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JewishJournal.com

April 13, 2010

Is UC Irvine safe for Jews?

When worlds collide.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/is_uc_irvine_safe_for_jews_20100413

A protester is removed before Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, attempted to give a speech on campus. 
Photo by Peter Halmagyi

A protester is removed before Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, attempted to give a speech on campus.
Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Jewish students could hardly contain their excitement as they gathered to celebrate the opening of the new Hillel center at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in February. Calling it a “symbol for Jewish students,” Jordan Fruchtman, Hillel Foundation of Orange County executive director, described the 1,400-square-foot facility across the street from campus as “a place where students feel good and create memories that build a strong Jewish identity.”

Three days later, the students were back at Hillel, their giddiness turned to shell shock. They had just witnessed Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, attempting to give a speech on campus, on Feb. 8, only to be relentlessly heckled and jeered by a crowd of anti-Israel protesters, many of them fellow classmates. Eleven protesting students were arrested, eight from UCI, and disciplinary investigations are still under way, although recently disclosed e-mails suggest that the protests were an orchestrated effort by a militant Muslim group on campus.

Welcome to Jewish life at UCI.

It’s a tale of two cities, where normal college life — classes, exams and preparation for adulthood — provides the backdrop to a world of sharp contrasts.

UCI’s standing as one of California’s finest institutions of higher learning has made it the 10th-ranked public university in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. On any given day, nearly 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students stroll and bike across the sprawling suburban campus, where modern and postmodern buildings form what planners designed as concentric circles of knowledge. The wooded Aldrich Park, named for the school’s founding chancellor, is at the epicenter of these rings, surrounded by tree-lined Ring Road, the mile-long main pedestrian artery. Known as the “free-speech zone,” Ring Road’s mix of vendors and eateries often serve as backdrop to student-led demonstrations, awareness campaigns and other events, all held under the watchful eye of Aldrich Hall, home to the UCI administration. 

UCI’s enrollment includes an estimated 1,000 Jewish students, most from Orange County and Los Angeles, some of whom find at the school a blossoming of Jewish opportunities. Shabbat dinners, once sporadic and sparsely attended, now draw close to 200 each week.  Jewish cultural, educational and social events fill the university calendar. Last year, the national Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, joined its brother fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, as a chartered Greek house.

“I actually feel more Jewish here than I did at Brandeis,” said transfer student Lauren Gindi, who came from the Boston university’s predominantly Jewish campus in 2009 to be closer to home. “I feel there’s a bigger desire for me to have my Jewish identity, more of a reason for me to identify myself as Jewish and pro-Israel. I understand what I’m representing.”

And that can be a big job on this often-fraught campus.

UCI has made international headlines in recent years, dubbed by observers an unwelcome environment for Jewish students at best, a hotbed of anti-Jewish hate at worst. Years of heated protests and demonstrations demonizing Israel, organized by the school’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) — the group suspected of organizing the Oren disruptions — have earned the school its reputation as a center for anti-Zionism. And general tolerance for the unrest by the school’s administration has prompted charges of allowing anti-Semitism to run amok.

“I found myself trying to justify why Israel has a right to exist,” said Moran Cohen, president of Anteaters for Israel (AFI), UCI’s pro-Israel student group named for the university mascot.

Cohen spoke these words last month in an address to AFI members the day after a student protest against tuition hikes morphed into an anti-Israel demonstration outside the UCI administration building. On this occasion, like many others, MSU members and their supporters had shouted, “Anti-genocide, anti-Israel,” and waved signs equating Zionism with terrorism.

“We’re here at the university to learn and teach each other,” Cohen said.  You don’t need to justify why we have a right to live.”

Yet not all Jewish students agree on how bad the problem really is.  Over the years, some students have written letters expressing deep concern about anti-Semitism, while others have praised the campus as a warm and hospitable place.

“Anti-Semitism is definitely a huge issue on campus and will only be rectified when the administration starts to implement campus policies,” said Reut Cohen, a 2007 graduate who has blogged extensively about Muslim-Jewish relations at UCI and is one of the administration’s harshest critics.

Reut Cohen says she was assaulted while an undergraduate, when a female MSU member shoved a camera in her face for several minutes, blocking her view as she attempted to question an MSU speaker. She accuses campus police and administrators of dismissing her grievance and dubbing her a troublemaker when she tried to lodge a complaint.

“It offended me to hear I was considered an outsider, but then speakers who are quite vile are allowed their First Amendment rights,” she said.

“Many [Muslim students] were friendly to me in the dorms, but as soon as they found out I’m Israeli, they turned their backs on me.  One girl spit on me. That shows how much it infiltrates other aspects of campus life.”

