A re-screening of “Beneath the Helmet” at UC Irvine in wake of protests

“Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front” a documentary film centering on five Israeli soldiers and produced by the pro-Israel organization, Jerusalem U, will screen at University of California, Irvine (UCI) on Wednesday as part of what a press release is calling “A Safe Space for Free Speech event.”

On May 25, a screening of the film at UCI prompted members of the anti-Israel campus organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, and others to protest the screening. The approximately 10 people in the audience at the screening—which was organized by Students Supporting Israel—felt threatened enough by the protest to call police. (Although there have been reports that the screening was cancelled as a result of the protests, it was not.) The police arrived and, at the conclusion of the event, escorted attendees to their cars.

“The community is coming together to show their support for Jewish students and the community of students on campus who wish to engage in Israel programming on campus,” Lisa Armony, executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County, said. “We are working with the university to ensure the safety of the event and that the rights of all students are protected.”

The short Jerusalem U-produced film, “Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus,” will screen before the showing of “Beneath the Helmet.”

Guest speakers slated to appear at the event include Israel Defense Forces first lieutenant Eden Adler, one of the five soldiers featured in “Beneath the Helmet” and Elan Carr, a pro-Israel criminal gang prosecutor who is currently running for the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor.

Attendees at the May 25 screening included Eliana Kopley, a UCI student who left the event to take a phone call and who was reportedly prevented from re-entering by protestors.

UCI chancellor Howard Gillman released a statement in the aftermath of the incident that said the behavior of the protestors went beyond the type of free speech that is permissible at the campus. 

Despite the protest that occured at the previous screening, Cathy Lawhon, UCI senior director of media relations and publications, said the university is committed to accomodating events such as these screenings.

“We are an open campus, open to the community, to the events students want to put on,” she said Monday, following a meeting with UCI officials regarding the event. “We don’t discriminate based on content, so if they want to have another event it’s our pleasure to accommodate them.”

Searching for utopia in Orange County

The Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California bills itself as “the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century,” but until recently it was the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The base was commissioned in 1943 and served as an airport for President Richard Nixon as he shuttled between the Western White House and Washington, D.C. After El Toro was decommissioned in 1999, the site was dormant for years. Then, after a long and contentious debate, voters approved a plan to create the Great Park. In 2011, I was invited to be one of the park’s first artists-in-residence.

At the time, I was fascinated with what psychologists call “mental time travel”—the way old family photos or home movies can reanimate an emotion and cause you to re-experience physical sensations you felt at the time. It can also happen with historical events. Images of President Nixon’s resignation trigger a rush of feelings in me—even though I experienced the event as a 10 year old watching it on television. 

Orange County is a fertile site for Nixon time travel. The 37th president was born in Yorba Linda and lived in Whittier and San Clemente. I wondered if, when he visited El Toro, he ever stood on the site of my temporary art studio. When I looked out the window at the rows of newly planted date palms, I tried to picture jets on the runway, Marines in jeeps, and 5,000 supporters pressed against a chain-link fence waiting for the president to descend from the sky—to time travel to that unforgettable day in 1974 when Nixon landed here, a few hours after flashing his famous “V” sign and boarding his helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House for the last time.

I decided to see if I could trigger people’s “involuntary memories”—memories evoked by cues rather than conscious effort. I wanted to know if the former base was haunted for others, too. So every Sunday for seven months, I went to the park to hold “open studio” hours and asked people to tell me their memories of Richard Nixon. As people visited with me and told me stories, I worked on large pen and ink drawings based on well-known images from the Nixon presidency, and I made drawings to illustrate the personal stories I had collected from park visitors over the previous weekends.

The Vietnam War figured into many of those conversations. Every American man over the age of 60 told me his draft number and how he either served or avoided the war. People also told me about the antiwar protests at nearby UC Irvine, which surprised me. I taught in the university’s art department for five years and never heard anything about student protests.

In fact, I had an impression of Irvine as a placid postwar utopia. In conversations with park visitors, I heard about neighborhoods where you “felt like you were in the best place.” People told me about growing up in the newly built housing tracts of the planned community and described how the town smelled of the Eucalyptus trees planted as a windbreak between the orange groves and lima bean fields.

Irvine was a lima bean farm until 1960 when the University of California bought 1,000 acres from James Irvine for $1. At that time, California had a problem: the children of the postwar baby boom were reaching college age and would soon overwhelm the state’s educational institutions. UC Irvine was one of three new campuses to open between 1960 and 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson presided at the UC Irvine dedication.

The layout of the UC Irvine campus and an adjacent community planned for 50,000 residents was designed by William Pereira, the architect who drafted the master plan for LAX. In photographs that ran in the September 6, 1963 issue of Time magazine, a dashing Pereira gestures to his blueprint of subdivisions and cul-de-sacs—“the perfect place to live, work, shop, play, and learn,” as described by Irvine Company literature.

How did the Vietnam War transform this brand-new utopian campus? Inspired by my interviews at the park, I decided to investigate in the UC Irvine Archives and Special Collections at the Langston Library.

A sleeve of 35mm slides from October 4, 1965, opening day of the University of California, Irvine reveals many buildings still under construction, and bare ground dotted with fragile saplings staked to posts. Smiling girls with bouffant hairdos and boys with crewcuts carry armloads of books through William Pereira’s vision of the perfect future—all space age cement curves and expressionistic patterned facades.

Just a year and a half later, the students don’t look as happy. In a fat folder of slides from January 23, 1967, I find young people assembled with unmistakable seriousness on the steps of the Gateway Plaza to protest the firing of UC President Kerr for his lenient treatment of Free Speech Movement activists (at the urging of recently elected Governor Ronald Reagan). The students are holding hand-lettered signs that say: “In Memoriam Clark Kerr” and “R-E-A-G-A-N Doesn’t Spell FREEDOM.”

May 4 1970, Irvine

I see the students becoming more radicalized in dress and demeanor year by year. In bound volumes of The New University, the student paper, I read about how the campus participated in the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in October 1969. In faded slides, the clean-cut boys of 1965 are now shaggy-haired and shirtless. Girls have ditched their curlers for straight hair parted in the middle like Joan Baez, and they’re wearing jeans. They wear black armbands, and many students are barefoot. The crowd has swollen, completely filling the stairs, and legs are dangling from the library balcony.

