Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, Feb. 8, 2010.<br />
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A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, Feb. 8, 2010.
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A protester is removed by campus police after he disrupted a speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, Feb. 8, 2010.<br />
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A protester is removed by campus police after he disrupted a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, Feb. 8, 2010.
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NEW YORK (JTA) — In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States,  Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet.      

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

This time, the Jewish community will "intensely monitor" the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

"While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room," he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students "to the fullest extent of the law," Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state. 

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish and non-Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

"There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event," said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of "war criminal."

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a "selected application" of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students "had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression."

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

"It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes," Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university. 

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to "come down hard" to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

"I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here," Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.

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