In the wake of recent recommendations by a federal civil rights commission that university administrators should denounce antisemitic hate speech on campuses, the chancellor of a California state campus is facing harsh criticism for failing to condemn a week of “anti-Zionist” activities at the University of California, Irvine.
Last week’s “Holocaust in the Holy Land” forum, a series of lectures and symposiums presented by UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union, prompted an outcry from some Jewish organizations, including the local Jewish federation and the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. But the university’s chancellor, Michael V. Drake, brushed aside calls to publicly deplore the week’s activities, instead issuing an e-mail letter to students. The letter broadly emphasized the right to free speech on campus.
Some Jewish leaders contend that the administration has not gone far enough to address what they view as hate speech, particularly in light of findings and recommendations issued in early April by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission, an advisory body whose recommendations are not binding, held a hearing in November 2005 to address the issue of campus antisemitism. Among the commission’s findings was that “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist” activism often serves as a thin guise for antisemitism on college campuses. That finding, Jewish leaders say, was illustrated by last week’s activities at UC Irvine, which included lectures titled “Israel: The 4th Reich” and “Islamic Palestine” by well-known anti-Israel activist Amir Abdel Malik Ali. The activities also included the building of a 12-foot-high wall that was spattered with blood and bullet marks and guarded by men dressed as Israeli soldiers.
The civil rights commission also found that pervasive campus antisemitism can constitute a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in federally funded programs. Most significantly, in the case of UC Irvine, the commission’s recommendations called for university leadership to “set a moral example by denouncing anti-Semitic and other hate speech.” According to Jewish leaders, that is exactly what the school’s administration has failed to do.
“We’ve asked Chancellor Drake to make a clear and concise statement against hatred and what we perceived as strong antisemitic overtones,” said Shalom Elcott, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. “Unfortunately, we were extremely disappointed by what the chancellor put on his Web site,” Elcott said, referring to a message from the chancellor that reiterated the importance of tolerating diverse views but made no specific mention of the recent controversy.
The flare-up at UC Irvine comes at a time when a handful of American universities, including Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, have been accused by some Jewish organizations and students of fomenting a climate of fear for students who express pro-Israel views in the classroom. In the past several years, UC Irvine in particular has been plagued by tensions between Jewish and Muslim students; they have sparred over the annual anti-Zionist week, as well as the practice of Muslim students wearing green stoles inscribed with the Arabic words of the “Shahada” — the Muslim declaration of faith that is sometimes associated with the martyrdom of suicide bombers — over their graduation gowns.
UC Irvine is currently being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, following a complaint filed in 2004 by the Zionist Organization of America that alleged a pattern of antisemitism on campus. The ZOA was also a key player in the federal civil rights commission’s hearing, which was a separate undertaking prompted by a reported increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses. ZOA Center for Law and Justice director Susan Tuchman, who testified at the federal hearing, said that in the fall the ZOA plans to blanket college campuses with pamphlets informing Jewish students of their rights under the law.
In response to the latest incident at UC Irvine, a cadre of Jewish groups, including the ZOA, Stand With Us and the AJCongress, formed a loose coalition to protest the anti-Zionist week’s activities. The associate executive director of the western region office of the AJCongress’s Los Angeles office, Allyson Rowen Taylor, also sent a letter to the administration, which said that “their lack of actions spoke louder than the amplified ‘ Allah Akbar s [God is great] ’” that were shouted at Taylor last week when she publicly confronted Malik Ali during one of his speeches.
University officials counter that they have, in fact, addressed the issue appropriately. A spokesman for the university, James Cohen, pointed to the fact that it has organized a series of events over the past few years to promote a civil dialogue between groups on campus, and that it was recently awarded a Ford Foundation grant to raise awareness of options for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cohen also said that while the campus administration is aware of the civil rights commission’s findings and recommendations, the chancellor’s message has “been appropriate to our campus.”
“Particularly when you look outside the campus, people want different things from us, but we base our decisions on what is best for our students,” Cohen said.
While outside Jewish leaders are denouncing the administration for its perceived inaction, the campus Hillel group is taking a more measured approach. The student president of the UC Irvine Hillel, Alex Chazen, who also heads the campus Israel advocacy group, Anteaters for Israel, said that both student groups are satisfied with the administration’s handling of the issue. “I would prefer the administration say something about the use of the word ‘holocaust,’” he said, “but as far as the events of the week go, the Muslim Student Union has the same rights as every other group on campus.” Merav Ceren, who is a former president of Anteaters for Israel and currently the group’s vice president of external affairs, took a different view: “Since 2003, we’ve been asking the administration to come out with a statement that says ‘yes, there’s freedom of speech,’ but ‘yes it comes with responsibility,’ and they’ve never used their own freedom of speech to say that.”