Visitors to my Great Park studio had described their memories of April 30, 1970, when President Nixon appeared on television with a giant map of Southeast Asia to announce his expansion of the war into Cambodia. In response, students at over 400 colleges and universities went on strike. In a photo from May 4, 1970, the UCI plaza and library are occupied and no one is smiling anymore. In one photo, a crowd holds signs that read: “Did Dick Ask Us?” and “Does your government represent YOU?”

I don’t think the protestors know it yet—the 24-hour news cycle hadn’t been invented— but National Guardsmen in Ohio opened fire on an unarmed crowd at Kent State University at 12:24 p.m. that same day, killing four students and injuring nine. Based on the angle of the sun and shadows on the plaza, the massacre in Ohio has already happened. It’s a weird feeling to know this has happened when the students in the photo do not yet know.

The speed of the transformation at Irvine is what affects me the most. In the five years since 1965, these brand-new buildings became symbols of an establishment the students felt had betrayed them. The students rejected the utopia that was created for them, not in a symbolic sense, but literally—this utopia was created for them.

The story of war protest at UCI may not be as historically significant or well-known as the protests at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Columbia University. But it is a microcosm of the rise and fall of the postwar American Dream. 

I think about Pereira’s vision for a college campus as a tranquil utopia in an orderly, planned Southern California city, and try to reconcile that idea with images of Ohio guardsmen positioning their M-1 rifles in front of the pagoda on a picturesque campus 2,000 miles away. Tear gas blurs the silhouettes of students fleeing the Modernist cement buildings of Kent State, and in other pictures students crouch in a parking lot over the fallen bodies of their classmates. I guess it’s hard to “master plan” for some futures.

I put my folders back on the cart to be reshelved, wondering how long it will be until someone else asks to look at them. I emerge from the library into the late afternoon sun, blinking with the disorientation of a time traveler. I half expect to see picket signs and girls in ponchos. The Gateway Plaza is swarming with students, but they are of all different ethnicities, not the primarily Anglo students of the late 1960s. They are not shaggy but groomed and gelled. They’re texting on smartphones as they race purposefully to class. They have skateboards and backpacks, and it’s hard to imagine them protesting anything—not because they seem apathetic or indifferent, but because they’re so diverse it’s hard to imagine a single cause that could galvanize all of them. 

The campus bears so little resemblance to the master plan that it’s hard to locate all eight original Pereira buildings amidst the expansion and constant construction. When I find them, the Brutalist buildings look dated and a little cartoony, dwarfed and crowded by giant glass and steel laboratories. The products of more recent architects—and their visions of an entirely different future—colonize every square foot of available space.

Deborah Aschheim is an artist who makes installations, drawings, and sculptures as part of a long-term investigation of personal and collective memory. Her project, “Involuntary Memories,” will be exhibited at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum from July 26 to September 28, 2014. 

This article was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.

Court upholds conviction of Irvine protesters

A California state appeals court has upheld the conviction of 10 students at the University of California, Irvine, who disrupted a 2010 speech by then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.

During the speech, the protesters interrupted Oren repeatedly, calling him a “mass murderer” and a “war criminal.” The heckling caused him to pause his speech amid calls for order, and he curtailed his hourlong speech to 12 minutes.

In 2011, the students were charged and subsequently convicted of violating a state law prohibiting the disruption or breaking up of a lawful assembly. The appeals court upheld the conviction. The defendants face up to a year in prison.

General Counsel Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prosecution along with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish National Fund, said his group was “pleased that the appellate division concurred with our view that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech may not be invoked to protect those who intentionally disrupt a lawful meeting.


BDS campaign spreads with little effect

The multinational boycott campaign targeting Israel, aimed at stopping the country’s perceived injustices against Palestinians, has a venerable history, but the movement showed a new spurt of activism this month.

Most of the attention has focused on the University of California and its campuses, two of which have just come down on opposite sides of the issue following emotional, all-night debates.

On April 18, the student senate at UC Berkeley voted 11-9 in favor of a resolution calling on the statewide UC administration to divest of stock in American companies providing technology or weapons used by the Israeli military in the Palestinian territories.

One week earlier, the UC Santa Barbara student senate defeated a similar resolution aimed at “companies profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine,” by an even thinner margin of 11-10, with one abstention.

Previously, divestment petitions were approved by the student governments at the UC San Diego and Irvine campuses, as well as at UC Riverside, but the latter group reversed its stand in a subsequent vote.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement originated in the 1990s in a worldwide campaign to pressure the white minority regime in South Africa to change its apartheid policies discriminating against the majority black population.

When that campaign was seen as successful, some of its methods and techniques were adopted and re-aimed at the Israeli government as the primary target.

In 2002, the student governments at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) passed divestment-from-Israel resolutions, and some major church bodies in the United States and Canada followed suit in 2004.

The resurgence of the BDS movement at some of the 10 University of California campuses has raised questions as to its effectiveness and its impact on Jewish students.

In terms of practical results, the BDS campaigns have not realized their professed goal of changing Israeli policy by hitting the country, and foreign companies trading with it, in the pocketbook.

As far as the record shows, not a single university administration in the United States has accepted or acted on the various resolutions passed by their respective student bodies.

Typical is the response of UC’s governing body, the Board of Regents, which in 2010 adopted a policy statement introduced by its chair and vice chair, together with UC President Mark Yudof.

Noting the Regents’ existing policy of divesting only “when the U.S. government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide,” the statement declared, “We must take great care that no one organization or country is held to a different standard than any other.

“In the current resolutions voted by the UC student organizations, the State of Israel and companies doing business with Israel have been the sole focus. This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”

Even the BDS Web site, which lists every commercial, academic, government or artistic boycott move across the world in great detail, makes no claim of actual divestment by an American university.

In a month-by-month compilation of achievements in 2012, BDS lists numerous resolutions and petitions, but its closest claim to concrete success in academe is the action by the University of Glasgow (Scotland) in dropping Israel-produced Eden Spring Water from its cafeterias.

Much harder to gauge is the movement’s impact in fomenting anti-Israel sentiment and actions on campuses, as well as the impact on the comfort level of their Jewish students.

