The more things change ….
The current drama playing out at the University of California, Irvine is shaping up to be nearly note-for-note identical to the one we witnessed in 2008. Then, as now, harshly anti-Israel speakers sparked the Zionist Organization of America to issue condemnatory press releases and appeal to the United States government for an investigation (the results of which, it should be noted, determined no dereliction of duty on the part of the university). Students stood up and said the portrayal of their campus as an anti-Semitic inferno were overblown, which was followed by other students who said quite the opposite.
Following the disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s lecture at Irvine two weeks ago, the 2008 movie has spawned a sequel. The ZOA called for a boycott of the school, saying it "enabled bigotry." A group of students responded by saying that, while indeed there are hateful speakers on campus, a boycott is "counterproductive."
Erwin Chemerinsky, the Jewish dean of the law school, has also weighed in, with an Op-Ed in the L.A. Jewish Journal.
From the moment that it was rumored in the press that I was a candidate to be the founding dean of its law school, I was told that there was anti-Semitism at UCI. Before I accepted the offer to be dean, I carefully investigated these charges. As a Jew, I certainly did not want to spend the rest of my career in a place that is anti-Semitic or to move my family to live in a hostile environment.
What I learned is that almost without exception, the events which led to the accusations involved speeches on campus that were sharply critical of Israel and sometimes were anti-Jewish. On occasion, some very offensive things were said. The incidents generally involved speakers invited by the Muslim Student Union. These did not occur very often and usually were confined to one week in the spring.
That may well be true. Clearly, Chemerinsky is not the first person to aver as much. However, he goes on to make two points that are debatable, at best.
When anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiments have been expressed, Chancellor Michael Drake has responded and expressly proclaimed the inappropriateness of such speech. A public university can do no more than this; the First Amendment simply would not allow the exclusion of speakers, no matter how vile or offensive their words. Tolerating speech protected by the First Amendment is not the same as “promoting bigotry.”
Maybe so. Chemerinsky is without question far more of a legal scholar than I. But Chemerinsky is misleading about what Drake has done. He has denounced hate speech. He did it for me personally two years ago when I cornered him in a D.C. convention center. But so far as I’m aware, he has NOT done it "when anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiments have been expressed." He has done it when critics demanded it. And he has not "expressly proclaimed the inappropriateness of such speech." He has expressed his opposition to hate-speech in general, without "expressly" referring to any speech in particular.
Whether this represents a failing on Drake’s part is, again, an open question. But Chemerinsky makes it sound as if he has spoken out directly and pointedly in opposition to specific instances of anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiments. And this, so far as I’m aware, is untrue.
I have spoken with rabbis in the area and officials of organizations like the Jewish Federation. They are uniformly highly praising of Chancellor Drake and how he has handled the issue.
Drake certainly has his Jewish defenders. But uniformly? Not by a long shot.
Here’s the local ADL director, Kevin O’Grady, in a May 2009 letter to Drake following the appearance of Amir Abdul Malik Ali at Irvine.
We firmly believe that your unwillingness to specifically condemn the anti-Semitic comments that were spewed on your campus last year in conjunction with MSU’s activities sent a signal that they were acceptable and led to the escalation of hate this year. In such circumstances, it is your responsibility as Chancellor to exercise your own First Amendment rights and use your bully pulpit to denounce Amir Abdul Malik Ali by name, to remove the offensive display from the entrance of your campus and to restore the integrity of U.C. Irvine as a place that promotes a civil, respectful and welcoming academic environment. There is no legitimate excuse for inaction now – enough is enough!
There’s also the report of the OC Task Force, which was formed by Hillel in 2006 to investigate the situation at Irvine. The report found the incidents of anti-Semitism "real and well documented" and faulted Drake for failing to exercise his moral authority.
Maybe it’s expecting too much of Drake. Maybe, as Chemerinsky claims, a public university can do no more than what has already been done. But Chemerinsky portrays this as an open and shut case, and as a lawyer, he should know it’s anything but.