U.C. president says campus anti-Semitism cant be censored

At a recent forum in Orange County, U.C. President Mark Yudof told a Jewish group that university administrators could not censor anti-Semitism propagated by Muslim student groups, even while he condemns the hateful rhetoric arising from their anti-Israel programs.

Addressing the tension between free speech and hate speech on U.C. campuses, Yudof said the answer 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.”

U.C. President Mark Yudof speaks at a recent Orange County federation event. photo/aaron huniu photography

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 at U.C. Irvine, which has polarized Muslim and Jewish students.

Tensions between these two groups came to a head in February when 11 students from U.C. Irvine and U.C. Riverside were arrested for disrupting a speech at the Irvine campus 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 Irvine and other U.C. campuses in the aftermath of this incident.

Jewish students and community members have raised concerns that the Muslim Student Union, 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 U.C. Irvine’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 U.C. 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 U.C. chancellors to fulfill their moral obligation to condemn anti-Semitic speech and imbalanced, anti-Israel programs on campus.

“I commend [Yudof] on asking chancellors to speak out in public against a program that they disagree with,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

He added that an interfaith dialogue group, Bears Breaking Bread, is giving faith-based campus organizations (such as Hillel and the Muslim Student Union) an opportunity to “get around the same table and talk about faith issues.”

As for its effect on tension between these groups, “It all helps make a difference,” Naftalin-Kelman said. “As long as we’re all sitting down and talking civilly, it helps — even if we disagree at the end.”   

Before the Oragne County federation event, Yudof heard from nearly 40 Jewish students about Muslim-Jewish relations on campus. U.C. Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake attended that meeting.

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

“The idea that U.C. 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 [Muslim Student Union] has resurfaced with a new name, so it’s pretty much the same,” said Briana Booth, Irvine Hillel’s vice president.

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.”

Lisa Armony
is a freelance reporter based in Orange County. J. staff writer Amanda Pazornik contributed to this report, which first appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.