Campus Turmoil: Jewish students and activists call UC Irvine a hotbed of anti-Semitic harassment

At a Muslim Student Union (MSU) event at UC Irvine, Amir Abdel Malik Ali speaks to a crowd of 150 about Zionist control of the American media, Zionist complicity in the war in Iraq and Zionists’ ability to deflect justified criticism. Jewish students at the Orange County school say the campus, at times, has become a hostile and hateful place.

In the center quad at UC Irvine, Amir Abdel Malik Ali stands before a crowd of 150, his hands clutching a podium bearing the message, “Desperation of the Zionist Lobby.”

“Zionism is a mixture, a fusion of the concept of white supremacy and the chosen people,” the Oakland-based Muslim religious leader and teacher told the audience at the Feb. 2 Muslim Student Union (MSU)-organized event.

Malik Ali unleashed an attack about the Zionist control of the American media, Zionist complicity in the war in Iraq and Zionists’ ability to deflect justified criticism.

“You will have to hear more about the Holocaust when you accuse them of their Nazi behavior,” he told the group of mostly Muslim students.

At a time when Israeli and Palestinian leaders are taking baby steps toward a peaceful two-state solution, Malik Ali made it clear that he had a different vision.

“One state. Majority rule,” he said to rousing applause. “Check that out. Us. The Muslims.”

Not So Quiet On Campus

Once a sleepy suburban university, UCI has joined the ranks of Columbia University and UC Berkeley as a hotbed of anti-Zionism. The situation has become so tense that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — in reaction to a complaint filed by the conservative Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — is investigating allegations of anti-Jewish harassment at UCI and administration indifference.

In recent years, UCI Muslim student groups have invited speakers like Malik Ali to attack Israel and its supporters in language that has the unmistakable ring of anti-Semitism.

Pro-Israel students say they have been sworn at and intimidated by Muslim students. They say that a few pro-Palestinian activists have followed Jewish students around campus, pushed placards in their faces equating Zionism with Nazism and, in one instance, threatened violence.

Muslim students and some UCI faculty members say that Jewish groups have exaggerated the problems and, at times, contributed to campus tensions by taking their slanted case to the media at every opportunity. Others argue that UCI is a hospitable place for the vast majority of the university’s 750 to 1,000 Jewish students, and that the loudest complaints come from a core of pro-Israel advocates who confuse anti-Zionism, or criticism of Israel and its supporters, with anti-Semitism.

To be sure, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment have become ever more common at American universities. In recent years, campus support for divesting university funds from Israel has grown, reflecting the decline of the Jewish state’s standing since the beginning of the second intifada. Still, UCI students and their activist supporters say the frequency and intensity of anti-Zionism and sometimes anti-Semitism at UCI has earned the school a particularly tarnished reputation.

“It’s been a struggle as a Jewish student here,” said Larry Mahler, a 21-year-old UCI senior active in several Jewish groups, including Hillel and fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. “It’s hard to be openly proud and celebrate my heritage. I feel uncomfortable and feel [other students] won’t accept my Judaism to the same extent they accept other cultures and religions.”

UCI senior Osman Umarji, MSU’s 22-year-old president, refuted accusations that the advocacy group he heads engages in anti-Semitism. He said MSU once donated food left over from an event to a Jewish student group meeting nearby on campus.

MSU guest speakers, including a few of Jewish origin, make clear distinctions between Jews and Zionists, Umarji said. In his opinion, Zionists illegally occupy Palestinian land and, like the Nazis, force those under their control to wear ID tags and to live in squalid conditions. Despite his support for the end of Israel as a Jewish state, Umarji said he hopes for better relations with UCI Jewish student groups.

“The door is open to much more amicable relations,” he said. “If Zionist student groups have a problem, they should come to me, and we can work together to solve it.”

University officials say they offer a tolerant, safe environment for all students, and have met with Jewish and Muslim organizations whenever problems have arisen, including the controversy over green stoles worn by some Muslim students at last year’s graduation.

