile and dangerous place for them.

"I get nervous when I'm on campus and I walk by one of [the MSU events]," said UCI junior Natalie Korthamar, president of Hillel at UCI.

One Jewish student, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said he carries mace around with him because Muslim students have followed him around campus on two separate occasions since he became a high-profile, pro-Israel activist.

In a 2004 video titled "Incitement at UC Irvine" a young student said, "Jewish students are afraid to speak out; Jewish students are afraid to be themselves." The video never aired, because some students worried that their complaints about UCI would alienate the administration and faculty to their detriment, said Rothstein of StandWithUs, which produced the tape.

Anti-Zionism at UCI

Among the incidents at UCI that have upset Jewish activists:

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