Jewish leaders want U.C. Irvine to react powerfully

The chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County has put U.C. Irvine on notice — he’ll be watching what’s happening there.

Eleven students were arrested Feb. 8 for disrupting a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

In the wake of that event, federation head Shalom Elcott said the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

Muslim protesters pray during Michael Oren’s speech at U.C. Irvine. photo/peter halmagyi

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott said he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Orange County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Additionally, the Zionist Organization of America this week called for donors to stop supporting U.C. Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there. A ZOA statement accused the university of enabling bigotry and violating civil rights “by failing to condemn longstanding anti-Semitic and Israel-bashing speech and conduct on campus, and failing to enforce its own policies against the perpetrators.”

Two distinct strategies are now taking shape when it comes to civil discourse on college campuses.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state. Generally outmatched by Jewish groups with greater political and financial strength, these pro-Palestinian groups have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses and being arrested.

Disruptions like the one at U.C. Irvine last week have surfaced at other campuses as well.

At UCLA last week, on the same day as the Oren speech at U.C. Irvine, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by Daniel Taub, a legal adviser in Israel’s foreign ministry.

And in October, in speeches at the University of Chicago and Tulane University in New Orleans, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak. (Olmert was similarly heckled during an Oct. 22 San Francisco appearance, although it wasn’t on a college campus.)

Last week in London, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, was heckled during a Feb. 8 appearance at Oxford University when a Muslim Oxford student called out “slaughter the Jews” in Arabic.

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the U.C. Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, said it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.