Jewish Journal


February 19, 2010

The Reality of the University of California, Irvine


Read the ZOA’s response here.

The claim that the University of California, Irvine is inhospitable to Jews is so far from reality that one must wonder whether those making the accusation have ever been on the campus or spoken to Jewish students and faculty there.  In my almost two years of working and living on campus, I have not seen the slightest indication of anti-Semitism.  I have taught hundreds of college and law students at UCI, many Jewish, and have not heard one complaint about an anti-Semitic incident on campus.

I therefore was outraged when the Zionist Organization of America asked on February 16 for donors not to contribute to UCI and students not to apply there.  Astoundingly, it declared:  “We call on all decent people, both Jews and non-Jews, to stop supporting, with their money and enrollment, a university that has been complicit in promoting bigotry.”

Unfortunately, the Zionist Organization of America has been making these unfounded accusations against UCI for years.  From the moment that it was rumored in the press that I was a candidate to be the founding dean of its law school, I was told that there was anti-Semitism at UCI.  Before I accepted the offer to be dean, I carefully investigated these charges. As a Jew, I certainly did not want to spend the rest of my career in a place that is anti-Semitic or to move my family to live in a hostile environment.

What I learned is that almost without exception, the events which led to the accusations involved speeches on campus that were sharply critical of Israel and sometimes were anti-Jewish.  On occasion, some very offensive things were said.  The incidents generally involved speakers invited by the Muslim Student Union.  These did not occur very often and usually were confined to one week in the spring.

Several years ago, the ZOA filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education.  The Office of Civil Rights did a thorough investigation and then concluded that there was no basis for finding that there was a hostile or intimidating environment for Jewish students on campus at the University of California, Irvine. Its conclusion was that “there is insufficient evidence to support the complainant’s allegation that the University failed to respond promptly and effectively to complaints by Jewish students that they were harassed and subjected to a hostile environment.”

Those, like the ZOA, who make such accusations ignore the many efforts by the University’s administration to make Jewish students feel safe and welcome, including the beautiful new facilities for the campus Hillel.  Also, there are programs such as the Olive Tree Initiative, which has Jewish and Muslim students travel to the Middle East together and then do a series of programs on campus about their experiences.

When anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiments have been expressed, Chancellor Michael Drake has responded and expressly proclaimed the inappropriateness of such speech.  A public university can do no more than this; the First Amendment simply would not allow the exclusion of speakers, no matter how vile or offensive their words.  Tolerating speech protected by the First Amendment is not the same as “promoting bigotry.”  I have spoken with rabbis in the area and officials of organizations like the Jewish Federation. They are uniformly highly praising of Chancellor Drake and how he has handled the issue.

The most recent trigger for the ZOA’s statement was an incident on February 8, when Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited to campus to speak by, among others, the law school (of which I am dean) and the political science department (of which I am a member).  A series of individuals, including some UCI students affiliated with the Muslim Student Union, stood up and shouted so that the ambassador could not be heard.  As each disruptive person was escorted away, another would stand up and yell.

When this occurred, the audience was admonished and then warned, including by Chancellor Drake, that such disruptions would lead to arrest and university discipline.  Eleven individuals were arrested and those who are UCI students now face disciplinary proceedings.  The ambassador was able to deliver his remarks.

I cannot think of how Chancellor Drake or the university could have handled this better.  Everything possible was done to protect the ambassador’s right to speak.

At UCI, and likely every college campus, there are some members of the Muslim Student Union who are vehemently anti-Israel and who occasionally bring speakers to campus to express this message.  But a few dozen students in a school of almost 28,000 students hardly is enough to make it an anti-Semitic campus or a place inhospitable to Jews.

Yet, the ZOA’s accusations against UCI continue and it looks for any opportunity to renew them.  Any accusations, even false ones, that are repeated enough begin to be believed.  I have gotten email messages from people literally all over the world who have heard the ZOA message and wonder why I am working at an anti-Semitic school.

But few seem to know that in the spring of 2008, the student leaders of every Jewish organization on campus signed a joint letter that they found UCI to be a warm and hospitable place for Jews and that they saw no evidence of anti-Semitism on campus.  Unlike the accusations against UCI, their statement received no media attention. 

As I think about our law school, I see how far the ZOA’s accusations are from reality.  Almost a third of our first year law students are Jewish.  When asked, the Jewish students, including ones involved in inviting the ambassador, said that they have seen no indication of anti-Semitism on campus.

To those donors or prospective students who take seriously the ZOA’s call for a boycott, I invite you to spend some time on the UCI campus.  Walk across it, talk to the students, sit in the student center.  I am convinced that you will not find a shred of evidence of anti-Semitism.  Occasionally, there may be speakers saying things that make you angry or uncomfortable.  But that is what a college campus should be about, a place where all views on all issues can be expressed.  It is a shame that the ZOA doesn’t realize that.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the Dean and a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law

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