April 13, 2010
Is UC Irvine safe for Jews?
When worlds collide.
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
The Right to Free Speech
Protests to the school’s administration by Jewish community and student groups over the MSU’s anti-Semitic rhetoric historically have been met by official insistence that, as a public university, UCI is obligated to uphold the principle of free speech, even when certain groups find that speech objectionable or when it contradicts the values of the university. UCI could not and would not interfere with students’ First Amendment rights, complainants have been told.
But MSU members have also been accused of harassing, intimidating and threatening Jewish students and supporters of Israel. In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that there have been more than two dozen religiously motivated hate incidents, including swastikas on campus property, rocks thrown at a Jewish student and comments such as “dirty Jew” and “slaughter the Jew.” A national pro-Israel advocacy group, ZOA also accused the administration of turning a blind eye to a longstanding pattern of anti-Semitic discrimination.
A three-year investigation by the OCR resulted in a ruling that the incidents were inactionable because a 180-day statute of limitations had expired, and that some of the charges were outside the judicial body’s authority. The administration was also cleared of mishandling the incidents. The case was dismissed, but not before the OCR acknowledged that many of the complaints had merit.
Then, in 2008, an independent task force on anti-Semitism blasted university officials for allowing a climate of anti-Semitism to fester on campus and in classrooms, where faculty members were said to promote an anti-Israel agenda. The report called upon UCI Chancellor Michael Drake to go beyond the general condemnations of hate speech he had issued in the past and to denounce by name the anti-Semitic speakers the MSU was inviting to campus.
Jeffrey Rips, who met regularly with UCI brass from 1997 to 2008 as executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, said that the OCR and task force investigations, combined with advocacy from Jewish community groups, including StandWithUs, which has been very present on the UCI campus, marked a turning point for the administration.
“The ADL, Hillel, ZOA and others made the university astutely aware of what was going on. The administration looked at themselves and did an internal evaluation. They created protocols and standards for student events. When stuff started happening, I don’t think the university had a plan within the dean of students’ office, but they did a few years later. I think it was the result of all of our conversations. The administration was a partner in this,” Rips said.
One of the most significant changes, according to the task force, was the reversal of the university’s objection to recording speakers at MSU events. With greater public access and scrutiny came increased awareness of the hate-spewing on campus.
Is Enough Being Done?
Even students who view the campus favorably wrestle with how the administration should act.
“It’s always been a dilemma for me: What should we expect from the administration?” said Yerushalmi, noting that the chancellor invites Jewish student leaders to discuss the mood on campus several times a year. “I think they’re concerned by the situation, but there are a lot of legal complexities over what they can and can’t do. I’m not sure if they’re allowed to comment on certain speakers. I think the administration has good intentions and tries to give us support where they can.”
To be sure, Drake has issued statements over the years denouncing hate and calling on students to exercise tolerance and civility. Addressing delegates at an international Hillel summit shortly after the task force released its report, Drake said, “We absolutely deplore and reject hate speech and bigotry, anti-Semitism. We reject and deplore those absolutely and in every way that it occurs. People bring divisive messages to [all of] our campuses. We reject those intellectually; emotionally we find them repugnant; we find them repugnant morally.”
Still, Jewish students and their supporters believe the chancellor and other school officials could specifically condemn the anti-Semitic nature of MSU activities without wading into First Amendment waters.
“I am not asking the UCI administration to censor the hate speech,” Milstein wrote in her 2009 article. “I am asking them to denounce this style of rhetoric and displays, just as they would denounce campaigns for white supremacy, sexism or Islamophobia.
That sort of distinction was made last month by Michael Ignatieff, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, on the eve of “Israel Apartheid Week,” a delegitimization campaign by anti-Israel groups held annually on college campuses worldwide and akin to the MSU’s springtime event.
Calling on Canadians to condemn the campaign, Ignatieff stated, “Apartheid is defined, in international law, as a crime against humanity. Israeli Apartheid Week is a deliberate attempt to portray the Jewish state as criminal.
“The very premise of Israeli Apartheid Week runs counter to our shared values of mutual respect and tolerance, regardless of nationality, race or creed. It is an attempt to heighten the tensions in our communities around the tragic conflict in the Middle East.”
“There are multiple ways to attack an issue, especially at a university,” said Leslie Millerd, UCI director of communications for student affairs, who insists that the actions of a small group of students do not define the university. “Don’t assume that because someone isn’t doing something one way, they’re not doing it another way.”
To that end, UC Irvine’s administration is creating programs to instill values of tolerance, civility and mutual respect among all students. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, the university has sponsored guest speaker events on both sides.
Outside the media glare, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other students have been meeting since 2007 under the auspices of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI). The program, launched at UCI and now spreading to other campuses, allows students to educate themselves on the history of the conflict and to challenge preconceived narratives as they address cultural and religious differences and learn principles of conflict resolution. (AFI and Hillel have official representation in OTI. MSU has said it would not send delegates in its name but has members who participate.) The program has had two interfaith trips to Israel that included visits to the Palestinian territories, and a third trip is planned for September. On these trips, faculty adviser Paula Garb said, students “shift their thinking enough that they are open to hearing other perspectives.”