UC President Yudof, after hearing reports of harassment of Jewish students, particularly during campus “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and lack of response by campus administrators, appointed a committee in 2010, which interviewed Jewish students on six campuses over a seven-month period.

The voluminous study yielded a number of conclusions and recommendations, some controversial, and emphasized two points: Political and social opinions among Jewish students were diverse, and often opposed, even on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and while many such students felt resentment and outrage at some of the charges and attacks by Muslim student groups, none of the Jews interviewed felt in physical danger on campus.

Veteran journalist Dina Kraft, who has reported for The New York Times and the Jewish Journal, among others, last month interviewed a number of students involved on both sides of the BDS issue for the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Kraft asked whether the movement will now spread to colleges in other parts of the country and got one answer from Amal Ali, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside.

“The University of California has been at the forefront of social protest movements, so when any campus here makes any statement, the rest of the country listens. … This is the beginning, not the end,” she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel executive director at UCLA, said he believed at this point the BDS movement was targeting the UC campuses as a testing ground, before deciding whether to expand the campaign nationally. A similar view was expressed by Rabbi Evan Goodman, Hillel executive director at UC Santa Barbara.

Seidler-Feller also noted that an attempt to introduce a divestment resolution at UCLA two weeks ago didn’t get off the ground, thanks largely to preventive moves by Jewish students.

For her part, Kerri Copans, the Hillel director at UC San Diego, emphasized that the BDS movement “does not define the Jewish experience on campus … we have a vibrant community,” she told Kraft.

Copans said that her group is countering the calls for divestment with a plan for investment by helping to create a university scholarship for students, Jewish or not, to study in Israel.

One of the most interesting viewpoints on the BDS confrontations came from Meggie Le, president of the Associated Students at UC San Diego and the 21-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.

She had worked hard, initially, to tone down and then to defeat the divestment resolution, explaining, “I believe that divestment is horrible for the campus climate. … It divides people on cultural identities, and I don’t believe that’s OK,” she told Kraft.

The reaction to this stand illustrates the intense emotions triggered by the BDS confrontations, with Le noting that she has been the object of persistent verbal abuse by pro-divestment advocates.

In the month preceding the UC San Diego vote on the issue, Le said, she received 11,000 e-mails on the issue from Congress and community members, faculty, students and others.

Mark Yudof on Jews, Israel and his UC presidency

When Mark G. Yudof arrived at University of California headquarters in Oakland in 2008 to take over as president of the 10-campus system, among the problems awaiting him were charges that administrators on the Irvine campus were not protecting Jewish students against hate speech and intimidation by Muslim student groups and from invited outside speakers.

The issue of Jews and Israel has not left his immediate agenda in the five years he’s held the highest spot in one of the most esteemed public university systems in the country. As Yudof prepares to vacate his office in late August, he is now facing a re-energized BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) movement that has seen student governments at UC Riverside, San Diego and Irvine petition campus administrators and the University of California as a whole, to divest from companies “profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine” and similar accusations. (The pro-BDS vote at UC Riverside was rescinded in a subsequent vote.)

In a wide-ranging interview recently, Yudof explained that he confronts these and related problems from three perspectives.

• As chief executive of an organization with 220,000 students, 185,000 faculty and staff, a $23 billion annual budget (of which 11 percent  comes from the state), 10 campuses, five medical centers and three affiliated national laboratories.

• As a respected authority on constitutional law and the First Amendment and a former law school professor and dean.

• And, finally, as a deeply committed Jew and unabashed supporter of Israel.

How to handle the BDS petition is relatively easy for Yudof, as well as for the chancellors heading individual campuses. In 2010, the UC’s governing Board of Regents laid down the policy that the university would only divest from companies doing business with a foreign government if that regime was committing acts of genocide. The U.S. government has never issued such a declaration about Israel.

As a First Amendment authority, Yudof believes fully that BDS advocates, like all other campus members, have the right to express their opinions, emphasizing, “I’m not in the business of suppressing free speech.”

And, he added, “We [as Jews] are People of the Book and we have benefited more from free speech than almost any other group in this country.” 

Yet neither the UC presidency nor the Constitution saves Yudof from considerable soul searching as a private citizen and as a Jew.

“For me, it is an excruciating conflict when people demean everything that Judaism stands for,” he said with some emotion. “Some of these speakers and what they say drive me to distraction, and I hate it.”

He also can’t help wondering about the double standard of the Israel boycotters in ignoring the 70,000 Syrians killed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, or the many Libyans who perished during the dictatorship of Muammar Gadhafi.

Yudof said he is ready and willing to discuss campus conflicts with BDS leaders but is not aware of any requests by the group to meet with him.

[RELATED: The off-campus Yudoff]

He has, however, received considerable and often heated correspondence from Jewish organizations and individuals, and said he tries to respond to all of them, “both from a legal viewpoint and in a more personal capacity.”

The Journal asked the UC president about two other concerns raised by Jewish student groups on campus. One focuses on the students’ perceived threats to their personal safety, particularly during “Apartheid” and “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and the seeming lack of protective measures from campus administrators.

Yudof said he had heard anecdotal reports about such charges but felt hard data was needed, so in 2010 he established the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. This body, in turn, formed two fact-finding task forces, one to examine the attitudes and grievances of Jewish students, the other to do a similar study on Arab and Muslim students.

The Jewish-student study, conducted over a seven-month period at six campuses, yielded a series of conclusions and recommendations, which in turn were met with controversy, but two points stood out:

Political and social opinions among Jewish students were diverse and often opposed, even on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and while many such students felt resentment and outrage at some charges and tactics by Muslim student groups, none of the Jews interviewed said they felt in physical danger on campus.

A second, separate concern was voiced by observant Jewish students and faculty, who pointed to a lack of both understanding of and facilities for the special needs of their religious observance. Yudof said he also could not recall specific complaints along that line, but if he received any he would pursue the issue with the appropriate campus chancellors.

As important as these issues are to the Jewish community, and to Yudof personally, they nevertheless represent only a small fraction of the pressures of the UC president’s role.

“I’m on call 24 hours a day,” he noted. “Every day is a challenge; every day there is some kind of crisis, an athletic scandal, funds missing somewhere or a student confrontation.”