Administrators add that they want to address ZOA’s grievances through mediation and dialogue. To help defuse campus tensions, UCI has held a series of forums on such subjects as hate crimes and Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The university also plans to introduce a new course, Imagining the Future, which will bring Muslim, Jewish and Arab students together in teams to develop viable solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, said he has been on three UCI panels in the past year, and has spoken about the similarities between Judaism and Islam, including their Semitic roots and shared veneration for Abraham, Jacob, Moses and other prophets.

“The more we know about each other’s religion and our other commonalties, the more we will work together,” he said.

Mark LeVine, a UCI associate professor of Middle Eastern history, said that outside advocacy groups on both sides have stoked tension between Jewish and Muslim students for their own selfish purposes. He said their fear mongering might have helped them with fundraising efforts, but it has widened the cultural, ideological and political chasm on campus.

“My sense is that the majority of Muslim and Jewish students here are not that politically active and don’t primarily relate to each other based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorism,” said LeVine, himself Jewish.

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

Whether or not most Jewish and Muslim students get along, they both have strong feelings about the UCI administration. Whereas Muslim activists appreciate officials’ willingness to protect their freedom of expression, some Jewish students and advocacy groups charge the administration with failing to publicly condemn what they characterize as anti-Semitic hate speech. They say that UCI deans and chancellors have ignored repeated requests to take a stand against intolerance, and that their indifference has contributed to a hostile atmosphere on campus.

“The school has turned a blind eye long enough for it to appear OK for these extremists to escalate their hate speech,” said Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, an advocacy group that has worked extensively with the Anteaters for Israel student group at UCI. “This makes pro-Israel students on campus feel marginalized.”

However, Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Committee, praised the efforts of UCI administrators to encourage intergroup dialogue and create a good learning environment for all students.

Manuel N. Gomez, UCI vice chancellor of student affairs, said he has rarely denounced controversial speech on campus, because he would have to spend an inordinate amount of time doing so if he responded to every real or perceived slight. Instead, he places his faith in unfettered free speech.

“Your views are going to be challenged at any great university,” Gomez said. “If they’re not, I’m not sure what kind of education young people are receiving.”

Some Jewish students and advocacy groups say that their concerns go beyond the UCI administration’s unwillingness to speak out on their behalf. They claim that the campus has, at times, become a hostile and dangerous place for them.

“I get nervous when I’m on campus and I walk by one of [the MSU events],” said UCI junior Natalie Korthamar, president of Hillel at UCI.

One Jewish student, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said he carries mace around with him because Muslim students have followed him around campus on two separate occasions since he became a high-profile, pro-Israel activist.

In a 2004 video titled “Incitement at UC Irvine” a young student said, “Jewish students are afraid to speak out; Jewish students are afraid to be themselves.” The video never aired, because some students worried that their complaints about UCI would alienate the administration and faculty to their detriment, said Rothstein of StandWithUs, which produced the tape.

Anti-Zionism at UCI

Among the incidents at UCI that have upset Jewish activists:

•In a controversy that received national media exposure, about 30 Muslim students wore green stoles over their robes at last year’s graduation. The color green is frequently identified with the terrorist group Hamas. Critics said the stoles showed support for Hamas.

Muslim students and advocacy groups countered that the Arabic lettering on the stoles meant, “There is no God but Allah” and showed religious solidarity. Muslim students at UCI, UCLA and other universities had worn the same stoles at past graduations without controversy.

UCI Vice Chancellor Gomez, among others, criticized organized Jewish groups for fueling the imbroglio by erroneously claiming beforehand that Muslim students would be wearing headbands and armbands supporting Hamas. MSU head Umarji said he resented Zionist groups’ public accusations after he personally explained the intent behind the stoles.

Jewish groups maintain the stoles represented support for “martyrs” carrying out suicide and other attacks against Israel.

