The U.S. Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into charges that officials on the University of California’s Irvine campus have been turning a blind eye to intimidation and harassment of Jewish students for the last four years. In an 11-page letter of complaint, the Zionist Organization of America listed incident after incident in which, it alleges, Muslim and Arab student groups and extremist Muslim religious speakers vilified Jews and incited against “Zionists” and Israel.
The university is the latest U.S. campus to be hit with allegations of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist harassment.
Jewish students wearing T-shirts with a Star of David or pro-Israel slogans have been insulted and threatened with violence, said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice in New York, who drew up the complaint.
In the latest incident, in early February, Muslim cleric Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali talked before a campus audience for an hour about “the apartheid state of Israel” and its “Nazi behavior,” as well as “American imperialism” and the “Zionist-controlled media.”
The federal investigation is being conducted in San Francisco by the Office of Civil Rights, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. Spokeswomen in San Francisco and Washington said they could not comment on an ongoing probe.
The ZOA filed the complaint under a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin. If found in violation of the act, the university could be deprived of all federal grants.
In their defense, university administrators cited the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly for Muslim and all other students and said they preferred to settle grievances through mediation and campus forums.
“Your views are going to be challenged at any great university,” said Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor for student affairs.
But even granting these arguments, Tuchman noted that officials had a duty both to protect Jewish students and to condemn hate speech and incitement on campus.
In interviews, some Jewish professionals described the ZOA complaint as a misguided effort by outsiders and emphasized recent improvements in the campus atmosphere.
Joyce Greenspan, director of the Anti-Defamation League office in Orange County, Calif., where the university is located, said the situation is best assessed by those who are in daily contact with students and faculty.
“It is disconcerting when an outside group comes in with all guns blazing,” Greenspan said. “Changes occur not through lawsuits but by education on campus and by working toward better communications.”
She added, however, that there is a widespread perception that “Jewish students don’t receive the same attention from the administration as Muslim students.”
Greenspan cited an instance in which university officials remained silent when a Holocaust exhibit put up by Jewish students was vandalized, but spoke out vehemently against the burning of a Muslim cardboard replica of Israel’s security fence.
Jeffrey Rips, the Orange County Hillel director for the last nine years, described the university campus “as not a terrible place, and while the administration could be doing more, it is trying harder this year.”
For instance, during a recent display of an Israeli bus blown up by terrorists, “campus police and administrators made sure that we had a safe environment,” he said.
When Hillel students put up a sukkah on campus for a week, there were no incidents, he added.
About 57 percent of the campus’s 23,000 students are of Asian descent and most of them are not interested in the problems in the Middle East, Rips said. Even among Jewish students, “the majority have no clue about what’s going on” on campus.
Rips said that of roughly 1,000 Jewish students on campus, 340 had some contact with Hillel throughout the year. Between 15 and 20 of them are committed pro-Israel activists, he said.
Rips added, however, that several worried parents had questioned him about the campus situation in recent years and that a few had decided to enroll their children elsewhere.
Jewish students appear slightly outnumbered by Arab and Muslim students, the most passionate of whom form the Muslim Students Association.
Rips also said that among the incidents in the ZOA report claiming intimidation of Jewish students, a number remain unconfirmed or never were reported to officials.
In contrast, a veteran Jewish professor, who asked not to be identified, charged that the campus administration, if not actively biased, was “at least extremely insensitive, and probably anti-Israel.”
Muslim students have exploited the administration’s attitude to make it appear that the university endorsed their activities, and the campus-funded Muslim newspaper, founded as a “cultural” organ, consistently published inflammatory anti-Israel articles, the professor said.
To explain the administration’s attitude, the professor hypothesized that contributing factors were the absence of any Jewish representation among senior officials and the lack of a strong local Jewish community to take up the issue.
Perceptions differ on whether Jewish students are being intimidated and harassed on campus.
Graduate student Sarah Becker said that she had stopped wearing her Star of David and Chai ornaments on campus for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
But Maya Salter, a junior, observed that she had felt little, if any, anti-Semitism on campus and proudly displays her Star of David tattoo.
Tuchman of the ZOA said that the anti-Israel atmosphere at the university is not unique — she mentioned the ongoing situation at New York’s Columbia University — but that the complaint was the first she had filed against any American campus.
Kenneth Marcus, a former head of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, said that given the climate on a number of American campuses, he expected that formal complaints of anti-Semitism, similar to the one pending against the university, will be filed against other universities in the future.
Marc Ballon of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.