“It was a really intense experience and I took it personally,” said Sabrina Matzon, who graduated in 2009. “I did feel threatened because I was outnumbered. I stopped wearing my Jewish star to school. They posted signs all over campus stating “facts,” putting down Israel and Jews. Posters of covered-up Muslim women saying, ‘God bless Hitler’ — I can’t believe the campus would allow that to take place.”

Fourth-year student Guy Gutterman has a different take on campus life.

“I actually enjoy the tension,” the 21-year old native Israeli said. “I like the idea that people are passionate about things that matter to them and that matter to me.”

Gutterman and his best friend, a Palestinian student, have chosen not to discuss the conflict, though he says he has friendly debates with friends in the MSU. Despite these good conversations, he said little constructive dialogue takes place in the Middle East studies classes, precisely where he had hoped it would. 

“The most disheartening part is that, as passionate as people are, they really only want to discuss the issues in their comfort zone,” Gutterman said. “There’s always one group that doesn’t really care for the opinion of the other side.”

OC Hillel at UC Irvine is committed to bringing Jewish students together. Photo courtesy OC Hillel

Fifth-year student Isaac Yerushalmi called UC Irvine’s campus “a great place for Jews.” A former president of AFI, Yerushalmi has taken a leading role in encouraging dialogue between Muslim and Jewish students, both on and off campus.

On Facebook, he leaves abundant comments under entries by his Muslim peers, often referencing meetings they’ve had in the past. He challenges them to rethink their views, to be open to discussions with Jewish students. They usually don’t see eye to eye, but remain cordial.  It’s clear they’ve been at this for a while.

“I’ve never felt any sort of physical threat myself,” Yerushalmi said. “There’s just that handful of students, 40 to 100, that make all this noise. That’s what the media is focused on.”

While they don’t deny that anti-Semitism exists, Yerushalmi and others who share his view of campus life say that tension between Muslims and Jews ebbs and flows, peaking at times when the MSU stages an event, then quickly returning to normal.

How accurate that depiction is was raised last year in an article in The Jewish Journal by Neelie Milstein, a December 2009 graduate, who said in the piece that she had been told to censor herself so as not to discourage Jewish students from enrolling.

“Behind closed doors, students often complain and say how hard it is to be a student on campus,” Reut Cohen said. It’s hard to be put in a situation where you come to campus and have to be advocates.”

“I’d be lying if I said that [the students] are not stressed out about it,” said David Bar Gadda, a fifth-year student who participated in UCI’s student delegation to the AIPAC national policy conference in March. “It’s an attack on their identity. It hits them.”

Campus Diversity

UC Irvine lies in the heart of one of the country’s largest Muslim communities, and while there are no official numbers on how many Muslims are enrolled, the student body reflects the neighborhood. The Muslim Student Union, which represents only a small, militant portion of the Muslim students, was founded in 1992 as an officially sanctioned student group, purportedly to provide academic and religious support to students. Part of a student network on U.S. and Canadian campuses often called Muslim Student Associations, MSU is an offshoot of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic political group funded by the Saudi government that gave rise to Hamas, among other terrorist organizations. In recent years, many MSU chapters have embraced controversial, often militant rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have organized some of the most extreme anti-Israel events.

The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2002 saw a ratcheting up of MSU activity at UCI surrounding the conflict.

Omar Zarka, a UCI graduate, was president of UCI’s MSU chapter from 2007 to 2009. He sees the group’s actions as political, and not racially motivated. “We try to make a conscientious distinction between Zionism and Judaism,” he said. “Our objective is to create discussion and to inform and educate. Anti-Semitism is not allowed. That is unequivocal.  Everybody is on the same page with this. Obviously the politics get tense and it hits home because both sides have families affected. But if there is no event, things are very normal.  There is no anti-Semitism on campus.”

Evidence suggests otherwise. Bloodied Israeli flags and posters equating the Star of David with a swastika have appeared more than once on campus. Jihad has been advocated in student publications. And for one week each spring, Ring Road becomes headquarters for a campaign with titles such as “Israel: The Politics of Genocide” and “Holocaust in the Holy Land.” Recently, a mock “apartheid wall,” depicting Israel as a racist, genocidal regime has been the prop of choice for the event, which many Jewish and non-Jewish students alike refer to as “Hate Week.”

But it is the speakers invited to campus by the MSU who have drawn the biggest outcry.

In 2009, Oakland cleric Amir Abdel Malik Ali came and called Zionists “the new Nazis” and “the party of Satan,” saying “Zionism must be destroyed.”

