OAKLAND, Calif. — In the face of death threats and a tidal wave of criticism, an embattled faculty adviser and student editor in Northern California are standing by their decision to publish an opinion article accusing Israel of genocide.
Controversy over the article continues to rock the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College, though the article first appeared in the March 18 edition of the Oak Leaf, the school’s biweekly student newspaper. The school’s president, Robert Agrella, sent an e-mail to all faculty and students, calling the article “vicious and hateful” and saying, “There is no excuse for the poor judgment of the editors or the apparent lack of guidance of the adviser.”
Titled “Is Anti-Semitism Ever the Result of Jewish Behavior?”, the article was written by student Kevin McGuire. Oak Leaf editor Kristinae Toomians, 19, told the Forward that only after publishing the piece did she learn that McGuire considers himself to be a “white separatist.”
Still, Toomians and the newspaper’s adviser, Rich Mellott, told the Forward that they did the right thing by publishing the article. “I can’t apologize for running the story,” Mellott said. “The First Amendment wasn’t created to protect warm and fuzzy commentary.”
Toomians said that she had not met McGuire before the article was published. “I thought it was more pro-Palestinian, but it turns out he’s more anti-Jew,” said Toomians, who has reported receiving death threats since the publication of the article. “Had I known that before, it might’ve changed my decision on whether to run it or not. But if anyone should apologize, it’s him. I’ve made public statements saying I’m sorry for the hurt it caused, but I’m not sorry I printed it because it is protected speech.”
The free speech argument was rejected by outraged Jewish faculty members and Jewish groups throughout the region. Dianne Smith, a cultural anthropology professor at the college and president of Santa Rosa’s Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah, said that the issue was about ethical and academic standards. “We understood hate speech is free speech from the get-go,” she said. “But I think the instructor for the Oak Leaf was very defensive about deficiencies in the [journalism] program and threw up the First Amendment as an excuse.”
The article was also slammed by Rhonda Findling, a counselor in the college’s counseling and support services department and a member of its Hate Free Campus Task Force. Findling took aim at the headline, comparing it to “saying women are responsible for rape.”
“Politically, I’m pretty leftist, pretty progressive, so I don’t have a problem with the Israeli government being criticized,” Findling said. “But that was not the purpose of this article.”
Critics say that from the very first line — “Israel is the largest and most dangerous terrorist organization in the world” — the story was beyond the pale.
“A typical plan of attack involves ramming an Israeli tank through the home of a Palestinian family and shooting anyone who happens to survive, including children,” McGuire wrote. “This attitude of racial hatred and genocide is also reflected in the Torah: ‘Destroy all of the land, beat down their pillars and break their statues and waste all of their high places, cleansing the land and dwelling in it, for I have given it to you for a possession.’ Numbers 33:52,53.”
The article accused Israel of having “genocidal race-specific anti-Arab biological weapons” and criticized the United States for bankrolling a “Jewish war of genocide.”
Among the sources McGuire cited in his story was the Web site of the overtly racist National Vanguard. He ended the article with a quotation from Osama bin Laden’s 1998 statement urging Americans “to find a nationalist government that will look after their interests and not the interests of the Jews.”
Contacted via e-mail, McGuire declined to be interviewed by the Forward “because other Jewish newspapers that have reported on me were intensily [sic] hostile and I don’t need more of that.”
Articles about the controversy from local newspapers are being reprinted or excerpted on racist Web sites. “It’s creating a dangerous situation for Jewish people and other target groups,” Findling said. “Several people have been sent packages of white supremacist materials. What’s the next step after that? Usually the next step is violence.”
Despite the article’s anti-Israel and anti-Jewish invective, Mellott told the Forward that he was surprised by the reaction. “I had no idea this story would offend so many people on campus and in the Santa Rosa community,” Mellott said.
With an overall population of 148,000, Santa Rosa is a two-synagogue city 55 miles north of San Francisco, near California’s famed wine country. The city’s two-year junior college is the larger of two campuses operated by the Sonoma County Junior College District, serving more than 33,000 full- or part-time students each semester
It’s liberal territory: Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration in the county. Yet the college typically is not as radical as the Berkeley and San Francisco State campuses an hour away, where anti-Israel and antisemitic speech rose sharply in 2002.
The student newspaper was quickly flooded with calls and letters complaining about the article, and it published a page and a half worth of them as well as a staff-written rebuttal to McGuire’s piece in its next edition.
Toomians said that the initial criticism was not menacing until someone left paper emblazoned with a swastika and the words “Nazi supporter” on her car. “And in early April I started getting a series of death threats, very violent and graphic in nature, so that’s when I notified police,” Toomians said.
A meeting was soon called involving faculty, members of the Jewish community and students involved with the Oak Leaf.
Earlier this month, the college’s Academic Senate decided not to require faculty vetting of Oak Leaf content before publication. Instead, it approved a non-binding resolution May 7 asking the communication studies department to report back this fall on “the professional and ethical standards included in the journalism curriculum and the specific steps that will be taken” to enhance ethical training.
The Oak Leaf is also planning to form an editorial board of student staffers so more than one person reviews opinion article submissions before publication. “There was talk of putting a faculty member on that editorial board, but as soon as you do that, it stops being a student newspaper,” Toomians said.