Targeted for protesting Israel

June 22, 2010

Brian Napoletano reports on an attempt by the University of California Irvine to punish all Muslim students after a protest against a defender of Israel's war crimes.

ACTIVISTS ARE outraged after administrators at the University California (UC) Irvine announced plans to suspend the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for a whole year starting in September. What did they do wrong? Students protested Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.

The Law School and Political Science Department cosponsored an event February 8 in which Oren spoke on the recent findings of the UN Human Rights Commission's fact-finding mission to Gaza. Oren maintains that the Israeli Defense Forces' 2008/2009 invasion of Gaza was justified and the IDF acted appropriately in all its operations.

Oren has publicly attacked the report conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, claiming that it went even further than "Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers" in denying Israel the right to self-defense, and that it "portrays the Jews as the deliberate murderers of innocents--as Nazis."

During Oren's presentation, 11 students interrupted him several times, and at one point, walked out of the presentation to stage a protest outside. While the interruptions angered the event's organizers and prompted Oren to take a 20-minute recess at one point, they didn't prevent him from finishing his speech.

A UC Irvine student is escorted from a lecture hall after a protest against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren
A UC Irvine student is escorted from a lecture hall after a protest against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

Now, even though the MSU maintains that the eight Irvine students who interrupted the meeting were acting as individuals, the university's disciplinary committee is targeting the MSU, the university's central community for Muslim students.

The MSU issued a statement the day of Oren's appearance condemning the university for "inadvertently supporting the ambassador of a state that is condemned by more UN Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined." But it organized no formal protest.

The 11 students who interrupted Oren--three of whom were UC Riverside students and the others were from Irvine--were arrested and held by Orange County police, and later released with the possibility of facing criminal charges at a later date. At no point during their protest or their incarceration did the students claim to be acting on behalf of the MSU.

Nonetheless, the university has insisted on using the fact that the Irvine students were MSU members to assign blame for the protests to the student group. In a May 27 letter to leaders of the group, Senior Executive Director of Student Housing Lisa Cornish explained that the university obtained 31 pages of e-mails from the student group's Google account and "detailed minutes from MSU's February 3, 2010 General Assembly meeting."

What you can do

Support the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine. Contact University Chancellor Michael Drake at 949-824-5011 or e-mail [email protected]. Contact the Dean of Students' office at 949-824-5181 or e-mail [email protected].

She claimed that these documents, coupled with accounts given by "anonymous sources" and university officials, and the fact that the students retained the same attorney to be present at Oren's presentation and represent them in the student conduct review process, indisputably demonstrated that the MSU "planned every detail of the disruptions."

Based on these findings, Cornish concluded that the students were intentionally misrepresenting themselves when they denied that they were acting as representatives of the MSU or that they were participating in a MSU event, and added, "Other forms of dishonesty, including but not limited to fabricating information, furnishing false information or reporting a false emergency to the university" to the list of violations.

Cornish also charged the group with violations directly related to the actions of the eight Irvine students at the presentation: "[o]bstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures or other university activities;" "[d]isorderly or lewd conduct"; and "[p]articipation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly."

Based on these findings, Cornish informed the MSU that she planned to revoke the organization's recognition; prohibit any MSU officer listed on the Dean of Students' registration document from acting as an "authorized signer" for any other student organization for a full year; require the organization's membership to complete 50 hours of community service on a project selected by her; require the MSU's officers to schedule a joint meeting with the Director of Student Conduct and the Director of Campus Organizations; and place the organization on another full year of disciplinary probation if it is permitted to re-register for recognition in the fall 2011.

SEVERAL PRO-ISRAEL organizations put pressure on the university to silence the MSU.

The Jewish Federation Orange County (JFOC), which had accused the MSU of anti-Semitism and "Israel bashing" for years, issued a statement the day after the event, attributing the disturbances to the MSU and describing the student organization's "Israeli Apartheid Week" as an "Israel hate-fest."

JFOC was also responsible for releasing Cornish's letter--which was intended to be a confidential letter to the officers of the MSU, and which JFOC used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain--to the press, accompanied with a statement by the organization's president and CEO Shalom Elcott that "[w]e commend the university for its judicious decision in support of free speech and civil discourse."

According to Elcott's statement, JFOC had been working with national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel to arrange meetings with campus faculty and staff, UC Regents, UC President Mark Yudof and members of Congress to push the university into acting against the MSU.

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) also backs the suspension of the MSU as part of its multi-year campaign against the student group, which includes undertaking a legal action on behalf of Jewish students at UC Irvine, enlisting the assistance of Sen. Arlen Specter, U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman and John Campbell and California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Incoming MSU President Asaad Traina and other members of the student organization were shocked to hear about Cornish's recommendations, particularly after the group had successfully raised more than $5,000 for Haitian earthquake victims earlier this year and was just awarded the Social Justice Award by the Cross Cultural Center. Students hope that the proposed ban will be overturned on an appeal to the Dean of Students and a Judicial Review Board.

THE MSU is challenging the university's ruling on two main points. The first is the validity of the claim that the MSU was responsible for the protests. The students' attorney, Reem Salahi, contends that much of the so-called evidence presented in the letter was flawed or from unidentified sources.

Their second objection is the legitimacy of suspending the entire organization for the acts of some of its members. As Traina explained, the student group is the central community for Muslim students on campus, and denying students access to this community "jeopardizes their rights under the First Amendment and is an act of marginalization at a time when Muslim students and Muslim youth already feel besieged."

Salahi denounced the recommended ban as "nothing but collective punishment. All Muslim students on campus have been punished for the actions of a few."

Another question that supporters of the accused student group have raised is whether a group of students who are routinely denied access to the mainstream media interrupting a presentation by a major establishment figure whose statements regularly appear in the press and who has guest columns in the New York Times actually constitutes an infringement on the latter's freedom of speech.

Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Husam Ayloush noted that UC Irvine's attack on the MSU "appears to be politically motivated to silence any future peaceful and legitimate criticism of Israel's brutal practices." The MSU may be the first of many victims in a renewed initiative to control the range of acceptable discussion on university campuses.

Organizations such as Campus Watch, a Middle East Forum project, have already invested substantial resources into identifying and attacking scholars who criticize the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinian people, and they are still attempting to characterize the growing discontent with Israel's illegal occupation as spontaneous outbursts of "anti-Semitism."

As the Israeli government continues to show increasing disregard for human rights and international law, its apologists in the U.S. may resort to more drastic measures in their efforts to silence or marginalize any criticism of Zionism. Campuses will be one of the battlegrounds in the struggle between the grassroots anti-apartheid movement and the Zionist anti-Palestinian movement.

Activism will be key in pressuring Irvine not carry out its ban the MSU--and protecting freedom of speech and the right to assemble on university campuses. If this attack on the university's Muslim population isn't met with resistance, it could have, in the words of Salahi, a "massive chilling effect" on campus-based Palestinian solidarity efforts.

Further Reading

From the archives