April 13, 2010
Is UC Irvine safe for Jews?
When worlds collide.
(Page 4 - Previous Page)
“These students are taking on these big issues and having very interesting debates online,” Garb said. “They go on and on about current issues in the Middle East. Sometimes they get frustrated with each other. Sometimes they listen to each other. They ask questions like, ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘I’d like to hear more about that,’ in contrast to the persuasion conversions we’re all used to. An intellectual curiosity is developing among these students expressing a lot of respect for each other and respectfully disagreeing.”
The situation on campus also has spurred interest by some in the local Jewish community in creating an environment at UCI where students feel confident and secure in their Jewish and pro-Israel identities. Foremost among these is the Rose Project, launched by the Jewish Federation Orange County in mid-2008, a proactive strategy to strengthen Jewish life by supporting student involvement in Jewish political, social and cultural activities and creating student advocates able to contend with the MSU and to promote meaningful dialogue. It is named for the Irvine-based Ernest and Irma Rose Foundation, which provided it with $400,000 in seed money and support for the next three years.
“The Rose Project was in part created because we believed that while steps should be taken to diminish the marginalizing and incredibly harmful hate speech, more important, Jewish students need to be given opportunities for self-expression, Jewish identity and to gain knowledge of academic topics surrounding Israel and the Middle East,” said Jeff Margolis, Rose Project co-chair. “It may seem trite to say, but the best way to deal with hateful forces is to create positive programs. That’s the belief of the Rose Project.”
Thus far, the project has twice underwritten the OTI missions to the Middle East, sent dozens of students to leadership and Israel advocacy training programs and encouraged participation in Taglit Birthright Israel. It has also funded iFest, the Jewish students’ response to the MSU’s awareness week, where thousands of students gather for hookah, falafel and upbeat music in celebration of Israel’s culture, history and achievements. A Jewish studies program along the lines of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies is on the table.
“In my first year, the Jewish community was highly sprinkled, AEPhi was in its infancy, and Hillel only provided Shabbat dinner,” said Ami Kurzweil, the student president of Hillel at UCI. “In the past four years, we have a center and activities and events on a daily basis.”
“You feel a very close bond with every other Jew on campus,” said David Drabinsky, president of AEPi.
With about 300 active students in the Hillel database, encouraging wider participation among current students is a major goal of Jewish campus leadership, according to Hillel’s Fruchtman. There is also in intensive effort under way to recruit more Jewish students to the school, which Rose Project supporters and many students say is the only effective long-term way to counter anti-Israel activity.
“We have to make this campus a great place for Jewish students to be,” Fruchtman said. “If we use more resources to fight the MSU than to build Jewish life, then we’re failing.”
As usual, when it comes to Jewish life at UCI, not everyone agrees. Following the Oren incident in February, the ZOA appealed to prospective students to apply elsewhere.
“If you look at the demographics, there are 900 to 1,200 Jewish students at UCI,” said Ted Bleiweis, executive director of the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism. “Of those, look at the number of students who are activists involved in the ongoing situation on campus. There’s not a lot of activism going on, and certainly not a lot of Jewish activism. One can argue that more Jewish students would solve the problem, but I don’t see that happening. To have to deal with this kind of hatred and animosity is shameful, and it’s difficult for them.”
Leaders of five UCI Jewish student organizations called the ZOA’s appeal “counterproductive and one of the worst ways to deal with the MSU at UCI.”
Weeks away from the anticipated May 10 start of the MSU’s awareness week and the third annual iFest due to follow, Muslim-Jewish relations on campus remain mixed. Even so, Jewish students-turned-advocates are eager to set a new agenda of Jewish life at UCI.
“This is my passion,” former Brandeis student Gindi said. “I want to bring new students to campus and get more people involved. I think the Jewish students should be represented, and I want to do this.”