August 21, 2008
Quiet war on campus: Israel remains under attack despite fewer public protests
Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)The chancellorship at UCI came with a heavy tariff for Michael Drake.
When he took over in July 2005, the campus had earned a reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel rhetoric and demonstrations. The school has a relatively small Jewish community, less than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students out of a total student population of about 25,000, and UCI's Muslim Student Union was regularly bringing to campus speakers who praised suicide bombers as freedom fighters and trashed Israelis as Nazis. Dialogue had descended into diatribes, and some Jewish students had complained of feeling unsafe; a few, like Alouan, had left.
Worse yet, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights was investigating more than two-dozen claims from Jewish and non-Jewish students who alleged being harassed on campus for supporting Israel. Many in the Jewish community felt the UCI administration was too hands-off, that they were hiding behind the First Amendment and the function of academia as an open forum for the challenging and stretching of ideas.
"One person's hate speech is another person's education," Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs, reportedly said during an October 2006 meeting with Drake and about a dozen Jewish student leaders.
(In a recent interview, Gomez characterized that quote, which was reported by one participant, as "another distortion" and said his point was that students are protected constitutionally when their speech causes discomfort and even emotional pain, as long as it doesn't incite violence.)
Then this past February, a task force on anti-Semitism, originally assembled by the executive director of UCI Hillel and later cut loose, released a 34-page report condemning university officials for turning a blind eye to anti-Semitic activism and shirking its responsibility to ensure the safety of every student on campus.
The Orange County Independent Task Force didn't reserve its blast for the administration but scattered buckshot across local Jewish communal leadership. It implored organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Orange County to stop talking and start doing, and it urged Drake to "publicly identify and denounce hate speech."
As for "students with a strong Jewish identity," the task force recommended they look elsewhere.
The crescendo in what has seemed a very long saga came a month later in Washington, when Hillel invited Drake to speak on an opening-session panel, "Fostering a More Civil Society," at its annual international summit.
Drake spoke generally for seven minutes without mentioning the elephant in the room. And there was no denying its presence. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) had castigated Hillel for hosting Drake, and ZOA President Morton Klein was seated a few rows from the front. As soon as the question and answer portion began, Klein challenged Drake's desire to stay content-neutral.
"Let me just make it clear," Drake responded. "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."
For Klein and many other supporters of Israel, Drake's statement, which has been repeated in various iterations, wasn't nearly strong enough.
"He has condemned anti-Semitism generally," Klein said in a recent interview, "but has not condemned these programs by name and, therefore, has not told the Muslim students that the lies they are disseminating are at odds with what the university stands for."
A UCI spokeswoman said Drake would be unavailable for this article and offered Gomez, who said problems on campus have been exaggerated and that the university is reducing tension by creating channels for dialogue.
"It's like an earthquake," Gomez said of UCI's public image. "The farther away you are, the more damage you think was done."
Some moments have been uglier than others, he said, but laws have not been broken and the university has served its role as a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Indeed, after completing its investigation last November, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights declined to pursue further action against the university. Gomez trumpeted this as an exoneration of unwarranted accusations.
"Discomfort is not in and of itself bad for learning," he said back in May, after indulging at the open-air hookah bar during iFest. "It's called stretching and wrestling with ideas."
However, the Office of Civil Rights confirmed in its report that many of the complaints had merit. The case was dropped because each complaint was either more than 180 days old when reported, and therefore inactionable, or was outside the office's authority. The day is not done, though. A separate investigation continues into complaints of anti-Semitic harassment from May 2007.