Is UC Irvine safe for Jews?

Jewish students could hardly contain their excitement as they gathered to celebrate the opening of the new Hillel center at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in February. Calling it a “symbol for Jewish students,” Jordan Fruchtman, Hillel Foundation of Orange County executive director, described the 1,400-square-foot facility across the street from campus as “a place where students feel good and create memories that build a strong Jewish identity.”

Three days later, the students were back at Hillel, their giddiness turned to shell shock. They had just witnessed Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, attempting to give a speech on campus, on Feb. 8, only to be relentlessly heckled and jeered by a crowd of anti-Israel protesters, many of them fellow classmates. Eleven protesting students were arrested, eight from UCI, and disciplinary investigations are still under way, although recently disclosed e-mails suggest that the protests were an orchestrated effort by a militant Muslim group on campus.

Welcome to Jewish life at UCI.

It’s a tale of two cities, where normal college life — classes, exams and preparation for adulthood — provides the backdrop to a world of sharp contrasts.

UCI’s standing as one of California’s finest institutions of higher learning has made it the 10th-ranked public university in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. On any given day, nearly 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students stroll and bike across the sprawling suburban campus, where modern and postmodern buildings form what planners designed as concentric circles of knowledge. The wooded Aldrich Park, named for the school’s founding chancellor, is at the epicenter of these rings, surrounded by tree-lined Ring Road, the mile-long main pedestrian artery. Known as the “free-speech zone,” Ring Road’s mix of vendors and eateries often serve as backdrop to student-led demonstrations, awareness campaigns and other events, all held under the watchful eye of Aldrich Hall, home to the UCI administration. 

UCI’s enrollment includes an estimated 1,000 Jewish students, most from Orange County and Los Angeles, some of whom find at the school a blossoming of Jewish opportunities. Shabbat dinners, once sporadic and sparsely attended, now draw close to 200 each week.  Jewish cultural, educational and social events fill the university calendar. Last year, the national Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, joined its brother fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, as a chartered Greek house.

“I actually feel more Jewish here than I did at Brandeis,” said transfer student Lauren Gindi, who came from the Boston university’s predominantly Jewish campus in 2009 to be closer to home. “I feel there’s a bigger desire for me to have my Jewish identity, more of a reason for me to identify myself as Jewish and pro-Israel. I understand what I’m representing.”

And that can be a big job on this often-fraught campus.

UCI has made international headlines in recent years, dubbed by observers an unwelcome environment for Jewish students at best, a hotbed of anti-Jewish hate at worst. Years of heated protests and demonstrations demonizing Israel, organized by the school’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) — the group suspected of organizing the Oren disruptions — have earned the school its reputation as a center for anti-Zionism. And general tolerance for the unrest by the school’s administration has prompted charges of allowing anti-Semitism to run amok.

“I found myself trying to justify why Israel has a right to exist,” said Moran Cohen, president of Anteaters for Israel (AFI), UCI’s pro-Israel student group named for the university mascot.

Cohen spoke these words last month in an address to AFI members the day after a student protest against tuition hikes morphed into an anti-Israel demonstration outside the UCI administration building. On this occasion, like many others, MSU members and their supporters had shouted, “Anti-genocide, anti-Israel,” and waved signs equating Zionism with terrorism.

“We’re here at the university to learn and teach each other,” Cohen said.  You don’t need to justify why we have a right to live.”

Yet not all Jewish students agree on how bad the problem really is.  Over the years, some students have written letters expressing deep concern about anti-Semitism, while others have praised the campus as a warm and hospitable place.

“Anti-Semitism is definitely a huge issue on campus and will only be rectified when the administration starts to implement campus policies,” said Reut Cohen, a 2007 graduate who has blogged extensively about Muslim-Jewish relations at UCI and is one of the administration’s harshest critics.

Reut Cohen says she was assaulted while an undergraduate, when a female MSU member shoved a camera in her face for several minutes, blocking her view as she attempted to question an MSU speaker. She accuses campus police and administrators of dismissing her grievance and dubbing her a troublemaker when she tried to lodge a complaint.

“It offended me to hear I was considered an outsider, but then speakers who are quite vile are allowed their First Amendment rights,” she said.

“Many [Muslim students] were friendly to me in the dorms, but as soon as they found out I’m Israeli, they turned their backs on me.  One girl spit on me. That shows how much it infiltrates other aspects of campus life.”

“It was a really intense experience and I took it personally,” said Sabrina Matzon, who graduated in 2009. “I did feel threatened because I was outnumbered. I stopped wearing my Jewish star to school. They posted signs all over campus stating “facts,” putting down Israel and Jews. Posters of covered-up Muslim women saying, ‘God bless Hitler’ — I can’t believe the campus would allow that to take place.”

Fourth-year student Guy Gutterman has a different take on campus life.

“I actually enjoy the tension,” the 21-year old native Israeli said. “I like the idea that people are passionate about things that matter to them and that matter to me.”

Gutterman and his best friend, a Palestinian student, have chosen not to discuss the conflict, though he says he has friendly debates with friends in the MSU. Despite these good conversations, he said little constructive dialogue takes place in the Middle East studies classes, precisely where he had hoped it would. 

“The most disheartening part is that, as passionate as people are, they really only want to discuss the issues in their comfort zone,” Gutterman said. “There’s always one group that doesn’t really care for the opinion of the other side.”