Come with me on a hypothetical journey. A group of student protesters attend the speech of an Israeli official. As the official addresses the audience, the young protesters stand, one at a time, at about five- minute intervals, and shout slogans denouncing Israeli policies that subjugate Palestinians. Inside the hall, the response to the protesters is openly hostile and threatens to erupt into violent confrontation. Security drags out the young protesters.
Should the protesters be brought up on criminal charges for their demonstration? Does the answer to this question hinge on whether the students are Jewish or Muslim?
A recent development here in Southern California indicates that it does.
In November of 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 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 American non-violent protest to do so.
Nine months before, 11 Muslim students at UC Irvine 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 who 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 the American discourse on the Middle East.
After our protest, the LA Jewish Journal 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 ourselves 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.” So, what would lead the Journal, whose words probably reflect the baseless assumptions of many others, to distinguish us from one another?
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, some Americans don’t want Muslim voices to be widely heard or legitimized; they 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 in?
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 websites. 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 DA should drop the charges against these Muslim students. Anything else is discrimination, plain and simple.