Such small and big crises also occur at other universities, but they are magnified by the sheer size and complexity of the University of California system. Or, as Yudof put it, “This job is akin to steering the Pentagon.”

Asked what has given him the most grief during his five years on the job, Yudof appeared most annoyed by what he described as a “grand narrative,” which he blamed largely on the media, that “poor kids can’t get into the university, tuition is out of control, and the empty suits are getting all the paychecks.”

As a man who carries a copy of the First Amendment with him at all times, Yudof is also offended by campus incidents that he feels violate constitutional free-speech guarantees.

“In my previous 10 years at two major universities, I never had [UC Regents] board meetings closed down by occupations or demonstrations,” he said.

Along similar lines, Yudof said, “No one has the constitutional right to shout down a speaker,” referring to a 2010 incident at UC Irvine, in which Muslim students methodically disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Among Yudof’s accomplishments, which even most of his critics acknowledge, is that the UC today is a much better governed institution than it was five years ago.

The improvements, he said, are due to such unglamorous but important steps as cutting phone bills in half, adhering to budget limitations, instituting pension reform and, in general, running “a more parsimonious operation.”

Yudof also expressed pride in establishing the Blue and Gold Scholarship Program, under which the university waives undergraduate tuition fees for California students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year.

He also pointed out that of the five campus chancellors he has appointed, three are women and one of the two men is a native of India.

On balance, Yudof believes that he has succeeded in maintaining UC’s national and international standing “during the university’s worst period in 75 years.”

Despite budget cuts, the UC has retained an outstanding faculty, its Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses are consistently ranked among the top 10 public universities in the country, and currently close to 100,000 student applicants are trying to get into UCLA — the highest number for any U.S. university, he said.

And why not? Yudof asked rhetorically. “UCLA has a great faculty and student body, palm trees — what can’t you find at UCLA?”

The competition to enroll on a UC campus leads to some intense pressures on university administrators, though decisions are generally handled at a level below the president’s office.

However, Yudof acknowledged that he has written letters of recommendation for two applicants — and both were rejected by campus admission officers. “That shows you how much clout I have,” he observed wryly.

When he retires from the UC presidency and becomes a law professor on the Berkeley campus, Yudof said he hopes to finally have time for some personal projects.

Media reports have attributed Yudof’s retirement to his health, but in the interview he emphasized other reasons.

“I’ll be 69 in October, and after [my wife] Judy and I discussed the matter, we decided that as a law professor I would be under less stress,” he said. “I won’t be on call 24 hours a day. … What I want is a little less attention.”

He will also be able to resume his writing, and, with his deadpan humor, he cited one particular project.

“I might do a book on the governors I dealt with as head of the state universities in Minnesota, Texas and California,” he proposed, namely ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, George W. Bush and Rick Perry of Texas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

“That was a most interesting set of governors,” Yudof observed. “I could write a chapter on each one of them.”

Cheerful and diplomatic, Ambassador Oren addresses L.A.

In a speech about the U.S.-Israel relationship delivered in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, drew on his expertise as a historian of the Middle East to illustrate the strength of the alliance between the two countries. Citing comments made by America’s presidents and founding fathers, Oren argued that the bond between the U.S. and Israel can be traced back to America’s Old Testament foundations.

“People read their Bible, and the spiritual connection between Israel and the United States is one of the reasons — I think one of the primary reasons — why support for Israel in this country is at a 20-year high right now,” Oren said.

Ever the polished diplomat, Oren, who has been stationed in Washington, D.C. since 2009, addressed the audience of more than 1,000 local Jewish leaders at the Saban Theater on Wilshire Boulevard at an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Los Angeles. It is the second address by a high-profile Israeli official to local Jewish community leaders in as many years, coming just 10 months after Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke to a somewhat larger crowd in Beverly Hills in March 2012.

But if Peres’ visit was a fete for a Nobel Laureate and an aging founder of the Jewish State, Oren’s served as a chance for local leaders to hear from the country’s top diplomat, the eloquent academic tasked with managing Israel’s most important international relationship.

“There is not a clearer thinker who better communicates what is happening in the world and what it means to us,” Federation Chairman Richard Sandler said in introducing Oren at the Saban.

Oren grew up in the United States and has taught history at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown Universities; he has, as ambassador, worked not just to strengthen America’s ties to Israel, but also to explain the relationship to audiences outside of Washington. While giving a 2010 speech at University of California, Irvine, Oren was interrupted repeatedly by Muslim protesters, who were subsequently tried and sentenced by a jury to perform community service for their disruptions.

That experience hasn’t driven Oren away from addressing university audiences — his schedule for this trip to the Southland includes an appearance at University of Southern California.

His audience at the Saban was extremely friendly. Even the questions tossed at Oren by Steve Edwards, host of “Good Day L.A.” on Fox 11, were gentle. Edwards, clearly aware of the perils of interviewing a diplomat who can only say so much – even when he’s not on stage – twice anticipated Oren’s noncommittal responses even before he had finished asking his question.

“You’re an ambassador, you’re a diplomat, you probably don’t even want to talk about this,” Edwards said introducing a question about President Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel’s nomination has met with some opposition from right-leaning groups who have taken issue with some statements he has made about Israel’s supporters in Washington and the strategy that should be pursued regarding the Iranian nuclear threat.

“I know you can’t really say anything, but I want you to say something,” Edwards concluded.

Oren non-response was as expected.

“Israel, out of respect for its democratic ally the United States of America, does not comment on nominations or confirmations by the Congress. We just don’t comment on it.”

“We look forward to working with the next Secretary of Defense,” he added.

Oren is functioning as Israel’s mouthpiece in Washington at a time when it can seem like America and Israel are talking past one another, particularly on the subject of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to move forward on plans for a settlement in a controversial area of the West Bank called E-1 late last year, President Barack Obama is reported to have said “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The quote first appeared in a report by Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg News on Jan. 14.

On Jan. 15, asked about “liberal Americans” who say that Israel’s construction in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace, Oren repeated the Netanyahu government’s party line.

“I think of them as shortsighted and not necessarily constructive,” Oren said. “Settlements are not the core of this conflict.”

