June 24, 2004
UC Irvine Graduation Clash Fizzles
A feared confrontation between Jewish and Muslim students during graduation ceremonies at UC Irvine was largely avoided Saturday, following a week of heated charges and countercharges.
Several members of the Muslim Student Union wore stoles, or broad strips of green cloth, over their graduation gowns inscribed with the word Shahada in Arabic letters, whose meaning and symbolism were at the center of the dispute.
Muslim student leaders claimed that about 30 graduates wore the stoles, although Jewish students thought that the number was considerably smaller.
As a counterforce, adult members of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and StandWithUs arrived on campus in solidarity with Jewish students. After the ceremonies, Jews and Muslims formed small, peaceful discussion knots, which contrasted with the intense emotions of the preceding days.
When the Muslim students first announced their intention to wear the stoles, three national Jewish organizations and pro-Israel students protested that the stoles, similar to those worn by members of Hamas, were intended as a show of support for terrorism and suicide bombers.
Spokesmen for the Muslim students and for the Council of American-Islamic Relations countered that the inscriptions translated as a profession of faith in Allah and included the words, "God, increase my knowledge."
However, the on-campus Jewish groups and their off-campus allies, like StandWithUs, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AJCongress, said that such statements of faith are typically also used by radical Islamic leaders to inspire their followers to become "martyrs" or suicide bombers.
On-campus Jewish groups were upset that the administration did not get outside verification of the meaning and symbolic nature of the stole, said Jeffrey Rips, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County.
"I'm not saying the message is right or wrong, but any Muslim who does not have an agenda would not wear the stoles," said Tashbih Sayyed, a practicing Muslim who is the president of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and the editor-in-chief of two Muslim newspapers: Pakistan Today and Muslim World Today.
The local dispute was given national currency when Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly reported that the Muslim students planned to "signify their support for the terrorist group, Hamas."
"The university has received 400 e-mails and faxes from all over the world on this issue -- and many threatened violence at the commencement," said Randy Lewis, UC Irvine's executive associate dean of students.
Local and national officials of the ADL, Zionist Organization of America and AJCongress protested the planned Muslim display to UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone and asked him to intervene or at least criticize the students' action.
University officials responded that the Muslim students' right of expression was protected by the Constitution and that similar commencement displays last year at UC Berkeley and UCLA had taken place without causing problems.
Seven commencements for undergraduates from different schools and departments were held throughout Saturday on the Irvine campus without any reported incidents, although security was unusually tight.
Merav Ceren, 20, president of Anteaters for Israel -- using the name of the UCI mascot -- said her group, which had protested the Muslim display to the campus administration, had decided not to disturb the commencement ceremonies.
Yet, after careful deliberation, the Jewish groups decided against signing a statement the administration proposed last Thursday in a meeting with the Jewish groups "in support of a dignified and safe commencement ceremony."
"We feel that Jewish safety has been compromised on campus," said Ceren, referring to an incident where a rock was thrown at a Jewish student and other incidents of lesser harassment, such as obscene gestures directed at noticeable Jewish students when they walked across campus.
"And the [second half of statement] asked us to say that we were proud of the campus," Ceren said. "That means we are proud of the administration -- but we [are not]."
Joseph Hekmat, a member of the pro-Israel group, was one of the graduates at the School of Social Sciences commencement. Although a number of Muslim students were in the same graduating class, Hekmat said he did not see anyone wearing the controversial stole.
However, the dispute pointed to the strong underlying tensions on campus. Last year, a display by Hillel students commemorating the Holocaust was vandalized. Last month, an Anti-Zionist Week on campus featured an extremist Islamic cleric and a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Israel Naturei Karta, Ceren said.
Arab students, in turn, protested when a cardboard "wall" they created, symbolizing Israel's security fence, was set on fire. No perpetrators have been identified in any of the incidents.
"The Jewish students here definitely live in an atmosphere of tension," Ceren said.
But in the wake of "stolegate," there are currently moves on campus to diffuse the tensions. Byron Breland, director of student judicial affairs, is putting together a "conflict escalation prevention team," in which students can enroll to serve as middlemen to put out fires when fights arise.
Also, campus administration officials are trying to organize a dialogue between the Muslim and Arab student groups and the Jewish student groups, something the Jewish students said they have wanted for a long time.
Staff writer Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.