UC Irvine finds it's embroiled in Mideast debate
Orange County not geopolitical hotbed
By Dan Laidman
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
June 3, 2007
LOS ANGELES – A guest speaker at the University of California Irvine this year denounced compromise solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declared that “the Palestinians must have their will crushed.”
A group of protesters then disrupted the speech and marched outside, where one young man said to rousing cheers that “it's just a matter of time before the state of Israel will be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
The conflagration in the Middle East has roiled American college campuses for decades, and as the violence continues abroad, the debate rages on in the United States. For several years, the flash point of this conflict in Southern California has been UC Irvine, a dubious distinction that was again highlighted last week when the university's chancellor met with representatives of the Orange County Jewish community at their request in the wake of escalating rhetoric from both sides.
Chancellor Michael Drake gave a general condemnation of hateful speech while defending the right of campus speakers to express themselves.
That UC Irvine has gained renown for political fireworks comes as something of a surprise, given the surrounding city's reputation as a sleepy Orange County suburb.
“When I got to UCI, I did not have any idea that I would be hit hard with such a strong anti-Israel sentiment,” said Reut Cohen, a third-year student active in pro-Israel groups. “It's really strange because Irvine in general is very Christian (and) very conservative.”
Marya Bangee, a third-year student who serves as spokeswoman for the Muslim Students Union, echoed that sentiment, but from the opposite perspective.
“We're in the middle of conservative Orange County, and that is obviously a difficult atmosphere to be discussing political issues here,” she said. “There are definitely organizations ... that are trying to shut down free speech with regard to Israel.”
Tensions escalated throughout the spring as former President Jimmy Carter visited the campus to discuss his latest book, which is highly critical of Israel. Last month, the Muslim Student Union held an annual week of events sharply criticizing Israel, and one member of the group had a bizarre run-in with an FBI agent who appeared to be monitoring students on campus.
Jewish groups have raised concerns that campus events ostensibly criticizing Israeli policy have crossed over into anti-Semitism, while some Muslims have complained that rhetoric from the other side denigrates their religion.
Still, Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez said the campus has an obligation to allow free speech to be stretched to its limits.
“If we don't allow the discussion and the debate of these ideas within a university community, where there are so many rich intellectual resources, where do we allow it?” he asked rhetorically.
Gomez added that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has created similar tension at other universities recently, among them Columbia, Duke, Georgetown and the University of California Berkeley. He suggested that a unique feature of the debate at UC Irvine is the deep involvement of outside organizations, something he attributes to the school's “open, public” nature.
Kevin O'Grady, the Costa Mesa-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he agrees that no one should be silenced and that the university has been evenhanded in dealing with provocative speech. However, his group wants university officials to condemn specific speeches that the ADL believes have crossed over from legitimate debate to inciting hatred.
“You don't go and hear these speakers and hear a critique of Israeli foreign policy,” O'Grady said. “What you hear is, 'There will be a single solution when Israel is destroyed.' ”
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim, said he has talked extensively with Muslim students at UC Irvine and hasn't encountered anti-Semitism.
“We can sit and debate with both sides, basically, about the type of speakers and the titles of their events; that is all legitimate,” he said. “But to label them as bigots and so on is a stretch of the truth.”
Ayloush said some of the Muslim students tend to be strident in their political beliefs, something he attributes to demographic trends.
“The growing second generation of American Muslims is choosing to tackle such issues; they have less fear and intimidation than their first-generation immigrant Muslim parents,” he said. “They're trying to express their identity.”
Orange County's sizable population of these and other second-generation immigrants helps explain the intense nature of the debate at UC Irvine, Ayloush said.
Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, provided a similar analysis, adding that it isn't surprising to hear college students on both sides express political views in strong terms.
“These tactics utilized by some of the young people there on campus kind of mirror the tactics of (self-identified anarchist) Abbie Hoffman in the 1960s,” he said. “What can you do to draw the maximum amount of press attention . . . and be the most controversial in order to make a big bang so then you can get out your political perspective?”
That can be a healthy part of the democratic process, Kennedy said, but it also creates the need for outreach to bring the parties together. He has been working with Gomez and other university officials to create dialogue and more cordial debate.
“You can have a difficult conversation without having it break down,” Kennedy said.
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html