•After last year’s destruction by arson of a mock Israeli security wall, the Society of Arab Students organized a campuswide rally against hate. When Hillel, Anteaters for Israel (named after UCI’s mascot) and Jewish fraternities and sororities asked to participate to show their solidarity, Muslim student groups told them they did not want the Jewish groups to come to the event, let alone play an official role. In spite of that, Vice Chancellor Gomez chose to attend the rally.

“The administration thus expressly endorsed the rally and actively participated in a so-called campuswide event that deliberately excluded Jews,” the ZOA said in its federal complaint.

At the event, Gomez said he called for civility and respect among all students. He said rally organizers had the right to invite whomever they wanted, and that he would appear at any event sponsored by Jewish students, if invited. After the demonstration, Gomez said he met with Jewish students for two hours to apologize for any misunderstandings surrounding his participation.

•Last year, UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone condemned on the university’s Web site the arson attack on the mock security wall (which Israel says it’s building to keep out suicide bombers). By contrast, the university issued no public statement after vandals damaged a Holocaust exhibit in 2003, Jewish groups and UCI administrators said.

The chancellor took a stronger stand against the arson attack because of the seriousness of the crime, campus officials say. Unlike the Holocaust incident, they say police investigated the arson as a hate crime and were assisted by the FBI.

•In January 2004, a Jewish student wearing a T-shirt that said, “Everybody Loves a Jewish Boy,” allegedly had a rock thrown at his face as he passed by an MSU student table on campus. The rock barely missed him. When the Jewish student turned around, an MSU member holding a young child reportedly turned to the infant and sarcastically said, “Don’t do that. That’s not right,” the ZOA said in its complaint.

•At an anti-Zionist rally in 2003, about 300 Muslim students and their supporters marched through the center of campus chanting anti-Israel slogans and placing body bags on campus emblazoned with the names of victims of “Israeli Genocide,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) of Los Angeles.

Taylor said AJC executives, StandWithUs leaders and about 15 Jewish students were cordoned off in a grassy area behind campus police lines and told not to verbally engage the protesters, even when demonstrators walked within inches of the group and shrieked about Israel’s alleged misdeeds.

Silencing the Jews in face of such provocations might have violated their right to “counterspeech,” said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Vice Chacellor Gomez said that since Taylor never filed a formal complaint, UCI cannot confirm the accuracy of her allegations.

•In 2002, UCI graduate student Sarah Becker sent an e-mail outlining her own concerns to four top administrators, including Chancellor Cicerone and Thomas Parham, assistant vice chancellor for Counseling and Health Services. She complained about an anti-Israel protest by about 200 students on campus. In her letter, she characterized the event as an anti-Semitic “riot” that made her feel unsafe. Becker chastised UCI and campus police for not stopping the march and noted that Parham and another administrator had witnessed the chaos without intervening.

Parham, in an e-mail response to her, said that although he found some of the marchers’ comments offensive, they had not engaged in unlawful conduct, destroyed property or physically menaced anyone. He suggested that if Becker “continued to experience these strong, uncomfortable feelings in the aftermath of the demonstration event, I would like to invite you to our counseling center on campus.”

Becker, in a recent telephone interview, said she found Parham’s remarks insulting and patronizing. A sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in environmental health, science and policy, she no longer wears a Star of David or chai (the Hebrew letters chet and yud meaning life) around her neck on campus, lest she attract unwanted attention.

A university spokesman said that Parham’s response to Becker was appropriate given the anguished tone of her missive and his role as a counseling administrator.

Not all administrators of universities have adopted such a hands-off approach toward anti-Zionist activities. Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, for instance, spoke out against calls to divest from Israel, saying, “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper said California public universities have largely failed to combat anti-Semitism. To prevent the further demonization of Jewish students, he said education leaders should consider revisiting the issue of hate speech.

The University of California once banned so-called fighting words, but the courts struck down those provisions as violating free speech, said Ravi Poorsina, spokesperson for UC President Robert Dynes. Dynes, she added, is committed to providing a good learning experience for all UC students in the spirit of the Principles of Community, a set of high-minded ideals distributed to students and adopted by UCI and other UC campuses that call for tolerance, civility and mutual respect for different religions, ethnicities, genders and races.

