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A Tale of Two California Campuses: Schools Protest Israel, Each in Its Way

May 31, 2006
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Two University of California campuses held Palestinian protests this month, but the similarities pretty much ended there. A pro-Palestinian protest and a pro-Israel counterprotest at UCLA were relatively moderate, while the Palestinian protest at the University of California at Irvine was fueled by heated rhetoric.

At UCLA, Jewish and Palestinian groups set up competing exhibits on the main walkway last week, competing with a rock band and a gauntlet of tables, leafleteers and displays urging students to participate in the Inaugural Bruin Cardboard Boat Race, engage in Christian Bible studies, fight drug addiction and play volleyball, to name a few.

At the end was a large photo collage of men and women of different races and nationalities, each asserting “I am a Palestinian” to indicate international solidarity for the cause. The Apartheid Obstacle Course, presented by the Guerrilla Theater, was running an hour late.

The display was one of the events organized by Muslim, Arab and supporting students at UCLA as part of the weeklong “Israel and Palestine: Obstacles to Peace” program, a low-key theme promoted by the sponsoring Students for Justice in Palestine.

If this approach indicated a higher level of sophistication by the sponsors than in previous years, so did the Jewish response, organized by Bruins for Israel. The walkway was dotted with pro-Israel posters, aimed at different campus constituencies.

“Where in the Middle East Can Gay Officers Serve their Country?” asked one poster, and answered “Only in Israel.” Other posters, with the same bottom line, queried “Where in the Middle East Can Arab Women Vote?” and “Where in the Middle East are Daughters Valued as Much as Sons?”

Right in front of the Palestinian display stood Michael Smoyman, 21, a kipah on his head and holding a sign inscribed “Obstacle to Peace: Suicide Bombing.”

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the UCLA Hillel director, stood on the steps of the campus Student Union, his outstretched arms grasping a large, cardboard sign, which proclaimed: “Peace for Israel/Peace for Palestine/Share the Hope.”

As Seidler-Feller’s arms grew tired, he was approached by George Malouf, a Palestinian graduate student from the Gaza Strip, who took over the rabbi’s sign and post.

When the “apartheid wall” arrived, it led to a face-off between Arab students dressed as Israeli soldiers manning roadblocks, and Jewish students dressed as suicide bombers and carrying such signs as “If I were a Palestinian suicide bomber, you would be dead now” and “If I were your neighbor, you would want a fence, too.”

Two campus cops were on hand to break up a scuffle, but on the whole the week’s mood was largely non-confrontational.

It was quite a different story a week earlier at the University of California’s Irvine campus, some 50 miles south of Los Angeles, which for the past three years has witnessed militant anti-Israel agitation during Palestine Week.

In contrast to UCLA’s “Obstacles to Peace” slogan, the theme of Irvine’s Muslim Student Union was “Holocaust in the Holy Land,” featuring lectures on such topics as “Israel: The Fourth Reich.”

Amir Abdel Malik Ali, a black Muslim imam, who previously used rhetoric comparing Israel to the Nazis and apartheid South Africa, spoke at both campuses. In his UCLA address, delivered to some 70 people in an indoor auditorium was calmer, and focused largely on his grievances against Saudi Arabia.

But he pulled out all the stops at an outdoor rally on the Irvine campus.

“The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down,” he said. “They are living in fear — and it is about time they live in fear. The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or victorious.”

Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the regional American Jewish Congress chapter, monitored the Irvine events. She said: “I now understand what it’s like to be a Jew in prewar Germany or an American Embassy hostage in Tehran.”

Jeffrey Rips, the Hillel executive director at Irvine, said that while there was general agreement that free speech should not be abrogated on campus, the administration had the right and duty to exercise its free speech by publicly condemning anti-Semitic demonstrations and hate harangues.

This point represents a long-standing demand by such groups as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Orange County and some Irvine faculty members, who protested this year’s events to Chancellor Michael Drake.

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education is currently investigating charges by the Zionist Organization of America that the Irvine administration has failed to take a stand against anti-Semitism and to prevent harassment of Jewish students on campus.

To balance the dour campus picture, Rips said that except during Palestine Week, there was little tension between Muslim and Jewish students.

University officials have cited the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly for Muslim and all other students.

While some Jewish students, especially freshmen, were intimidated in the past by the militancy of the more numerous Muslim students, “now you see students wearing kippot and ‘I’m Proud to be Jewish’ T-shirts, and we also had a large sukkah on campus,” Rips said.

Rips blamed the tenser atmosphere at Irvine on a more radicalized Muslim student group, which takes its cues from Malik Ali, and the fact that Irvine has become a main media focus for national Arab-Jewish campus tensions.

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