To hear Oren tell it, the alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger, with the two countries cooperating on intelligence-gathering and conducting joint military exercises. And the policies of each country vis-à-vis the not-so-friendly countries in Israel’s neighborhood, Oren said, are remarkably similar.

Even on Iran, where there has been some disagreement between Israel and the United States about when the deadline for military action might be – Oren said that Israel’s redline sat somewhere between the spring or early summer of 2013 – Oren emphasized the agreement.

“We also recognize and appreciate that President Obama has said that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself if necessary, against any Middle Eastern threat or any combination of Middle Eastern threats,” Oren said. “Only Israel can best decide how to best defend its citizens.”

The parts of Oren’s presentation not focused on how deeply Americans love Israel were devoted to spelling out how wonderful Israel is. Oren crowed about the number of start-up companies in Israel and bragged that the Jewish state is now exporting wine to France.

Oren also explained how, before becoming ambassador, he had to officially renounce his American citizenship. David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General to Los Angeles, also a U.S.-born Israeli diplomat, had to go through the same process, as did Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“They read you your renunciation of rights,” Oren said, adding that he cried when they punched a hole through his American passport.

Oren said he’s still held onto his American accent, his “deep addiction to football,” and said that with all he’d given up to take his current position, the embassy officials still held out some hope.

“My wife, Sally, is still an American citizen, a dual citizen,” Oren said. “At the embassy, they told me that if she stays married to me, someday I can get a Green Card.”

The defendant: Moses

Add another feather to Erwin Chemerinsky’s cap. On Nov. 18, the great legal mind — founding dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law and former commentator for the O.J. Simpson trial — got Moses off on two counts: murder and flight to avoid prosecution.

Yes, that Moses.

“The People vs. Moses,” an American Jewish University (AJU) luncheon event held at its Bel Air campus, proved to be a blend of entertainment and education for some 500 attendees, selling out the (appropriately named) Moses E. Gindi Auditorium. Sponsored by Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, the 10th mock trial featuring biblical personalities served as the culmination of this year’s Celebration of Jewish Books.

With Judge Burt Pines presiding, the event cast Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, as prosecuting attorney, and Chemerinsky as the defender of the Jewish prophet. The two engaged in a friendly dissection of the ethics implied by one of the Torah’s key turning points. 

Gady Levy, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education and vice president of AJU, is the event’s creator and served as moderator. He cast the trial of the Israelites’ emancipator in the company of some of the high-profile trials of the last two decades: Michael Jackson’s doctor, Winona Ryder, Martha Stewart and, of course, Simpson.

In this case, Moses was charged with murder and flight based on the events related in the book of Exodus:

“…[Moses] saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why did you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh.”

Everyone knows what happened next: Moses followed his destiny toward helping to free the Israelites from Egypt and leading them to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments from God.

Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who also is on the faculty of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, opened the program with a study session, entertaining the crowd as he quipped his way through an examination of the section of Exodus chronicling the birth and adoption of Moses as well as his adult skirmish with the Hebrew slave’s oppressor. 

He compared Egypt’s treatment of its Jews to Nazi Germany in the ramp-up to the Shoah, when propagandist Joseph Goebbels used identification and isolation to create dissension within the German republic between Anglo- and Jewish-Germans. In both cases, the Jews were compartmentalized as “the aliens, the other.” They were a threat, an enemy and the scapegoat for economic failures.

In pressing the case against Moses, Levenson, aided by props and a PowerPoint presentation, challenged the legality of the prophet’s actions, despite the role he would later have in Jewish history.

“No one is above the law,” she opened. “Not you, not me and not Moses. Everyone is subject to the law. Each life, even an Egyptian’s life, is worth something.

“The truth is,” she continued, “he’s not always a goody two-shoes, and from day one when he was born, he was a fugitive.” 

Planting a basket on Chemerinsky’s table, she exclaimed. “And this was his getaway vehicle!”

She continued with a mix of serious and tongue-in-cheek analysis.

“Moses was violent when he didn’t need to be,” Levenson said. “He was the prince of Egypt. But he was a man who was perpetually farbissen. He was a little meshugge as well. Here was a man who would talk to the fire. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was a burning bush!”

A Photoshopped image of George W. Bush — flames sprouting from him — appeared on-screen, eliciting laughs from the audience.

Dismissing the common vigilante, Levenson observed how Moses took matters into his own hands instead of going to the authorities.

“What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ did he not understand?”

She pulled out a butcher knife to make her point. “Moses crossed the line,” she said as the slogan “Two wrongs do not equal a right” flashed across a screen.

Chemerinsky, on the other hand, defended Moses based on two main ideas: Justifiable homicide, as defined by California Penal Code, is not a crime; and the vagueness of the parashat’s language makes it impossible to prove Moses’ actions beyond the shadow of a doubt. There was no indication as to what specifically transpired or who witnessed it, for example. And Chemerinsky deemed Levenson’s knife misleading to the jury, as the text had no references to weapons.

In ancient Egyptian society, where Hebrews were slaves and not entitled to due process of law, Moses was not wrong in applying violence in defense of his fellow Jew, Chemerinsky said. His decision to run away was defensible as well, he said.

“Moses fleeing is not a crime,” he said, explaining that Moses did not flee prosecution but execution without a fair trial. “Did he flee out of a guilty conscience? No! Pharaoh was not going to have Moses tried but killed! In a society where there is no respect for Jewish life … isn’t the action taken necessary?”

Chemerinsky argued how, in subsequent stories, the incident is never mentioned again.

“If God didn’t judge Moses as guilty, you shouldn’t either,” he told the audience. Levenson responded that God did not smite Moses because the prophet would be needed down the line.

Chemerinsky evidently convinced the “jury.” Moses was acquitted of each count — an overwhelming 70 percent of the audience found him not guilty — before the program resumed with a Q-and-A featuring the attorneys.

This hypothetical trial was just the latest in an annual tradition at AJU. Past trials concerned King David, Rebecca and Jacob, Pinchas, King Saul, Eve, Yael, and Joseph’s brothers. Abraham, tried for alleged child abuse and attempted murder, kicked off the series in 2002, with Judge Joseph Wapner presiding from 2002 through 2008.

