Opinion: Agreements with Israeli schools a turning point for UC Irvine

Few universities have garnered as much international attention and Jewish communal concern over student-led, anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic activities on campus than the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

A history of incendiary demonstrations demonizing Israel; a revolving door of speakers sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah; accusations of harassment of, and threats to, Jewish students, and a pattern of unsatisfactory responses by campus administrators — at least until the 2010 suspension of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for its role in the Michael Oren debacle — led this writer in a Jewish Journal cover story that year to wonder if UCI was safe for Jews. Some in the community had even accused the university itself of being anti-Semitic.

That’s why UCI’s new agreements with four Israeli universities are nothing less than historic.

During a momentous academic mission to Israel in March, Chancellor Michael Drake signed memoranda of understanding with Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University and the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, as well as a letter of intent with Tel Aviv University. These agreements recognize shared areas of academic interest and expertise and open the door to collaborative research, faculty and student exchanges, conferences and other initiatives.

Drake calls Israeli universities “natural partners” with which UCI shares a “synergistic series of competencies and approaches to problems.” Speaking with leaders of the Rose Project, Jewish Federation & Family Services’ program established in 2008 to create a comprehensive and proactive approach to addressing challenges at UCI, the chancellor cited the schools’ cultural and demographic similarities that help build strong relationships among faculty and administrators. He was clearly excited about the potential of these agreements for UCI and Israeli scholars and students.

The university is wasting no time getting started. While in Israel, UCI deans of physical science, medicine and engineering who accompanied Drake laid the groundwork for short- and long-term programs, some of which will launch this summer. Among these are student and faculty exchanges in electrical, civil and environmental engineering; visiting medical rotations, post-doctoral fellowships in the physical sciences; virtual conferences for medical school faculty; and a workshop on water resources. UCI also announced plans to establish “Communications 2025,” a major conference in Israel to explore the technologies needed for IT and communications in the next decade.

The notion that more positive discourse on college campuses can be generated through academia has fueled a number of initiatives by pro-Israel organizations, including the rapid growth in North America of multidisciplinary Israel studies programs. Embracing this approach, Rose Project leaders in 2008 began engaging the UCI administration in dialogue regarding the value a wider academic lens on Israel would have for building a civil campus climate. Significant steps with measurable progress have been achieved: Top pro-Israel speakers and Israeli officials regularly address the UCI community; Israeli journalists and academics are frequent guests in classes dealing with Israel and the conflict; the Israel Fellows Program of the Jewish Agency for Israel has added an important educational and advocacy component to the UCI Hillel agenda; and the Schusterman Family Foundation — in cooperation with the Rose Project — has established a visiting Israeli professor program that brings a scholarly, pro-Israel voice to campus to engage in broad education inside and outside the classroom.

The Orange County Jewish community has seen time and again the transformative effects of Birthright Israel, Hasbara Fellowships, Hillel and StandWithUs Israel programming – all of which are supported by the Rose Project — on participants’ understanding and perception of Israel. Now that UCI’s administration is actively seeking Israeli partnerships, a growing cadre of faculty and students are unequivocally empowered to have the kind of direct interaction with Israel and Israelis that we know will leave a lasting imprint on how they will view the country, its people and their contributions to society. Let’s hope they take up this mantle of opportunity and responsibility.

With the MSU’s notorious “Palestine Awareness Week” assumed to be three weeks away, anti-Israel speakers and their supporters will once again assemble on Ring Road to lambast Israel. And while that small but vocal group may continue to call on the university to divest from companies doing business with Israel, the UCI leadership has outright rejected calls for an Israeli academic boycott. Instead, it has set in place a positive path and vision regarding Israel that will have a profound impact on the campus climate for years to come.

Lisa Armony is a former Jewish Journal Orange County correspondent and now director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.

Opinion: Here we go again—UC Irvine’s annual propoganda parade

Here we go again. It’s spring, and for the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UC Irvine (UCI), spring means it’s time for the MSU’s annual weeklong propaganda parade of hate programs against Israel and calls for punishing it with boycotts and divestment. Forget the real Arab spring, during which masses of people have been risking their lives to demonstrate against dictatorial rule. The MSU is obsessed with only one issue: convincing students that the democratic state of Israel is evil, has no right to exist, and should be punished and dismantled.