Rabbi Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee of Orange County, said UCI must do a better job enforcing its code of conduct. Dworkin, in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting last year with Vice Chancellor Gomez and Dean of Students Sally Peterson, suggested bringing together Jewish, Muslim and other students to rewrite the principles for greater clarity and to help break down barriers between them. The administration never responded to Dworkin’s proposal, he said.

Gomez said he is open to revisiting the issue, but that it would be unfair for Jewish and Muslim groups to work on amending the principles at the exclusion of the rest of the university community. He added that UCI cannot impose sanctions on students who run afoul of the Principles of Community unless they actually break a law. When asked whether the MSU had violated university policies by hosting the stridently anti-Zionist Malik Ali, Gomez said he was unsure. He added that he personally found Malik Ali’s speech offensive.

UC Irvine is not the only school with a declining reputation in the Jewish community. In recent years, American, Canadian and European universities have seen an explosion of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activities on campus, partly fueled by the second intifada.

An informal alliance among Palestinians, the far left and Islamists who share an antipathy toward Israel as well as U.S. policies in Iraq and the Patriot Act have also contributed, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. University faculties have grown increasingly anti-Israel as Arab and other money has flowed in to fund professorships and Middle East institutes, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Between 2000 and 2002, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported an increase of anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment at U.S. colleges. Two years ago, the visit of Israeli official Natan Sharansky to Boston University to defend Israel was greeted with a bomb threat that nearly forced the cancellation of his lecture; at a 2001 Muslim Student Association conference at UCLA, cleric Imam Muhammad-al-Asi said, according to the Middle East Quarterly: “Israel is as racist as apartheid could ever be … you can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Jew.”

More recently in October, somebody scrawled the messages, “Kill the Jews” and “Make it snow Jewish ash” in a classroom at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. That same month at UC Riverside, a pro-Palestinian display equated the Star of David with a swastika and Zionism with Nazism.

Given the climate at American campuses, the former head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said he expects more complaints against universities for anti-Semitism.

“I’m certainly praying that there will not be more of these cases, but my sense is this is going on, and there will be,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, now the staff director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

More than four decades after the abolition of university quotas limiting Jewish enrollment, campus anti-Semitism has reappeared, said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“Whereas in 1975, Jews who supported Israel didn’t have to ask the question as to whether they’d feel comfortable at a [particular] university, just one generation later, many students are asking that question,” Sarna said. “Many of us thought those days were over.”

Unfortunately, they are not, said Jeffrey Rips, UCI Hillel executive director. In recent years, several concerned Jewish parents have called him to express great misgivings about the university. A few have opted not to send their children there, he added.

A Ray of Hope

Amid all the gloom, a few rays of hopefulness have emerged. Reversing a three-year trend, the ADL said that anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses declined in 2003, the latest year for which data exist. At UCI, recent developments suggest a slight cooling off might be under way between Jewish and Muslim student activists.

UCI Jewish student groups recently held a campus rally against suicide bombings that attracted 300 supporters but only a handful of protesters. In mid-February, Jewish groups held their first-ever Blue-and-White Day to celebrate and promote Israel. The event went off without incident.

Junior transfer Maya Salter said she has felt little if any anti-Semitism on campus. Although Salter said some non-Jewish UCI students appear to have unfavorable preconceived notions about Israel and Jews, she said she proudly displays her Star of David tattoo and has found her place at UCI through her participation in Hillel and a Jewish sorority.

Meanwhile, the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has offered to “work with the administration and student groups on campus to help foster an atmosphere of constructive dialogue, without necessarily having to agree on the politics,” said Sabiha Khan, CAIR’s Southern California communications director and a UCI graduate.

The thaw could prove short-lived, though. With the fifth-annual Zionist Awareness Week just months away, some in UCI’s Jewish community worry that they might soon feel under siege again.

Said Merav Ceren, the 20-year-old president of Anteaters for Israel: “We know the attacks are coming.”

Tom Tugend contributed to this article.