The University of California, Irvine administration recently recommended the suspension of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) from campus for one academic year for violating four separate university policies—including disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace—in connection with demonstrations against a speech on campus by Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren. These students methodically interrupted the ambassador at the Feb. 8 event, forcing him to leave the stage. He finished his talk only after police arrested 11 students.
This important UC Irvine decision sets a new standard for how student groups operate on our campus. The university must be a place for the free exchange of ideas. However, this can only be accomplished if all parties subscribe to a code of civility and mutual respect. MSU crossed the line when it tried to silence Ambassador Oren, a world-renowned scholar and the representative of a close American ally. The Irvine decision ensures that all of our students will be held to the same rules of conduct and will enjoy the right to be heard.
What are the practical implications for Jewish students at UC Irvine?
First, a little background. Despite severe anti-Israel rhetoric, the Jewish community has thrived at UC Irvine. This year we opened our first dedicated Hillel facility, which is located directly across the street from campus. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Jewish activities in Orange County grew from 68 to more than 175. One program, iFest, is an Israel festival sponsored by Anteaters for Israel (AFI) that exposed more than 2,000 students to Israel’s culture, people and history. Our Israel Fellow, through a partnership with Hillel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, engaged over 100 students in a meaningful and personal way while training and educating our students on Israel advocacy.
The university’s recent disciplinary action gives many Jewish students a greater sense of support from the administration and offers the hope that the most virulent anti-Israel rhetoric, speakers and actions may be discontinued. They are optimistic that next year, students will not post a picture of Anne Frank wearing a kaffiyeh on the side of a mock Israeli tank. Or perhaps they will refrain from bringing Amir Abdel Malik Ali to the campus to show support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
But our student activists are not retiring from the fight. They remain poised to refute anti-Israel symbols and rhetoric that have appeared on campus, such as a so-called “apartheid wall” or a handpainted map of Israel that deceitfully showed Tel Aviv as “occupied territory.” Our approach is to equip our students with the knowledge and the skills they need to be leaders on campus and in the Jewish community. To do so we want to strengthen Jewish life on campus, not to pack up our tents and leave.
The UC Irvine decision is a positive step for our campus and perhaps for higher education in general. At a time when anti-Israel activists are working hard to delegitimize Israel on campus and in the community, UC Irvine’s principled response may set an example for other universities in dealing with their own anti-democratic protesters. We can only hope that demonstrators on other campuses will think twice before trying to squelch a pro-Israel speaker or engaging in noxious, anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But the Jewish campus community should not rely on the university administration to fight our battles. Like our own student activists at Irvine, we must all continue to proactively educate our campuses about Israel and be prepared to advocate on her behalf.
(Jordan Fruchtman has been the executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, Calif., for two years.)