A Holocaust survivor and Palestinian rights activist and a public radio program on relations between Muslim and Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) kicked off the university’s “Israeli Apartheid Week” sponsored by its Muslim Student Union (MSU) on May 10 on a day that saw more members of the pro-Israel community on campus than Palestinian supporters.
“I have a deep passion for human rights and silence isn’t an option,” said Hedy Epstein, 85, speaking at the MSU’s annual Palestinian awareness program. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to confront human rights violations.”
Epstein escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 at the age of 14 via a kindertransport to England, according to her website. Her parents, whom she described as anti-Zionist, perished, most likely at Auschwitz. She has participated in five missions to the West Bank under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led organization founded in 2001 that claims to resist Israeli occupation through non-violence. The ISN has been criticized by Jewish organizations for voicing support for groups who engage in armed resistance against Israel.
Donning a red vest she received during one of her trips, Epstein spoke about demonstrating alongside Palestinian civilians in West Bank villages.
Epstein said she plans to participate in a forthcoming mission to Gaza sponsored by the Free Gaza Movement which will attempt to bring in building materials which she said Israel has prohibited.
UC Irvine’s annual Israeli Apartheid Week marks the launch of an MSU campaign to move UCI to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, an effort similar to those underway at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, according to the group’s president Mohamed Abdelgany. Urging the audience to “listen with open hearts and open ears,” he said the MSU would seek to build coalitions with socially conscious student groups to find a way to stop what he called “Israeli aggression.”
Yet on a campus that has been the scene of boisterous anti-Israel demonstrations and often simultaneous counter protests by Israel supporters, the day was relatively quiet, with Israel and Palestinian advocates relying on images and written words to get their messages across. Bloody Israeli flags and a mock “Apartheid wall” depicting Israel as a racist and genocidal regime were exhibited along the “Flagpoles” area of campus off Pereira Drive in a section known as the “free speech zone.” A mock green tank with the word “Goliath” written on it was parked near tables where MSU members distributed “Free Palestine” T-shirts and encouraged passers-by to add their name to a list of supporters of the UCI Divest Campaign.
Several dozen male students donning T-shirts with the slogans “To Exist is to Resist,” and “UC Intifada” were met by a similar number of Jewish students wearing shirts that read “I AM PRO” on the front and “Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace” on the back. Yards away from the MSU exhibits, Anteaters for Israel (AFI), the pro-Israel group on campus named for UCI’s mascot, staffed an information booth and distributed pro-Israel flyers. One Jewish student stood near the Apartheid wall with a sign that said “Caution: Hate Speech Zone.”
Epstein’s presentation was preceded by remarks by Russell Curry, a 2009 UCI graduate, who said during a campus appearance in March that he had participated in a Viva Palestina USA convoy to Gaza last July. The FBI is currently investigating allegations that the MSU raised funds for that convoy that were said to have been handed to Hamas.
MSU spokesperson Hadeer Soliman told the audience that programs taking place throughout the week are meant to educate students on the Palestinian issue.
“This event has often been misconstrued as one that harbors anti-Semitism,” Soliman said. “The MSU has clarified that racism against anyone, including people of the Jewish faith, is not tolerated.”
“It is hypocritical and immoral to label anyone willing to speak up against the racist and genocidal policies of Israel anti-Semitic,” she continued. “It is imperative that we call for an end of 62 years of repression.”
Despite a relatively low student turnout compared to past years, the day was marked by what observers called an unusually large number of Jewish community members who carried Israeli flags and signs expressing solidarity with Israel and the Jewish students. Some said they represented groups such as the Orange County Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, StandWithUs and the Orange County Task Force on Anti-Semitism. Others said they were not affiliated with any organization. StandWithUs distributed pamphlets and brought signs saying “Don’t bring hate to our community.”
“We are Israelis, and we’ll never let people talk hatred against us,” said Yaffi Sevy, an Israeli who has lived in Irvine for 20 years. “We’re fighting for our life. They’re fighting for theirs, but putting Israel in a negative light is wrong. We need to show our presence. We’re united as a Jewish community.”
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