The year before, Washington cleric Mohammed al-Asi, said, “The stone and the tree will say, ‘Oh Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’ The context of this prophetic statement is speaking about the political or the ideological or the military Jew, which, in the language of today, turns out to be the Zionist Jew ... Jew here means Zionist.”

MSU representatives declined to respond to repeated requests for comment on this apparent divergence from their policy.

The Right to Free Speech

Protests to the school’s administration by Jewish community and student groups over the MSU’s anti-Semitic rhetoric historically have been met by official insistence that, as a public university, UCI is obligated to uphold the principle of free speech, even when certain groups find that speech objectionable or when it contradicts the values of the university. UCI could not and would not interfere with students’ First Amendment rights, complainants have been told. 

But MSU members have also been accused of harassing, intimidating and threatening Jewish students and supporters of Israel. In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that there have been more than two dozen religiously motivated hate incidents, including swastikas on campus property, rocks thrown at a Jewish student and comments such as “dirty Jew” and “slaughter the Jew.” A national pro-Israel advocacy group, ZOA also accused the administration of turning a blind eye to a longstanding pattern of anti-Semitic discrimination.

A three-year investigation by the OCR resulted in a ruling that the incidents were inactionable because a 180-day statute of limitations had expired, and that some of the charges were outside the judicial body’s authority. The administration was also cleared of mishandling the incidents. The case was dismissed, but not before the OCR acknowledged that many of the complaints had merit.

Then, in 2008, an independent task force on anti-Semitism blasted university officials for allowing a climate of anti-Semitism to fester on campus and in classrooms, where faculty members were said to promote an anti-Israel agenda. The report called upon UCI Chancellor Michael Drake to go beyond the general condemnations of hate speech he had issued in the past and to denounce by name the anti-Semitic speakers the MSU was inviting to campus. 

Jeffrey Rips, who met regularly with UCI brass from 1997 to 2008 as executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, said that the OCR and task force investigations, combined with advocacy from Jewish community groups, including StandWithUs, which has been very present on the UCI campus, marked a turning point for the administration. 

“The ADL, Hillel, ZOA and others made the university astutely aware of what was going on. The administration looked at themselves and did an internal evaluation. They created protocols and standards for student events. When stuff started happening, I don’t think the university had a plan within the dean of students’ office, but they did a few years later. I think it was the result of all of our conversations. The administration was a partner in this,” Rips said.

One of the most significant changes, according to the task force, was the reversal of the university’s objection to recording speakers at MSU events. With greater public access and scrutiny came increased awareness of the hate-spewing on campus. 

Is Enough Being Done?

Even students who view the campus favorably wrestle with how the administration should act.

“It’s always been a dilemma for me: What should we expect from the administration?” said Yerushalmi, noting that the chancellor invites Jewish student leaders to discuss the mood on campus several times a year. “I think they’re concerned by the situation, but there are a lot of legal complexities over what they can and can’t do. I’m not sure if they’re allowed to comment on certain speakers. I think the administration has good intentions and tries to give us support where they can.”

To be sure, Drake has issued statements over the years denouncing hate and calling on students to exercise tolerance and civility. Addressing delegates at an international Hillel summit shortly after the task force released its report, Drake said, “We absolutely deplore and reject hate speech and bigotry, anti-Semitism. We reject and deplore those absolutely and in every way that it occurs. People bring divisive messages to [all of] our campuses. We reject those intellectually; emotionally we find them repugnant; we find them repugnant morally.”

Still, Jewish students and their supporters believe the chancellor and other school officials could specifically condemn the anti-Semitic nature of MSU activities without wading into First Amendment waters.

“I am not asking the UCI administration to censor the hate speech,” Milstein wrote in her 2009 article. “I am asking them to denounce this style of rhetoric and displays, just as they would denounce campaigns for white supremacy, sexism or Islamophobia.

That sort of distinction was made last month by Michael Ignatieff, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, on the eve of “Israel Apartheid Week,” a delegitimization campaign by anti-Israel groups held annually on college campuses worldwide and akin to the MSU’s springtime event.

Calling on Canadians to condemn the campaign, Ignatieff stated, “Apartheid is defined, in international law, as a crime against humanity. Israeli Apartheid Week is a deliberate attempt to portray the Jewish state as criminal.

“The very premise of Israeli Apartheid Week runs counter to our shared values of mutual respect and tolerance, regardless of nationality, race or creed. It is an attempt to heighten the tensions in our communities around the tragic conflict in the Middle East.”