Over the past ten years, UCI’s MSU propaganda carnival has featured repeat guests and occasionally new ones. But the speakers are interchangeable. Their messages are always the same. They ignore the dictatorial Middle Eastern governments that oppress their own citizens. Instead, they are cheerleaders for Israel’s destruction. On campus, students informally refer to the MSU annual event as “hate week.”

This year is no different. UCI’s MSU has not been affected by faculty, community, and student protests about the factual distortions, extremism, and anti-Semitism of its past events. Nor has the MSU moderated despite its temporary suspension last fall. (The UCI administration disciplined the group for conspiring to prevent Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking on campus in February 2010 and then lying about the premeditated action, which it tried to pass off as “spontaneous” responses during the ambassador’s speech.)

True, the blatantly anti-Semitic, demagogic Abdel Malik Ali wasn’t invited, though he has been a regular in the past. (Last year, StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein taped him calling for an Intifada on campus, warning students not to socialize with Jewish students, and avowing his support for Hezbollah and Hamas. This was too much even for UCI’s liberal administration.) True, there aren’t bloody israeli flags or placards equating Israel with Nazis. True, the title of this year’s events is less inflammatory. Instead of a title that accuses Israel of “genocide” or a “holocaust,” like titles used in past years, the title, “Palestine: An Invisible Nation,” seems to shift the spotlight to the Palestinians. But this apparent moderation is a deception.

The changes are superficial. Despite the seemingly more moderate title, the focus will not be on Palestinians or what they must do to build a viable state and coexist peacefully alongside Israel. Consider the preposterousness of the title. There is nothing “invisible” about the Palestinians or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They have held center stage in the world for decades. Instead, as always, the MSU speakers will use the Palestinians as a rhetorical device to launch another all-out assault on Israel and Israel’s supporters.

The speakers are as extremist and incendiary as in past years. They are stalwarts of the anti-Israel parade and apologists for terrorism. Three speakers are anti-Zionist Jews from the outer fringes of the Jewish community. The MSU likely invited them to deflect charges of anti-Semitism, to persuade students there is nothing anti-Jewish about demonizing Israel, or to relish watching Jews beating up on Israel.

Hedy Epstein, an elderly Holocaust survivor, sweetly spouts Hamas’ version of Israel’s history and talks about her participation in the Free Gaza flotillas. She mistakenly believes the flotillas helped “poor Palestinians,” when in fact they lent support to Hamas, the real oppressor of Gaza’s residents. Israeli Matan Cohen, a Hampshire College student and leader of Anarchists Against the Wall, has led raucous demonstrations in Israel to obstruct building of the security barrier and has spearheaded boycott and divestment movements on American campuses. Rabbi Weiss is a leader of Neturei Karta, the self-styled ultra-Orthodox group so reviled by the entire spectrum of the Jewish community that, in an unprecedented move, Jewish religious denominations “excommunicated” it in 2004. Neturei Karta and its members support and have physically embraced anti-Semites, terrorists, and leaders of regimes dedicated to Israel’s destruction, from Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan to Hamas to Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

The non-Jewish speakers spew the same messages. Former U.S. Ambassador Edward Peck, who was on the pro-Hamas flotilla, claims that the IHH organization passengers who sought martyrdom and brutally attacked Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara were only acting in self-defense. He has whitewashed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah, describing him as a well-meaning “educated guy,” and, for decades, he has sought to sever the close U.S.-Israel alliance. Journalist Alison Weir has made a career of fabricating lurid charges against Israel and railing against “Jewish control” of the media and American government. UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian, who once called for an Intifada in the U.S., is a leader of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, and he mangles history to demonize Israel and convince audiences that “justice” will be served only if Israel is dismantled.

UCI hate week could seem circus-like with its speakers performing their predictable, clownish, grotesque distortions. But there is nothing funny or benign about the events. The speakers attack Jewish identity and Jewish students with thinly veiled or blatant anti-Semitism. They assault scholarship, the historical record, and rational thought, the mainstays of academia. They misrepresent and misapply principles of international law and human rights with Orwellian results. Their numbing repetitions year after year normalize and mainstream their canards and insidiously influence apolitical students. They foment intolerance for Israelis, Jews, and Israel’s supporters, and they indirectly—or even directly—promote support for terrorists who murder Israeli men, women, and children.

