UCI Talks on Bias Charge Break Down

Mediation has broken down between UC Irvine and a Jewish group that accused the university of tolerating campus anti-Semitism.

After just two meetings, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called off summer talks with university officials, ending negotiations to settle the first-ever federal civil rights complaint filed against a university on the basis of alleged anti-Semitism.

Officials at the Orange County school expressed disappointment that ZOA ended the talks “after progress was being made toward a greater understanding with students regarding free speech obligations and UCI’s actions,” James Cohen, director of media relations, said in a statement.

The ZOA stands by its claim that the university has failed to crack down on alleged anti-Semitism on the part of Muslim students and campus Muslim organizations. UC Irvine officials counter that they offer a safe, secure environment for all students, a claim supported by many Jewish students, especially those not involved with campus Israel-advocacy groups. Muslim students have denied doing anything improper.

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiments have become ever more common at U.S. universities, as evidenced by the movement to divest funds from Israel. In addition, there’s been an increase of international funding for professorships and Middle East institutes that are more pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian.

However, the frequency and intensity of animosity toward Israel and its supporters at UC Irvine — as well as at Columbia University in New York and UC Berkeley — make them among the least hospitable colleges for Jews in the nation, some Jewish leaders say.

Susan Tuchman, director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, said she could not comment specifically on the June mediation talks because of a confidentiality agreement. But UC Irvine remained a “hostile environment,” she said, for many of the university’s 1,000 Jewish students.

According to the ZOA complaint, Jewish students have, on occasion, been sworn at, threatened and harassed by Muslim activists. Moreover, the administration has declined to condemn what Jewish groups characterize as inflammatory hate speech made by stridently anti-Zionist Muslims invited to campus by Muslim student groups. Many of these speakers have criticized Jews, the State of Israel and Israel’s right to exist.

“My sense is that things have not improved, and that the rhetoric has not changed,” said Tuchman of ZOA, which filed the complaint against the school with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. “You still have [the annual] ‘Zionist Awareness Week’ and the same anti-Israel, anti-Semitic speakers coming on campus. Students are still feeling uncomfortable.”

No future negotiations are expected, Tuchman said. With the collapse of mediation, federal authorities will resume investigating the Irvine campus to determine what, if any, remedial measures are needed, she added.

University administrators, in recent months, have taken steps to improve the climate on campus, such as holding town halls featuring Jewish and Muslim speakers respectfully exchanging ideas. The university also has sponsored dialogues between Muslim and Jewish students.

“The university has continued its efforts to raise the dialogue on campus regarding issues relating to the Middle East, long before ZOA filed its complaints,” UCI’s Cohen said in the statement.

In April, UCI Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel N. Gomez and Dean of Students Sally Peterson — two high-ranking administrators formerly accused of insensitivity to Jewish student concerns — attended a two-day conference sponsored by Jewish organizations titled, “Making the Case for Israel.”

UC Irvine recently co-sponsored a talk on contentious Middle East issues featuring Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C. The point, UC Irvine officials said, was to model positive behavior by showing how people holding divergent and passionate viewpoints can disagree respectfully. There is talk of creating a major in Jewish studies.

UC Irvine also has decided to review its code of conduct, which calls for tolerance, civility and mutual respect for different religions, ethnicities, genders and races.

Such efforts have earned the support of Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

“UCI is a great school for all students, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

Some Jewish leaders credit UC Irvine with taking steps in the right direction.

“We think there have been some changes for the better in the past six months,” said Kevin O’Grady, associate director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Orange County-Long Beach Chapter.

But much more should be done, said Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group that has worked closely with UC Irvine students. The administration’s continued silence in response to anti-Semitic hate speech on campus calls into question its commitment to Jewish students, Rothstein said.

In May, for instance, Oakland-based Muslim religious leader Amir Abdel Malik Ali returned to campus, where he talked of the “apartheid state of Israel” and the danger of Muslim dialogue with “Zionist racists.” Malik Ali spoke at the invitation of the Muslim Student Union.

Ignoring pressure by Jewish groups, the administration failed to condemn the speech. By contrast, leaders at Harvard, Rutgers and San Francisco State have publicly criticized anti-Semitism on their campuses.

“We’re not trying to stop free speech. You can say that the Jews led us into Iraq and control the world, whatever” Rothstein said. “But we’d like [university officials] to say they find that anti-Semitic, which we haven’t seen yet.”