“There are multiple ways to attack an issue, especially at a university,” said Leslie Millerd, UCI director of communications for student affairs, who insists that the actions of a small group of students do not define the university. “Don’t assume that because someone isn’t doing something one way, they’re not doing it another way.” 

To that end, UC Irvine’s administration is creating programs to instill values of tolerance, civility and mutual respect among all students.  On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, the university has sponsored guest speaker events on both sides.

Outside the media glare, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other students have been meeting since 2007 under the auspices of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI). The program, launched at UCI and now spreading to other campuses, allows students to educate themselves on the history of the conflict and to challenge preconceived narratives as they address cultural and religious differences and learn principles of conflict resolution. (AFI and Hillel have official representation in OTI. MSU has said it would not send delegates in its name but has members who participate.) The program has had two interfaith trips to Israel that included visits to the Palestinian territories, and a third trip is planned for September. On these trips, faculty adviser Paula Garb said, students “shift their thinking enough that they are open to hearing other perspectives.”

“These students are taking on these big issues and having very interesting debates online,” Garb said. “They go on and on about current issues in the Middle East. Sometimes they get frustrated with each other. Sometimes they listen to each other. They ask questions like, ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘I’d like to hear more about that,’ in contrast to the persuasion conversions we’re all used to. An intellectual curiosity is developing among these students expressing a lot of respect for each other and respectfully disagreeing.”

The situation on campus also has spurred interest by some in the local Jewish community in creating an environment at UCI where students feel confident and secure in their Jewish and pro-Israel identities. Foremost among these is the Rose Project, launched by the Jewish Federation Orange County in mid-2008, a proactive strategy to strengthen Jewish life by supporting student involvement in Jewish political, social and cultural activities and creating student advocates able to contend with the MSU and to promote meaningful dialogue. It is named for the Irvine-based Ernest and Irma Rose Foundation, which provided it with $400,000 in seed money and support for the next three years.

“The Rose Project was in part created because we believed that while steps should be taken to diminish the marginalizing and incredibly harmful hate speech, more important, Jewish students need to be given opportunities for self-expression, Jewish identity and to gain knowledge of academic topics surrounding Israel and the Middle East,” said Jeff Margolis, Rose Project co-chair. “It may seem trite to say, but the best way to deal with hateful forces is to create positive programs. That’s the belief of the Rose Project.”

Thus far, the project has twice underwritten the OTI missions to the Middle East, sent dozens of students to leadership and Israel advocacy training programs and encouraged participation in Taglit Birthright Israel.  It has also funded iFest, the Jewish students’ response to the MSU’s awareness week, where thousands of students gather for hookah, falafel and upbeat music in celebration of Israel’s culture, history and achievements. A Jewish studies program along the lines of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies is on the table.

“In my first year, the Jewish community was highly sprinkled, AEPhi was in its infancy, and Hillel only provided Shabbat dinner,” said Ami Kurzweil, the student president of Hillel at UCI. “In the past four years, we have a center and activities and events on a daily basis.”

“You feel a very close bond with every other Jew on campus,” said David Drabinsky, president of AEPi.

With about 300 active students in the Hillel database, encouraging wider participation among current students is a major goal of Jewish campus leadership, according to Hillel’s Fruchtman. There is also in intensive effort under way to recruit more Jewish students to the school, which Rose Project supporters and many students say is the only effective long-term way to counter anti-Israel activity.

“We have to make this campus a great place for Jewish students to be,” Fruchtman said. “If we use more resources to fight the MSU than to build Jewish life, then we’re failing.”

As usual, when it comes to Jewish life at UCI, not everyone agrees. Following the Oren incident in February, the ZOA appealed to prospective students to apply elsewhere.

“If you look at the demographics, there are 900 to 1,200 Jewish students at UCI,” said Ted Bleiweis, executive director of the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism. “Of those, look at the number of students who are activists involved in the ongoing situation on campus. There’s not a lot of activism going on, and certainly not a lot of Jewish activism. One can argue that more Jewish students would solve the problem, but I don’t see that happening. To have to deal with this kind of hatred and animosity is shameful, and it’s difficult for them.”

Leaders of five UCI Jewish student organizations called the ZOA’s appeal “counterproductive and one of the worst ways to deal with the MSU at UCI.”

Weeks away from the anticipated May 10 start of the MSU’s awareness week and the third annual iFest due to follow, Muslim-Jewish relations on campus remain mixed.  Even so, Jewish students-turned-advocates are eager to set a new agenda of Jewish life at UCI.

“This is my passion,” former Brandeis student Gindi said.  “I want to bring new students to campus and get more people involved.  I think the Jewish students should be represented, and I want to do this.”

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