Levy first developed the lesson while teaching sixth grade at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, then adapted it to adult audiences when he came to AJU.

“We felt that adult audiences would greatly benefit from a fresh, creative way to study Torah, just as younger audiences did,” he said.

It helped that he was able to attract three renowned legal personalities in Levenson, Chemerinsky and Wapner. It was the latter, who had been involved with AJU for a number of years, who helped secure the others, Levy said.

The 2012 trial, however, marked a turning point as Levenson and Chemerinsky litigated their last case in the series. AJU’s biblical mock trials will continue with yet-to-be-chosen attorneys.

Levy acknowledged the Levenson-and-Chemerinsky show will be tough to follow; they attracted 500 people each year, many of whom might not ordinarily attend synagogue.

“If you ask anyone in the audience,” Levy said, smiling, “no one will say they came here for Bible study.”

Kobe practices at the JCC

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reportedly held a private training session at a Jewish Community Center in Irvine, Ca.

Bryant, according to the TMZ website, brought a trainer to the J to work on shooting drills and cardio training as spectators looked on.

Last month, the Miami Heat’s LeBron James played a pickup game at the JCC in Cleveland, his hometown.

Meanwhile, the New York Knick’s Amar’re Stoudemire, who visited Israel last year to discover more about his Jewish heritage on his mother’s side, is interested in opening a Hebrew school, according to the New York Daily News.

An unnamed source told the newspaper that Stoudemire has discussed opening a school that would focus on teaching the Hebrew language and Jewish history, though no school is actually in the works.

‘Irvine 11’ attorneys appeal conviction

Attorneys for 10 Muslim students convicted of disrupting a speech given by Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine last year, filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, arguing that the law used to convict the students was “vague and unconstitutional.”

The students — three from UC Riverside and seven from UCI — were found guilty of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on Feb. 8, 2010.

The high-profile case garnered national debate over free speech rights and has divided Jews and Muslims as well as some within the Jewish community for more than a year.

On Sept. 23, Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson handed down his sentence of three years probation, which would be cut to a year if the students complete 56 hours of community service by Jan. 31 and pay $270 in fines. Charges against an 11th co-defendant have been tentatively dropped.

In the courtroom, Orange County Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner argued that Oren was “shut down” and “censored.” But the defendants’ six defense attorneys argued that the students acted within the law and were exercising their right to free speech

Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for Wagner, said the notice of appeal was expected.

“They were defiant of the jury’s verdict from the start and said they would be filing an appeal,” she said. “We will for sure file an objection. We believe the defendants got more than a fair trial.”

Avoid zero-sum thinking

The journalist Robert Wright argues in his book “Nonzero” that communication, cooperation and trust increase the likelihood that humans can avoid that favored term of game theorists: the zero-sum game. Whereas greater complexity and nuance allow us to avoid the zero-sum trap, the more simplistic and insular we are, the more likely we are to fall into it.

One was reminded of this lesson when observing two events last week, one local and one global in scope: the conviction of 10 students from UC Irvine (UCI) for disrupting a speech by Israel Ambassador Michael Oren, and the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

In the first instance, members of UCI’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) undertook, in premeditated fashion, to shout down Oren at his appearance at UCI on Feb. 8, 2010. The disruption was obnoxious and at odds with the spirit of civil discourse that we try to foster on university campuses. In response, the UCI administration sanctioned the students and suspended the MSU for an academic quarter. Inexplicably, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus decided to pursue criminal charges against the students, as if there weren’t more important crimes to prosecute in Orange County. After the verdict was announced on Sept. 23, Rackauckus declared in rather hyperbolic fashion that “we will not tolerate a small band of people who want to hijack our freedoms.”

Sadly, some in the Jewish community regard this verdict as a triumph. Shalom Elcott, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, declared after the convictions: “While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’ ” Hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, though there is a long tradition in American law of adopting a wide and tolerant view of First Amendment rights to free speech. A good, if painful, reminder of this tradition came in the recent 8-1 Supreme Court decision permitting the hateful language used by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, often at funerals of U.S. military personnel. If the speech of the Westboro members, odious as it is, is permitted, then it seems hard to argue that the words of the MSU students protesting the Israel ambassador, annoying as they may have been, should be criminalized.

What is particularly unfortunate is the sense that there is a strong Jewish interest in prosecuting this case. We should be clear: The subtext animating this interest is the desire to lend support to the cause of Israel on college campuses. In the name of defending free speech, Jewish advocates of prosecution of the Irvine students are in fact serving to chill open expression of diverse, if unappealing, views on Israel. But this is not a Jewish interest at all. Support for Israel does not and cannot rest on stifling such competing views. Nor does it require pitting Jewish interests against Muslim interests. On the contrary, American Jews and Muslims, despite differences between them over Israel, have much that joins them. Both are members of minority groups for whom the defense of free speech is an essential fortification of the foundations of democratic society. The costs of tolerance may seem high in the short term, but they are a necessary investment in freedom in the long run. This point was made with considerable clarity in 1979, in the midst of a very troubling situation, when neo-Nazis attempted to march in the streets of Skokie, Ill., home to a large number of Holocaust survivors. The executive director of the ACLU at the time, Aryeh Neier, who lost family in the Holocaust, wisely opined: “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened.”

Just as we should not see the criminalization of free speech in Irvine as a Jewish victory, so too we should not regard American opposition to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations as a win. In the latter case, Jews who dwell within the bubble of organized communal life tended to regard President Obama’s speech last week — in which he called for direct negotiations in lieu of a U.N. bid — as a clear affirmation of support for Israel. It hardly can be denied that direct negotiations are the ideal way to solve the conflict. But they are not currently possible. The Palestinians negotiated with successive Israeli governments for nearly 20 years and are no closer to a state than before. The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has no intention, it seems, of uprooting settlements to make way for a territorially viable Palestinian state. And so, the Palestinians have adopted a nonviolent, diplomatic tack intended to push the hand of Israel and the United States. It is a bold gambit and one that may well fail. But after 63 years of statelessness, a condition to which Israel, neighboring Arab states and the international community all have contributed, it is understandable. The time has come to accord Palestinians self-determination. It is right, and it is just. And it is the only way to assure the long-term existence of Israel as a Jewish state. For without a division of the land between two states, the future holds only a single state.

