"Free Zaidi," read signs held by pro-Palestinian students at UC Riverside during an on-campus rally May 22 organized in support of fellow student, Nauman Zaidi, who was imprisoned by Israeli authorities May 10 for entering the Church of the Nativity during the recent standoff in Bethlehem.
Zaidi, who entered the church in an effort to bring food and water to Palestinian militants, was accompanied by UC Berkeley student Robert O'Neil. Both students were freed and returned to the United States May 26.
The student activists, who were studying at the American University of Cairo, were recently dismissed from the University of California Education Abroad Program for violating the UC safety code of conduct that forbade them from visiting the West Bank. The dismissal ultimately resulted in their release from their respective schools.
Hanan Eisenman, a UC spokesperson, said, "The students have not been expelled. They can petition for re-enrollment and do not have to reapply."
While UC officials insist that Zaidi was dismissed from the Education Abroad Program strictly for safety reasons and not for political affiliation, UC Riverside pro-Palestinian students were not appeased. The rally, organized by the student organization, Coalition for Peace and Human Rights, took place during UC Riverside's weekly Wednesday on-campus concert.
"They were saying things like, 'Zaidi should be considered a hero,'" said Chaim Shapiro, director of UC Riverside Hillel.
Hanna Gershfeld, a Jewish student at UC Riverside who works for the university organization that coordinates the concerts, said, "I went to set up my table, and we saw the protesters standing there with signs that read 'Free Palestine' or 'Free Zaidi.' We weren't expecting it."
Gershfeld said she reported the situation to the university's marketing manager, who notified the dean of student affairs, but the protesters "were within their First Amendment rights, so there was nothing they could do."
However, as the rally continued the protesters became increasingly boisterous. "After the concert was over and the band cleared the stage, they went on stage and started using the microphone until it was cut off," said Gil Bar-Zion, Hillel student leader.
In addition, the protesters chalked university sidewalks with pro-Palestinian and pro-Zaidi slogans. Both acts are violations of UC rules. "Chalking and using amplified sound are not allowed without a UC permit," explained Shapiro, but no actions have been taken yet by the school.
During the protest, Hillel members set up a booth and attempted "to be there within our limits by passing out fliers, talking to students and answering questions," Bar-Zion said. "I personally felt a bit outraged and insulted. They were misconstruing a lot of facts."
According to Ed Dickens, a State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman, Zaidi remained in Israeli custody as long as he did only because he "refused to cooperate in deportation." Dickens said Zaidi was unwilling to accept financial support from his parents in order to purchase a ticket home." Only recently did "Mr. Zaidi agree to be deported by the Israelis," he said.
Although Zaidi will soon return to his home in Rancho Cucamonga, there has been no word about his desire to re-enroll at UC Riverside in the fall. If Zaidi does opt for re-enrollment, UC administrators are willing to cooperate.
Many Jewish students, however, do not necessarily support Zaidi's re-enrollment. "The UC shouldn't fold just because of pressures from protesters," Ben-Zion said.