A menacing threat of violence against Jews and Israel’s supporters simmers beneath the surface of the week’s events. The hate and destructiveness are also exported to other campuses. This year, the MSUs at UCLA and UC San Diego are putting on hate weeks at the same time as the UCI group so they can share props and speakers.

Most university administrations have adopted a hands-off policy about hate weeks. The MSUs refuse to moderate and have had little incentive to do so. They scrupulously avoid facts or other perspectives that would undermine their prejudices. They accuse their many critics of conspiring to silence dissent or violating academic freedom or the right to free speech, even as they attempt to muzzle those critics. They cross red lines of civility and intellectual honesty with impunity.

Given these circumstances, it is imperative that responsible administrators, faculty, and students expose the extremism, prejudice, hypocrisy, and misplaced focus of the propaganda parade. Fortunately, pro-Israel organizations and campus groups have mobilized to put on programming of their own that educates their campuses about Israel and corrects the misperceptions by portraying Israel for what it is—a nation of remarkable achievements that also faces many difficult challenges. But fair-minded people, responsible community leaders, and student groups must redouble their efforts. More than Israel’s future is at stake. As always, fanaticism and anti-Semitism corrupt and undermine a whole constellation of values, from intellectual honesty to the human rights and international law principles that were forged in the modern world but are abused and used as weapons by the propaganda parade in its single-minded hate campaign. We have seen before what can happen when such distortions and propaganda go unchecked.

Roz Rothstein is CEO of StandWithUs, a nonprofit international Israel education organization, and Roberta P. Seid, PhD, is education/research director of StandWithUs.

Cartoon Tension at UC Irvine

The showing of three cartoons of the prophet Muhammad at a conference last week on radical Islam at UC Irvine attracted a near-capacity crowd of about 400, including leaders of some local Jewish groups, while protesters demonstrated outside.

A palpable tension descended on the audience at the unveiling of the three cartoons, including one that depicted a bomb in a turban on the prophet Muhammad’s head. The printing of these cartoons — and several others — in a Danish newspaper prompted some Muslim religious leaders and governments to incite violent protests, which have sometimes turned deadly. The display at UC Irvine also included three anti-Semitic cartoons that have run in the Arab press.

The conference’s co-sponsors, the College Republicans and the conservative United American Committee, said they wanted to affirm the First Amendment and to stimulate an important discussion about the growing threat of radical Islam.

“We believe unfettered speech is the only way we can come to a better understanding of what’s going on in the world,” said Francis Barraza, treasurer of the College Republicans. “Things that are obscene, things that are crazy, things that are uncomfortable should be exposed. And they can’t be exposed if they’re shrouded.”

The Muslim Student Union vehemently complained to university officials about the showing on the grounds that the cartoons are an affront to Islam. Instead they held a raucous protest outside, where more than 350 Muslims prayed and carried signs against hate speech and in praise of Muhammad.

“As a civilization and a society, we speak of spreading world peace, democracy and compassion,” said Osman Umarji, a former Muslim Student Union president who now advises the group. “Inciting religious hatred goes against that and only seeks to polarize a world in which we need more understanding and compassion.”

No violence was reported, although a Muslim heckler and another audience member nearly came to blows during the panel discussion.

Some of the Jews in attendance accused the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of hypocrisy. They asserted that, over the years, the MSU has invited speakers to campus — over the objections of Jewish students and groups — whose attacks on Zionism crossed the line into anti-Semitism. The Muslim group has denied the charge, saying it opposes Israel and its oppression of Palestinians — not Judaism.

Jewish leaders called that a double standard.

“When hate speech is aimed at Jews, it’s OK,” said Gary Ratner, executive director of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. “But when they perceive hate speech aimed at Muslims, it’s not OK.”

Security was tight, with metal barriers separating protesters from those lined up to enter.

Inside, the commentary was hardly all about conciliation. The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, president and founder of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, repeatedly called Islam an “evil religion,” although he said Muslims weren’t. Homeless activist Ted Hayes seemed to blame Muslims for selling Africans into slavery during a heated exchange with an audience member.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined an invitation to participate, citing the sponsorship by the United American Committee, which it finds objectionable, said CAIR spokeswoman Sabiha Khan.

Besides Ratner, other politically active Jews in attendance included Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Roz Rothstein, executive director of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, and Allyson Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region.