Jews, of all people, should recognize this. Instead, we find ourselves mired in zero-sum thinking that measures our success by the failure of others. Regrettably, it also places us against the tide of both history and justice.

Verdict reached in 'Irvine 11' case [UPDATE]

UPDATE [11:45 a.m.] All 10 students found guilty on two misdemeanor counts of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010. Sentencing will follow later today.

Wednesday, Sept. 21.
After two days of closing arguments, the fate of 10 Muslim students has been handed over to an Orange County Superior Court jury, who began deliberations today.

The students — eight currently at UC Irvine and three UC Riverside graduates — are charged with two misdemeanor counts of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010, and could face a sentence ranging from a year in jail to probation with community service and fines.

The case, which began Sept. 7, boiled down to closing arguments on Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 19-20, from six defense attorneys and the prosecution.

Popularly known as “Irvine 11,” the case has stirred a heated and sensitive debate on free speech rights, which each attorney spent considerable time discussing.

On one side, the Orange County district attorney’s office is contending that the 10 students on trial — charges against an 11th co-defendant were tentatively dropped — prevented Oren from speaking freely. They are contending that freedom does have limits, specifically when “it imposes on someone else’s freedoms.”

“The right to free speech is not absolute,” Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said before a packed courtroom of nearly 200, with more waiting in the hall on Monday. “If hecklers’ vetoes were allowed, then nobody, nobody, none of us would have the right to free speech.”

The defense argued that the students acted within the law by doing what other demonstrators have done on college campuses across the United States, including at UC Irvine.

“This is merely an admonition to be polite,” Reem Salahi, a defense attorney representing two of the students, said. “But in America, we don’t prosecute people for being impolite.”

Dan Stormer, another defense attorney, stayed along these same lines saying, “Being rude may be unpleasant, but it’s not unlawful.”

Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman went so far as to liken the 10 students to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.

“It’s rude, absolutely,” Goodman said, referring to the 10 disruptions made by the students. “These are people who stood up because their conscience demanded it. The government wants you to call them criminals. They’re using all their might to call these extraordinary young men — these heroes — criminals.”

Although Oren did complete his speech, a planned question-and-answer session was cut from the program. The district attorney attributes this to the time lost because of “disruptions.”

The facts in the case are not in dispute — both sides agreed that the students planned and executed last February’s protest and were then escorted out and arrested by security officials.

Deputy D.A. Wagner said the subject chosen by the students in their protest was irrelevant. He said it not only infringed on the rights of Oren himself, but also on the rights of the 700 people in attendance that night.

The students could have stood up and yelled, “Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse!” Wagner said, and the result would have been the same. “Once the rules are getting broken like that, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Yes, that’s anarchy. I suppose that’s where they want to go.”

The students’ plan, carefully crafted, drafted and laid out, was intended to halt Oren from speaking, Wagner said.

“The plan was to shut Oren down,” he said. “The plan was to shut the event down. And that is exactly what the students and their disruptions did. They shut it down.”

But the defense argued that the students’ actions were of “normal custom for such an event” when they stood, one by one, and read a statement from a notecard. The defense stated that the students had no intention of “shutting down” the speech.

Near the end of Salahi’s argument, she wanted to share a personal story unrelated to the trial, but Wagner objected and Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson said she couldn’t proceed.

She paused for a moment, then told the jury, “I can’t tell you the story — I got shut down,” to thunderous applause and cheering from the courtroom.

This outburst caused Wilson to warn those in attendance that he “would clear the courtroom if there was another outburst from the public.”

So were the students exercising their right to free speech or were the students indeed breaking the law?

Wagner stated strongly that the students did indeed break the law, adding that the rules for the event were laid out clearly by both the moderator and chancellor.

“The rules were clear, and made crystal clear as the night went on,” he said. “It was always [their] plan to break the rules. They never intended on following the rules.”

Wagner used video clips of university officials pleading with demonstrators to behave, and showed numerous e-mails sent between students and the Muslim Student union planning the disruption and discussing the possibility of arrest and potential punishment as evidence that the students “knew the risk of their action and proceeded anyway.”

But defense attorney Dan Stormer said the students had the right to protest and plan a protest. Although “being rude may be unpleasant, it is not unlawful,” he said.

“You may not like what I have to say, but you gotta love the fact that I have the right to say it,” Stormer said.

The case, Wagner said, is about the students acting as censors to prevent a free flow of ideas, and he pointed out to the jury that the “right to free speech is not absolute.”

“Who is the censor in this case?” Wagner asked the jurors. “Right there — 10 of them.”


Mosques organize prayer for 'Irvine 11'
'Irvine 11' plead not guilty in Oren incident
'Irvine 11' wants D.A. removed from case
Drop charges against 'Irvine 11,' Jewish faculty urges

‘Irvine 11’ students found guilty [UPDATE: SENTENCING]

[UPDATED: 3:00 p.m.]  This story has been updated to add the recent sentencing of the convicted students.

After two days of deliberation, the jury in the “Irvine 11” case returned a verdict. An Orange County jury on Friday found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanors, conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given on Feb. 8, 2010, by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine.

As the verdict was read Friday morning, several women broke down in tears and others walked out of Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson’s courtroom. As the gallery showed a great deal of emotion, the students remained calm and had no reaction.

Two hours later, Wilson sentenced each of the 10 defendants to three years of informal probation and 53 hours of community service.

Popularly known as “Irvine 11” — charges against an 11th co-defendant were tentatively dropped — the case has stirred a heated and sensitive debate on free-speech rights. On one side, Orange County Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner argued that Oren was “shut down.” On the other, six defense attorneys argued that the students acted within the law and were exercising their right to free speech.

Reem Salahi, one of the defense attorneys, representing two of the students, said, “This is merely an admonition to be polite. But in America, we don’t prosecute people for being impolite.”

Orange County Jewish Federation & Family Services President and CEO Shalom C. Elcott said, “The verdict reaffirms that the Muslim Student Union’s planned and systematic use of disruptions to trample on the free speech of others crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance. While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’ ”

Shalom said he will continue to advocate for “constructive dialogue in place of the hateful rhetoric that’s been used under the guise of free speech. It is counterproductive to any and all efforts to ensure the free exchange of ideas.”

