UC President says Muslim student groups’ anti-Semitism can’t be censored

Addressing the tension between free speech and hate speech on University of California campuses at a forum in Orange County, UC President Mark Yudof told a Jewish group that university administrators cannot censor anti-Semitism propagated by Muslim student groups, even while he condemns the hateful rhetoric arising from their anti-Israel programs.

The answer, he said, lies in strict enforcement of university codes of conduct and strong student activism.

“On a personal level as a Jew, I find [the anti-Semitic speeches] absolutely abhorrent,” Yudof told a crowd of several hundred Orange County Jewish community members at a Nov. 4 speech at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach. “One can be committed to the principles of free speech but be very personally offended by the content of that speech.”

An authority on education law and freedom of expression, Yudof said the constitution prevents state universities from stifling speech based on content.

“Our institutional responses must follow the law,” he said. “There are time, place and manner restrictions, but to the extent that it’s just vitriolic, we cannot shut it down.”

The Rose Project, a program of Orange County’s Jewish Federation and Family Services, arranged Yudof’s visit as another step in its ongoing effort to counter anti-Israel and alleged anti-Semitic activity by the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), which has polarized Muslim and Jewish students. Tensions between these two groups came to a head in February when 11 students, nine from UCI, were arrested for disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Rose Project co-chair Jeffrey Margolis said his group extended an invitation to Yudof because the community wanted to hear his views on anti-Semitism at UCI and other UC campuses in the aftermath of this incident.

Jewish students and community members have raised concerns that the MSU, which is under suspension for the fall 2010 quarter for its role in planning and coordinating the disruption of Oren’s speech, continues to operate on campus under the guise of two alternative student organizations, Al Kalima and Students for Justice in Palestine. Al Kalima is UCI’s Muslim student publication, which has distributed anti-Semitic and militant Islamist literature on campus. Yudof suggested there was little the administration could do, because both groups are legitimate student organizations.

Yudof, who was appointed to his current position in 2008, noted actions taken by the university system after Jewish, black and gay students were targeted in hate-motivated incidents on several campuses last spring, including tighter student codes of conduct that more clearly define hate crimes and enhanced sanctions of code violations motivated by religious bias. In June, Yudof formed the UC Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion to address challenges in enhancing and sustaining a tolerant, inclusive environment on each of the university’s 10 campuses.

Jewish organizations, including StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have warned that the problems of Jewish students on campuses would not be sufficiently addressed without an explicit focus on anti-Semitism.

Yudof acknowledged that his actions will never be satisfactory to everyone, but cautioned the audience that free speech is not a protection that should be taken lightly.

“Censorship won’t work in terms of the legalities of the situation. Censorship is not the way of the Jewish people. That’s what many people are asking me to do, and I cannot do that.”

Rather, Yudof said, he has encouraged UC chancellors to fulfill their moral obligation to condemn anti-Semitic speech and imbalanced, anti-Israel programs on campus.

Earlier in the day, Yudof heard from nearly 40 Jewish students about Muslim-Jewish relations on campus. UCI Chancellor Michael Drake attended the meeting.

Students have had conflicting views in the past on whether UCI is a welcome climate for Jews. Prior to Yudof’s presentation, UCI Hillel President Matan Lurey presented a video depicting thriving Jewish life punctuated by five active Jewish student organizations.

“The idea that UC Irvine is a hotbed of anti-Semitism is a cruel but well-constructed untruth,” Lurey said. “It’s a lie.”

Other students offered a different perspective.

“The students are feeling no difference [from last year], because the MSU has resurfaced with a new name, so it’s pretty much the same,” said Briana Booth, UCI Hillel’s vice president, who said she feels uncomfortable on campus. “The conflict, the hostility, the passion, the anger, the hatred — it’s all still very much there.”

Yudof said that while the Jewish community should continue to monitor the situation on campus, anti-Semitism is better countered through an activist student approach.

“We have to have more confidence in our students and in the way we raised them and in their ability not to be taken in by the speech,” he said. “Like you, they are strong and deeply imbued with Jewish values. They are not easily deceived.”