At a speech given Monday evening on the University of California Irvine campus by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassor to the United States, campus police arrested 12 young adults, including three UCI students, among them the president of the university’s Muslim Student Union (MSU). The arrests were for persistent unruly disruptions of the event in what witnesses called a “coordinated attack.”
Oren came to the Orange County campus on Feb. 8 to address an overflow crowd of more than 600 students, faculty and community members at the UCI Student Center on the subject “U.S.-Israel Relations: A Historical Perspective.” He was interrupted 10 times by boisterous hecklers and dozens of jeering students before the anti-Israel protesters walked out, en mass, to stage a demonstration outside.
Security was tight on the campus, where the MSU has been extremely active in staging anti-Israel protests, and where multiple incidents of crossfire and unrest between anti- and pro-Israel demonstrators have occurred at public events. In 2007, anti-Israel protestors unfurled provocative banners and heckled conservative political analyst Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum during a lecture titled, “The Threat to Israel’s Existence.”
With rumors circulating of students’ plans to disrupt Oren’s speech, university officials spoke to MSU members before the event in an attempt to ensure civil discourse, according to Shalom C. Elcott, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation Orange County. The MSU had issued an email earlier in the day condemning Oren’s presence on campus.
Signs at the entry to the ballroom where Oren was to speak stated that no signs, posters, banners or flyers would be allowed inside.
“A university is an opportunity for open dialogue, and we expect and relish spirited discussions, but we have the highest expectation for civility and respect,” Mark Petracca, UCI political science department Chair and event moderator, said in his opening remarks.
Oren, a New Jersey native and best-selling author of two authoritative books on the Middle East, was less than two minutes into his talk when the first heckler jumped up and shouted, ”Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” followed by thunderous applause and cheers from protestors seated in groups throughout the audience. Oren continued to talk, only to be interrupted every few minutes by another protestor and more cheering and boos. Many audience members also cheered Oren.
By the third interruption, police began escorting individual protestors out of the room. Opponents of Oren’s speech could be seen text messaging one another and using their cell phones to videotape the speech and the audience.
“This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave,” a visibly upset Petracca said from the podium, calling for respect and civility. “Shame on you.”
Fed up after several interruptions, Israel supporters called for detractors to leave while protestors responded with jeers. Oren walked off the stage after the fourth interruption, as university officials admonished protestors for their behavior. Petracca and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake said they were embarrassed on behalf of the university.
“We do not value heckling; we do not value those who do not share our values of respect,” said Drake. “The principles that make us a great university have been violated this evening.”
Many Jewish audience members sang songs in support of Israel as they waited for the program to resume.
Oren returned to the stage nearly 20 minutes later, asking for a show of hospitality, which he said typifies Middle East culture. When dozens more protestors stood up and left the room as a group several minutes later, with only a few staying behind, Oren told the remaining audience he wished they had stayed, because he felt they needed to hear what he had to say.
Shouts and chanting could be heard from the street as Oren resumed his presentation, henceforth uninterrupted.
Oren described U.S.-Israel ties as “the most multifaceted and multilayered relationship the U.S. has ever had with another country.” Despite initial disagreements, Israel’s government and the Obama Administration have come to see eye-to-eye on several potential obstacles to engagement, including the need to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without preconditions and the danger posed by Iran as it continues to enrich uranium to potential weapons grade, he said.
The arrested individuals will be charged with disturbing the peace and violations of the university’s student code of conduct, Elcott said. Campus Chief of Police Paul Henisey confirmed that three UCI students were arrested along with nine others, who he said may be students at other universities. Campus police will submit investigative reports on the UCI students’ activities to the university conduct officer for disciplinary hearings, which could result in probation, suspension or expulsion, Henisey said. The department will provide information on the other students to their campus administrators. Charges against all 12 will also be submitted to the Orange County district attorney’s office.
After the event, members of the audience expressed anger and frustration.
“Every time there’s an event they’re opposed to, they disrupt it,” said Pam Chozen, a Laguna Beach resident who said she had felt concerned for her personal safety. “No one from the other side would think of disrupting an MSU event.”
“We haven’t seen this type of thing at events recently,” said Moran Cohen, president of Anteaters for Israel the group that brought Oren to campus. “I think it motivates kids to see that we need to care and show our perspective, but it makes me feel bad that even after all our efforts, we still have students our own age who can’t act respectfully.”
Oren’s speech was sponsored by a host of university and community organizations and was made possible by a grant from the Rose Project of Jewish Federation Orange County.
“I was happy to speak at UC Irvine tonight, I was even happier to reach out and create dialogue between the diverse groups of the UC Irvine community,” Oren said in a written statement following the event. “Israel will never be discouraged for the prospects of peace. Israel extends her hand for peace from UC campuses all the way to Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. I hope that tonight’s disturbances are not a deterrent to those who want peace, but rather an awakening of the work that still remains.”
“We wish the campus officials had been swifter to respond to these types of incidents and commend the university police and administration for taking action, making arrests and escorting protagonists out of the room,” Elcott said. “We are confident that the university will follow through and take action against the students and the MSU so these incidents can be eliminated and civil discourse can reign.”
Courtesy of the Orange County Register comes this excellent video of the speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on Monday night.
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