Protesters crash pro-Israel event at UCI


A May 18 protest at UC Irvine, staged by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to oppose the screening of a film about soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has been swiftly and strongly denounced by the university’s chancellor, Howard Gillman.

Gillman said in a May 19 statement that the actions of the protestors — which reportedly included trying to enter the classroom where the film “Beneath the Helmet” was being shown and preventing Eliana Kopley, a UCI student who left the event to take a phone call, from re-entering — went beyond the type of free speech that is permissible at the campus. 

“Last night, an incident occurred on campus that we believe crossed the line of civility, prompting me to re-emphasize our position on free speech, safety and mutual respect,” he said in an email to UCI students, employees and others. “The incident centered on a film-viewing event sponsored by Students Supporting Israel. A group of protesters reportedly disrupted the event, blocking exit paths. Participants feared for their safety, calling on our police force for assistance.”

Approximately 10 people attended the screening, which was held inside a university classroom and included discussion with Israel Fellows from Hillel of Orange County and Hillel 818, which serves students at Cal State Northridge, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College. 

Lisa Armony, executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County, was at the event. In a phone interview with the Journal, she praised the university’s response to the incident, which includes an investigation by the UCI Police Department and the UCI Office of Student Conduct. No arrests were made.

“We condemn the behavior that took place. We condemn the harassment of Jewish students,” she said. “There is no excuse for the behavior that took place on Wednesday night. At the same time, it is important to note we are appreciative of what the university is doing. They are taking this extremely seriously.”

She described the event as the worst anti-Israel activity to occur at the school since 2010, when members of the university’s Muslim Student Union disrupted an event featuring then-Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. Several students were arrested at that incident. 

Cathy Lawhon, senior director of media relations and publications at UCI, said the school had been making inroads with regards to the tensions between pro- and anti-Israel students in recent years.

“There has been a lot of work on campus with our students’ affairs team to get the groups together and have a lot of dialogue and try to increase some understanding of each others’ points of views and opinions,” she said. “Things have been fairly calm for the last five and a half years on these issues.” 

She said that Palestinian Awareness Week at UCI was three weeks ago, which “went very smoothly — no problems, no confrontations.” 

The recent protest broke out outside the classroom about 30 minutes into the movie screening, Armony said. She said she called the campus police and that the police showed up and managed to keep the protestors at a distance. When the event was over — the event went on as planned, she said — police escorted attendees of events to their cars.

The screening was part of a weeklong series of events at the school organized to celebrate the State of Israel. 

Video footage of the protest, featured on the website Campus Reform (campusreform.org), which is focused on college news, shows the protestors chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the IDF has got to go,” “When people are occupied, resistance is justified” and more.

SJP, for its part, said in a May 18 statement on its Facebook page that the protest was a successful demonstration “against the presence of IDF soldiers on campus.” Armony countered that there were no IDF soldiers that took part in the event — not that there would have been anything wrong with that. 

“[It is] totally within students’ rights to brings soldiers on campus, but there were no soldiers,” she said.

Daniel Carnie, a first-year graduate student at UC Irvine studying comparative literature, who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said he participated in the rally, describing the demonstration as a nonviolent protest against the presence of former Israeli soldiers, the two Israel Fellows, on campus. A Students Supporting Israel flyer promoting the event described it as “The Heroes of Israel: ‘Beneath the Helmet’ Screening and Panel Discussion.”

“What happened is that we staged a nonviolent verbal protest outside of the room where the film was being screened. That’s the entire story. The cops didn’t have a problem. No one was blocking any entrance. Legal observers could confirm all of this,” Carnie said. “That’s the whole story.”

+