Israeli/Palestinian issue heats up on UCSD campus

It’s nasty and getting nastier.

That’s what people on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate on college campuses are saying following an emotional seven-hour hearing on Feb. 29 at UC San Diego, called to discuss divestment from companies doing business with the Israeli military.

“My concern is over where this is heading across the entire UC,” said Samer Naji, a senior and the vice president of external affairs for UCSD’s Associated Students. “I only see it getting worse.”

After the student government group voted down the divestment resolution, students criticizing the Israeli government said their opponents had been both verbally and physically assaulted them.

Backers of Israel say the allegations are not only without merit but also border on libel. They also note that they come largely from divestment sponsor Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that referred to UCSD as “J-Street U UCSD” after the advisory vote.

Israel supporters are particularly incensed over accusations against music professor Shlomo Dubnov, the UCSD chapter president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a grass-roots organization of scholars who promote civil discussion and defend Israel’s right to exist. Some divestment supporters have accused Dubnov of verbally assaulting and harassing pro-divestment students outside the forum.

Josue Castellon is the co-chair of the university’s Student Affirmative Action Committee, which has sided with the pro-Palestinian group. He was at the marathon meeting and insists he witnessed divestment supporters being “verbally attacked and assaulted.”

“The only thing I’m condemning is the actions of the faculty and staff members on our campus. If you see something wrong, you need to say something about it. Multiple students were getting attacked.”

Dubnov is the only faculty member who has been identified. No formal complaints have been lodged against him, and Dubnov says the allegations are fantasy.

“I never spoke to any of the pro-divestment students,” Dubnov wrote in an e-mail from Italy last weekend, where he was traveling. “After my address to the AS council where I read a letter from 40 Nobel Laureates against [divestment], I sat in the audience and then left the room with a colleague professor. We have a video and signed testimonial that I did not verbally attack any student. I vigorously deny all allegations and I have called for a University investigation to clear my name.” 

The incident was the latest in a string of polarizing events at UC campuses. In February 2010, 11 Muslim protesters were arrested after they repeatedly interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in an organized effort while he was delivering a speech at UC Irvine. Ten of the 11 were convicted of misdemeanors.

Hecklers also disrupted speakers at an event last month titled StandWithUs’ “Israeli Soldiers Stories.” at UC Davis. One protester accused an invited speaker of being a rapist and murderer.

On March 6, vandals at UC Riverside scrawled “terrorist” on an Israeli flag belonging to a Jewish student group.

Two days later, University of California President Mark G. Yudof issued a statement decrying the lack of decorum and calling for “the moral and ethical imperative for all of our University of California students, faculty and staff members to foster a climate of tolerance, civility and open-mindedness.”

“What is not acceptable are acts meant to disrupt the speech of others. What is not acceptable are hate-driven physical and, yes, verbal attacks on any group or individual that are meant to silence or intimidate those who would express differing opinions.”

In response, the Muslim Student Association at UCSD released a statement criticizing Yudof, saying the president “has chosen to silence pro-Palestine activism at UC campuses.”

The pro-Israel camp at UCSD says it is taking the offensive after years of what it calls unfettered Palestinian propaganda. And that has frustrated critics of Israel, supporters of the Jewish state say.

“What has really changed, I think, is that the pro-Israel students have learned how to better counter their arguments and have gotten more support from others in the community,” said Dr. David Feifel, a professor in the university’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurosciences program and director of its Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Medicine program. “It’s a much more even playing field.”

Feifel said his work at the UCSD Medical Center, several miles from the La Jolla campus, had largely insulated him from the dynamics of the debate at the university. That changed when a divestment resolution was first proposed in 2010, an unsuccessful effort that was followed by what he called a “virulent Justice in Palestine Week.”

“It really opened my eyes, and the eyes of a lot of faculty members, to what was going on. There were a lot of highly partisan, anti-Israel speakers who were not interested in education, who were not about trying to educate the student body about what is going on in the Middle East. It’s all designed to demonize Israel. …There was never any mention of any culpability of the Palestinians or the Arabs in this conflict. They are trying to show this as a clear-cut case of Israeli aggression.”

Feifel said critics of Israel are making a habit of saying their opponents are trying to stifle free speech. He pointed to an incident last year, when he and 27 of his colleagues signed a letter, published as a full-page advertisement in the campus newspaper, calling an upcoming Palestinian Justice Week event a “hate-fest” and suggesting that the student groups behind it support the destruction of Israel.

A group of faculty members with an opposing view responded with a letter to the paper accusing the pro-Israel professors of trying to quash robust debate.

In a letter to university administrators following the Feb. 29 vote, students who support divestment sought an investigation of what they saw as attacks against them.

“We write to ask you all to please listen and respond to the needs of the students who were verbally, physically, and emotionally attacked on Wednesday, February 29, 2012, at the AS meeting, where Students for Justice in Palestine presented the Divestment Resolution,” the letter states. “During this meeting, not only did fellow UC San Diego students attack students from the SAAC [Student Affirmative Action Committee] and UCSD community, UC San Diego staff and faculty did the same. We need to address the hostile campus climate being created for students of color and students from underserved and underrepresented communities.”

The board of the university’s Faculty Association is supporting the allegations. In a March 6 letter to Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and campus administrators, the board wrote:

“We are most disturbed by news of events that took place on Wednesday night [Feb. 29] during the Associated Students Meeting at which time students from SAAC and students from Justice in Palestine who presented a Divestment Resolution were verbally attacked by both UCSD faculty and staff present.”

Officials with the Faculty Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Associated Students vice president Naji said that although the meeting was tense and emotional, he did not witness any students or faculty attacking fellow students — though he did say members of the community may have engaged in name calling. The Associated Students’ blog of the meeting also did not refer to any such action.

Feifel said he believes the allegation against Dubnov is a fabrication. “It is incredible to me how blatantly they would lie.”

Dubnov said he is livid over the Faculty Association’s letter. “How does an elected board of a faculty association, which is meant to represent the interest of UCSD faculty members, justify openly endorsing, without checking any facts, serious allegations made by a small group of highly partisan students against me and also other faculty and students? Moreover, how does that board feel justified to write to the Chancellor of this University a letter urging her and the administration  to “take action” upon these unverified and contested allegations?” he said. 

The national board of Scholars for Peace also has taken up Dubnov’s cause. It called for an end to the angry rhetoric, and criticized the Faculty Association for making a baseless claim.

Scholars for Peace, which comprises more than 50,000 academics on 4,000 campuses around the world, issued a statement saying, “We have noted with concern the degradation of civil discourse on campus and the increasing harassment and intimidation of pro-Israel and Jewish students and faculty in Europe, Canada, the United States and elsewhere.”

Naji insists he is neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine, but rather pro-peace. He said he voted in favor of divestment as a matter of conscience.

“The main problem right now is people are equating criticism of Israeli policies as being the equivalent of hatred of Jews or hatred of Israeli people as a whole. I don’t see it that way.”