Jewish, Muslim Tensions Rise at UC Irvine After Suspension of Muslim Group

Tensions are high at the University of California-Irvine after the school recommended suspending a Muslim student group for its role in the disruption of an Israeli ambassador’s speech earlier this year.

Students at the university say Jews and Muslims have been accusing each other of discrimination and harassment, as both sides have embraced campus speakers seen as hostile to Israel or Islam. Now the proposed suspension of the Muslim Student Union for at least a year has made an already hostile situation worse.

The school revealed this week that it had recommended suspending the Muslim group after 11 students were arrested in February for repeatedly disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who was repeatedly interrupted and called “murderer” and “war criminal” by pro-Palestinian students as he gave a talk on the Middle East peace process.

The Muslim group is appealing the recommendation — a process that is expected to be completed before the next school year begins.

The appeal comes after more than 60 faculty members at UC Irvine signed an open letter last month condemning what they said was an anti-Semitic atmosphere at the school.

“We…are deeply disturbed about activities on campus that foment hatred against Jews and Israelis,” the letter read, citing incidents over the past few years that included “the painting of swastikas in university buildings and the Star of David depicted as akin to a swastika.”

“Some community members, students, and faculty indeed feel intimidated, and at times even unsafe,” the letter read.

But a lawyer for the Muslim Student Union said any tensions on campus derive from a Jewish organization that is not connected to the college: the Jewish Federation Orange County.

“A lot of the tension and friction is not on the campus,” attorney and activist Reem Salahi said. “It’s not divided between Jewish and Muslim organizations. There’s more tension between Muslim students and these Jewish organizations pressuring the university.”

She said Muslim students have been intimidated and harassed and have even received death threats in which they’ve been called “every type of superlative imagined.”

In recent years, UC Irvine has been accused of fostering anti-Semitic activity as the MSU hosted pro-Palestinian speakers critical of Israel.

In 2005, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that Muslim students had engaged in offensive behavior, but that their actions stemmed from opposition to the politics of Israel rather than to Jewish students themselves.

Three years later, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to the Education Department expressing concerns that the office decided not to further investigate charges that UC Irvine had failed to respond quickly and effectively to complaints by Jewish students of being repeatedly intimidated and harassed.

But now Muslim students find themselves on the defensive.

The university on Monday released a letter from a student affairs disciplinary committee to a Muslim Student Union leader saying the group was found guilty of disorderly conduct, obstructing university activities and other violations of campus policy.

The committee recommended suspending the group for one year, placing it on disciplinary probation for an additional year and requiring the student organization to collectively complete 50 hours of community service, a move that would prevent the group from conducting organized campus events until at least the fall of 2011.

University spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said the committee’s decision will be a binding recommendation to the campus’ office of student affairs if the group’s appeal does not succeed.

Lawhon said all the focus and attention paid to tensions between Jewish and Muslim students “has largely been generated by the outside community.”

“There’s been a lot of attention on us by outsider groups for whatever reason for things that go on at every UC campus around the state,” she said, adding that controversial speakers usually go to all the UC schools in the state. “The only time you hear about it is when they’re at UC Irvine.”

The Jewish Federation Orange County, which compelled the school to release the letter after filing a Freedom of Information Act, praised the school for its decision.

“While we would have liked for the administration to have come to this conclusion more quickly, we are please that after due process, the MSU has finally been sanctioned,” Shalom Elcott, president of the group, said in a written statement.

Elcott told that the MSU has been largely responsible for creating an anti-Semitic atmosphere on the campus by inviting speakers who equate Jews to Nazis and rally support for jihad, or holy war.

“The MSU has been looking for a battle for a long time,” he said, adding that his group is only trying to help bridge the differences between the two sides.

Salahi declined to say whether legal action is being planned in the event of an unsuccessful appeal. But she said students were “outraged” and “disappointed” with the university’s decision.

“It’s unprecedented a university would ever do this,” she said, adding that the suspension would “create a really dangerous precedent for shutting down dissent.”