February 16, 2011
Muslim criminals, Jewish activists?
Is there a different standard of justice in this country for Muslims and Jews when it comes to protesting Israeli officials?
A recent development here in Southern California indicates that there is.
In November 2010, I went to New Orleans along with a dozen Jewish students and young activists to participate in A Jewish Voice for Peace’s Jewish Youth Leadership Institute. That week culminated with five of my colleagues disrupting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Jewish General Assembly. Inside the hall, one audience member tried to choke my friend and another ripped apart one of our banners with his teeth. Afterward, however, the protest was met with enormous warmth from the public. More than 300 Jewish students signed on to our “Young, Jewish and Proud” declaration, and we received praise from many others, including Jewish columnists and journalists. Finally, young Jews had challenged the “Israel right or wrong crowd” and had used nonviolent protest to do so.
Nine months earlier, 11 Muslim students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), did the exact same thing when Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren visited their campus. In contrast to the way we were treated, they were met with contempt. The same voices that rushed to praise us stayed dead silent. The hue and cry over their actions has led the Orange County district attorney’s office to press criminal charges against the students.
The marked difference in reactions reveals something disturbing about American discourse on the Middle East.
After our protest, an editorial in The Jewish Journal (Nov. 12, 2010) said the salient difference between our protest and Irvine’s was that we were young Jews who saw ourselves “as representing the best interests of Israel.” This depiction of us is surprising as we have never identified ourselves collectively as Zionist or anti-Zionist and have never expressed any loyalty to the State of Israel. But our group, which includes Israelis, does see itself as loyal to the people on the ground, Palestinian and Israeli, who suffer because of Israel’s ongoing maltreatment of the Palestinians.
This makes us quite similar to the Irvine students, except that unlike us, some of them lost loved ones in Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza that left nearly 1,400 Palestinians dead. We were upset about the same issues they were, we were as angry at Israel as they were, and we were as disruptive to the “peace” as they were. Both protests criticized Israeli policy. We shouted, “The siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel.” The Irvine students shouted, “Defending war crimes is not free speech.” In short, the only difference between the protesters in New Orleans and those in Irvine is that the former are Jewish, the latter Muslim.
The reality is, we as Jews get more deference than Muslims do whether we speak about the Middle East or whether we shout about it. And frankly, the difference in reactions indicates that there are some Americans who don’t want Muslim voices to be widely heard or legitimized, and feel safer when Muslims are met with a repressive response. This should trouble all of us. How can we possibly have an honest conversation about a deeply important foreign-policy issue when the specter of law enforcement harassment and life-altering criminalization hangs over the heads of Arabs and Muslims who speak up for what they believe?
During my years working on this issue, I have been called naïve, self-hating and a traitor. I have been slurred and threatened by unbalanced people. My phone number and e-mail addresses have been posted on vulgar Web sites. But the government has never joined in to try and charge me with a crime.
Israeli policies toward Palestinians affect those students at Irvine as much as they affect us, if not more; yet when they behave in the same way that protesters have behaved in America for decades, they are punished far more harshly.
The Orange County district attorney should drop the charges against these Muslim students. Anything else is discrimination, plain and simple. l