February 21, 2008
Report says UCI is a hostile place for Jewish students
A hidden camera captured an anti-Semitic speech by Amir Abdel Malik Ali at UCI Muslim Student Union: " Zionist Jews were behind 9/11"
An anti-Israel speaker praises suicide bombers. Posters display Nazi symbols, anti-Israel slogans and the Israeli flag with blood dripping from the Magen David. A Muslim student says "F--- Israel," drops his drawers and shows his swastika tattoo to a non-Jewish student.
Such allegations, detailed last week in a 34-page report by an independent task force on anti-Semitism at University of California, Irvine (UCI), are not new. During the past few years, the Orange County campus has been the subject of news reports and protests because of the pro-Palestinian campaign of its Muslim Student Union (MSU). Anti-Israel, and at times anti-Jewish, rantings are often spewed by radical speakers these students have invited for campus events dubbed "Zio-Nazis," "The UC Intifada: How You Can Help Palestine" and "From Auschwitz to Gaza: The Politics of Genocide," the last of which was held this month.
The 12-member task force was formed by Hillel Executive Director Jeffrey T. Rips and community activist Ted Bleiweis in December 2006 in the wake of allegations that UCI's vice chancellor made the statement: "One person's hate speech is another person's education." Rips and Bleiweis selected the initial members, and those members added a few more to the committee, which included a former member of UCI's medical school faculty, four rabbis and a Presbyterian pastor. Hillel lost interest in the task force last summer and cut it loose. It then became the Orange County Independent Task Force.
The extent of the anti-Semitic activities at UCI were confirmed by a November report from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which spent three years investigating 26 complaints by Jewish and non-Jewish students against the university. But the Office of Civil Rights found that the complaints were all either more than 180 days old when reported, and therefore inactionable, or were outside its jurisdiction. As a result, university officials were cleared of accusations of violating the civil rights of students who claimed they had been discriminated against because of their religion or nation of origin.
The report just released by the independent task force, however, claims university officials are responsible for allowing Muslim students and anti-Israel speakers to persecute Jewish students.
In a press statement, UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake, who declined the task force's request for an interview, pointed to the civil rights office's assertion that administrators "promptly and effectively" responded to complaints and said that though he disapproves of the nature of speech supported by the MSU, there is little he can do to stop it.
"The First Amendment mandates that speech is protected," said Drake, who ascended to the university's top spot in May 2005. "We are obligated to, and will continue to, follow the law. There are those who continue to claim that by protecting speech, we endorse it. This is simply not true.
"Protecting speech means allowing it to take place but does not mean endorsing, supporting or in any way evaluating that speech. We have clearly stated our active opposition to harassment and racism, including anti-Semitism, and to other forms of categorization," he said.
The task force, however, in addition to urging Drake to "publicly identify and denounce hate speech," recommends Jewish students reconsider attending the only coastal University of California campus between those in La Jolla and Westwood.
"Students with a strong Jewish identity should consider enrolling elsewhere unless and until tangible changes are made," the report states. "It is incumbent on UCI to make itself a hospitable environment, not the Jewish students."
That's a misguided approach, said Kevin O'Grady, Orange County-Long Beach regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.
"What UC Irvine needs," he said, "is exactly those types of students, Jewish students with strong Jewish identities who can stand up to that type of rhetoric."
The task force singled out the ADL branch for being ineffective, along with the Jewish Federation of Orange County, American Jewish Committee and Hillel, but O'Grady called that criticism unfair. He said that while the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs have helped students push back against the "anti-Zionists" -- students and speakers who identify themselves as only hating the State of Israel and its supporters, not all Jews -- the major organizations also have been working behind the scenes, hosting the chancellor at town hall meetings and encouraging the UCI administration to cool the climate on campus.
"There were many incidents in the past. We are seeing a mere fraction of those incidents today," said Shalom C. Elcott, Orange County Federation CEO. "We have a new chancellor and a much stronger Jewish community, and the two of those will ensure the university keeps this on the front burner.
"We can't sweep it under the rug," he continued. "We have to deal with the issues as they come, on their merit. In the meantime, I want to build Jewish identity on campus. That is the most important thing we can do as a Jewish federation and a community that care about our young adults."
The problem for members of the task force was that improvements have been slow and, they would say, insufficient.
Students agreed the atmosphere at UCI is not as volatile as it was -- "Two years ago when I was on campus, it wouldn't be, 'We're against Zionists and Israelis.' It was, 'We're against Jews,'" said Reut Cohen, who graduated last September -- but the climate for Jews remains far from peaceful.
"I cannot count the number of students I have had to counsel," said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, a member of the task force and associate rabbi of the university's interfaith center. "Every single time these speakers are brought to campus -- these hateful speakers -- it puts Jewish students under great emotional stress, especially students whose families have suffered great persecution, particularly families kicked out of Iran, or students from Israel who are familiar with hate on Palestinian TV.
"They are distraught," he said. "They can't focus on their studies; they have to leave the school for the day.... Students have come to me in tears."