Jewish-Muslim Tensions High on California Campus

By Josh Richman

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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OAKLAND — Larry Mahler has trouble getting people to join an online discussion group for Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine.

“A couple of people told me they didn’t want to go in because they’re afraid of being identified as Jewish on campus, and being targeted,” said Mahler, 20, a senior who’s president of the campus chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.

The campus is in Orange County, but Mahler makes it sound as if his college experience has been the equivalent of attending a German university on the eve of World War II. “A few quarters ago, I took a Holocaust history class and it was really frustrating to see the way Jews were constantly vilified, made unequal to their peers,” Mahler said. “To read that in a textbook and then walk around campus and still see that happening to us… makes me feel like there hasn’t been too much progress.”

Mahler and other Jewish students say that their problems stem from increasing strife with Muslim students and the failure of university administrators to intervene.

The situation has drawn the attention of the Zionist Organization of America, which filed an 11-page complaint on October 11 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming students at the state-run campus have been subject to anti-Jewish vilification, intimidation and harassment. The organization, best know for aggressively opposing Israeli territorial concessions and waging public campaigns against media outlets and institutions that it deems anti-Israel, has recently stepped up its legal advocacy in the United States.

In its complaint, the ZOA claims that the situation for Jewish students began to deteriorate in 2001 as “student groups registered with and supported by the university began presenting speakers and publishing information on campus that was plainly intended to incite hatred of Jews and of Israel.” The complaint cites articles in Alkalima, the campus’ Muslim student magazine, equating Zionism with Nazism; a sign reading “Israelis love to kill innocent children,” which remained on campus despite complaints to administrators, and incidents of threats and near-violence involving Muslim students and supporters of Israel. It cites that an annual “Zionist Awareness Week,” sponsored by the Muslim Student Union, during which students carried signs likening Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler and displayed an Israeli flag with blood dripping from it.

Arab students tell a different story, according to which their Jewish counterparts give as good as they get.

Even as Jewish and Muslim students argue over which side is to blame, and the ZOA seeks government intervention, university officials are launching a series of initiatives to help improve the atmosphere on campus. Campus administrators have brokered a series of talks between Jewish and Arab student leaders, and invited local religious leaders to speak on campus in an effort to boost civility and understanding on campus.

It is unclear whether such efforts will be enough to satisfy upset students like Merav Ceren, a 20-year-old Israeli-born junior raised in Southern California. Ceren, who serves as president of Anteaters for Israel — named for the campus mascot — said she finds it “really disconcerting to be a Jewish student on campus… it feels like everyone is being protected except Jewish and pro-Israel students.”

Ceren said that her parents — veterans of the 1967 Six-Day War— told her that Jews must be ever vigilant against attack. “But,” she added, “I honestly thought antisemitism was dead” — until coming to UC-Irvine.

According to Ceren, the situation on campus improved somewhat in 2003, after Jewish and Muslim students met with administrators and agreed to put certain images, statements and means of protest off limits. Those rules held until this year, when Muslim students started disregarding them, she said.

This version of events was disputed by Ramy Ballout, 23, a Bay Area senior majoring in international-studies and president of UC-Irvine’s Society of Arab Students. Ballout says he heard that Jewish student groups had broken the truce. He said his group supplied campus police with a videotape of Jewish students disrupting Muslim students’ demonstration — a mock checkpoint depicting alleged hardships of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation — by swearing, spitting and stepping on signs. Later, Ballout said, his organization adopted a “no dialogue” policy, closing itself off from further cooperation or discussions with pro-Israel groups.

The question of which groups broke the truce is moot, according to the dean of students at UC-Irvine, Sally Peterson. She said that administrators felt they could not hold current student leaders to agreements made by their predecessors. “There’s only a point to which we can say, ‘We’d like you to cooperate and try to understand where everybody’s coming from,’ ” she said. “There are no rules about what you can and cannot say when it comes to free speech.”

All sides agree that the conflict escalated in 2004. A model of the Israeli security wall built by the Society of Arab Students was burned to the ground one night last spring; administrators called it a hate crime and launched an investigation. Jewish students complained that no such investigation happened when someone tore apart a Holocaust memorial on campus, or when someone drew a swastika on a table bearing materials from Jewish student groups; these events occurred within a few days of each other in 2003.

In fact, Ceren said, when Jewish student leaders finally got a meeting with a high-ranking administration official last spring, the administrator wanted to discuss only one issue: the public furor over Muslim students’ plan to wear green stoles displaying Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, at graduation. Jewish student groups complained that Shahada also could be an allusion to martyrdom. According to Ceren, the administrator spent most of the time attempting to convince Jewish groups to issue a statement endorsing the Muslims’ right to wear the stoles. Graduation went off without any confrontations, but Jewish activists were upset with the university’s approach to the situation.

Peterson said that this year the school is being more proactive. On one track, administrators have begun bringing Jewish and Muslim student leaders together for informal dinners.

Last week, Ballout agreed to meet with Ceren and other Jewish student leaders, effectively reversing the Arab organization’s ban on such talks. “I’m not planning on making a Geneva Accord, a peace policy,” he said, but rather just hoping to “talk about some kind of respect.”

Ballout said that about 15% of his group’s membership quit in anger over his decision to talk with Ceren’s group. “It’s a very emotional thing for a lot of people to begin any type of dialogue, any kind of contact with Anteaters for Israel, but I feel really strongly that there’s no way a ‘no dialogue’ policy is going to help anyone now,” he said. “A chance not taken is a 100% loss.”

In another step at improving the climate on campus, the university is holding a series of “Jews/Christians/Muslims in Dialogue” community forums facilitated by local leaders. The first, on October 12, was entitled “Who We Are — What does it mean to be a Jew today? What does it mean to be a Muslim today?” Answering the former question was Rabbi Stuart Altshuler of Congregation Eilat, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Mission Viejo; the latter, Imam Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of Orange County.

Altshuler said that he and Siddiqi are good friends who feel they’re doing a good thing by preaching mutual respect on campus: “I’m very proud of it. I think it’s kind of a paradigm for the future.”

Siddiqi agreed, saying he was “very pleased with the tone that was set by both of us by being there and respecting each other.”

The student president of the campus Hillel, Jason Berger, a junior from Southern California said students are cautiously receptive “for the most part.”

Mahler, the student who has struggled to start an online Jewish discussion group, agreed. Still, Mahler said, he was “pretty frustrated with the fact that we’ve had to do so much to get the administration to take action… and even then, it doesn’t really get the job done.

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