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.”
Also in the crowd were at least two filmmakers shooting footage for forthcoming documentaries about anti-Israel activity on UC campuses.
After Epstein’s speech, a small number of Jewish and Muslim students were seen having private discussions about the conflict, though most of the students kept to their own groups. Many Jewish students seemed largely unbothered by the event.
“I have mixed emotions,” said third-year student Jackie Hartfield. “Obviously we hate to see this. There’s nothing worse than seeing a bloody Israeli flag. But this event has brought the Jewish community together.”
“We’re just trying to get through this week to get to iFest,” she said, referring to UCI’s weeklong celebration of Israel sponsored by campus Jewish and community groups that will take place May 23-28.
“As an active AFI member, I feel the tension, but I’ve learned to deal with it so it doesn’t affect me personally as much,” said Sepi Termechi.
“I’m supportive of today’s event,” said Katy Escobar. A third-year student who said she is neither Jewish nor Muslim, Escobar said Israeli policies toward Palestinians are “not as bad as Apartheid,” but considers Israel’s Law of Return to be preferential treatment to Jewish on the basis of religion while Palestinians are denied the ability to return to Israeli territory.
Members of the MSU and Epstein declined repeated requests for comments.
Earlier in the day, a group of more than 30 faculty members submitted a letter for publication to the New University, UCI’s official newspaper, in which they took issue with what they called “hate-promoting actions” and “activities on campus that foment hatred against Jews and Israelis.” Pointing to incidents such the Star of David depicted as akin to a swastika, and a statement by a speaker invited to campus by the MSU that the Zionist Jew is a party of Satan, the signatories stated that “some community members, students, and faculty indeed feel intimidated, and at times even unsafe.”
“Actions that demonize and derogate others, such as the previous events that have occurred on our campus noted above, have contributed to UCI’s developing a growing reputation as a center of hate and intolerance,” the letter stated. “Our campus deserves better.”
That evening, KPCC public radio’s Air Talk program sponsored a forum at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Theater that examined tensions between Muslim and Jewish students at UCI and explored ways to move the issue forward. Panelists for the show, hosted by Larry Mantle and taped live to air for broadcast Tuesday, included former AFI President Isaac Yerushalmi and Omar Zarka, who was president of the MSU from 2007-2009. Yerushalmi is currently a fifth-year student at UCI; Zarka is currently attending UCLA as a graduate student.
Salam Al-Maryati, executive director and founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and David Lehrer, president of the non-profit group Community Advocates, Inc., also appeared on the panel. Both groups are based in Los Angeles.
Mantle said that UCI administrators declined to participate in the event.
Zarka said that Muslim students at UCI felt frustrated by what he called a double standard when it came to their events about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. MSU programs are scrutinized far more than those sponsored by Jewish groups, space had been denied, and their speakers were not supported by the university, as were those brought by Jewish students, he said.
“We’ve been so frustrated for so long as to the treatment we’ve been receiving,” Zarka said. “The Chancellor is good regarding the right to free speech but on the actual ground we’ve seen so many instances where the university has implemented selective treatment.”
Yerushalmi pointed to “gripes” Jewish students had with Muslim students, including having programs interrupted by anti-Israel protesters.
“We try to express our views but we’re very often shouted down or intimidated on campus. In 2008, leaders of the MSU were caught tearing down posters of our event. We find it difficult to express ourselves without having to deal with things like that.”
He also pointed to several speakers brought to campus by the MSU, such as Oakland firebrand cleric Amir Abdel Malik Ali, who preach hatred against Zionists and Jews.
“The MSU doesn’t endorse every word that comes out of a speaker’s mouth,” Zarka responded, adding that his group never felt the need to repudiate any of the comments which Jewish students perceived as anti-Semitic.
Malik Ali will be speaking at the MSU event on campus this Thursday.
Questions from the audience included one asking how panelists believed their groups could work together to reduce tensions on campus. Zarka and Yerushalmi shared with the more than 100 mostly Muslim and Jewish community members attending the free event their fruitless efforts to bring their respective groups together to discuss or debate the issues.
“There are many students on both sides on both sides who are very passionate but I don’t think it’s an excuse not to have dialog,” Yerushalmi said. He pointed to what he believes is a policy among Muslim students not to engage with Jewish students outside the parameters of the Middle East conflict.
“Until our message is given an equal platform, I don’t see how that’s going to work,” Zarka said.