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, disagrees with Shalom, calling the “Irvine 11” guilty verdict the “death of democracy in our country.”

Ameena Qazi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said, “When history books are written and this case comes to its final conclusion … the ‘Irvine 11’ will stand alongside other civil rights heroes.

“We were remaining optimistic and hopeful that justice would prevail … I hope that this case goes forward and that free speech prevails at the end of the day. At this point, we’re all losing — we’re all losing our rights.”

Mosques organize prayer for 'Irvine 11'

Mosques in Southern California sponsored prayer services in support of 10 students going on trial for interrupting a university speech last year by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.

The students from the University of California, Irvine and the University of California, Riverside are set to go on trial Monday. Each is charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of the disturbance of a meeting. If convicted, each student could face a sentence of up to a year in jail or lesser punishments, including probation with community service and fines.

Charges against an eleventh student were dropped earlier this month.

During Oren’s Feb. 8, 2010 speech at UC Irvine, the 11 defendants stood one by one and shouted at the ambassador, calling him a “mass murderer” and a “war criminal,” among other insults. The disruptions, organized to protest Israeli actions in Gaza, prompted Oren to walk off the stage twice.

Eight of the defendants were students at UC Irvine and were members of the Muslim Student Union, which was suspended by the university for a year. The others attended the University of California, Riverside.

“There is no question that these students are being treated like criminals because they’re Muslim,” Kifah Shah, spokesperson for the Stand with the Eleven Campaign, said in a statement on the group’s website. The organization also is signing up supporters to attend each court session.

Irvine Chabad House hit by potted plant

A potted plant was thrown through the front window of the Chabad House at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) on Tuesday, May 31.  The building is the site of regular Friday night and holiday dinners for UCI students and serves as the residence of UCI Chabad co-directors, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum and his wife, Miriam.

The incident took place at around 1:30 in the afternoon, according to a written statement issued by Tenenbaum.  A housekeeper was the only person inside the building at the time.  No one was injured.

The Chabad House is located adjacent to the UCI campus and is marked by a menorah on the front patio.

The plant thrown at the Chabad House window had been stolen from a porch of a neighboring home and shattered the glass, according to Julia Engen, press information officer for the Irvine Police Department.  It was deflected by the window screen and did not enter the home.  Police have no suspect information, but have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime.

“We are investigating this in a comprehensive manner,” Engen said.  “There is nothing indicating that it is a hate crime, but we won’t discount that until we know who did it and why.” 

UCI has been the site of ongoing tension between Muslim and Jewish students.  In May, the university’s Muslim Student Union hosted its annual, weeklong program of Israel bashing featuring anti-Israel speakers and calls for boycotts and divestment from Israel.  That program was followed two weeks later by i-Fest, a celebration of Israeli culture sponsored by the pro-Israel student group, Anteaters for Israel.

Engen said that there is no indication that the incident was related to events at UCI and she is not aware of any similar incidents.

UCI hate week features Jewish speakers

Read more on UCI hate week here.

Matan Cohen, an Israeli activist with Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), addressed a lunchtime crowd at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), on May 11 as part of an annual program of anti-Israel activity sponsored by the university’s Muslim Student Union (MSU).

Against the backdrop of a mock “apartheid wall,” a traveling exhibit depicting Israel as a racist and genocidal regime that pro-Palestinian student groups bring to their campuses for week-long anti-Israel programming, Cohen decried what he called Israel’s ethnic and racial segregation, which, he said, is making the Palestinians an “invisible nation.” 

“There’s no balance here,” Cohen said.  “There’s a very deep and intrinsic asymmetry of power.  If all of us want to have a better future, we need to stand up and pressure Israel to end its policies.”

Cohen, 23, was allegedly shot in the eye by border police during a protest of Israel’s security fence by AATW in Ramallah in 2006.  He said he plans to return to the territories and continue to protest against Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza alongside the Palestinians.

A heavy campus police presence was in place as several dozen pro-Israel community activists waving Israeli and U.S. flags and posters circled the campus plaza known as the Flagpoles off Pereira Drive, where Cohen spoke. Signs placed at both ends of the MSU’s exhibit area warned passers-by not to interrupt the event or they risked being arrested — a reference to the ongoing proceedings against 11 MSU members by the Orange County District Attorney’s office for interrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, last year.

Several dozen Jewish students sat in the audience holding signs with messages of peace and denouncing what they called the “MSU wall of lies.” 

Cohen was one of three Jews who participated in the MSU program. Earlier in the week, two members of anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta, took the lunchtime podium in what Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum of Chabad at UCI called a deliberate attempt to misrepresent Orthodox Judaism to unsuspecting students. 

“We advised the [Jewish] students that this is pure propaganda,” Tenenbaum said.  “We told them that the MSU is playing with the minds of people by saying there are Jews against Israel and who denounce it, when really they are a fringe group and a small percentage of the Orthodox world.”

Tenenbaum had set up a table near the Flagpoles area and offered snacks and support to Jewish students during the first three days of the event. He said some Jewish students were taken aback by Neturei Karta’s participation, prompting him to hold a seminar the following day to inform students and community members about the group and its limited following, even among Chasidic Jews. 

Tenenbaum said he thought the MSU’s program had been toned down compared to previous years.

“The first three days I was there, it seemed a little calmer,” Tenenbaum said.  “The most noticeable thing was that there were no blood-stained Israeli flags. Also, their big keynote speaker, Malik Ali, wasn’t there.  Part of that might be because of the proceedings against the 11 students, but, also, different organizations have had different approaches to [the MSU event] over the years. I wouldn’t say which tactic or strategy prevailed, I’m just happy it was toned down.”

UC Irvine students met with Hamas leader

Students from the University of California, Irvine met with a Hamas leader during a student trip to Israel.

The Institute for Jewish and Community Research said it learned recently that the university’s branch of the Olive Tree Initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian peace organization, arranged for a meeting between the Irvine students and a Hamas leader in the West Bank while the students were on a trip to Israel in September 2009. The communal organization is protesting the meeting.

According to an October 2009 letter sent to Irvine’s chancellor by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, California, the students were told to keep the meeting secret. That was to avoid problems re-entering Israel, the letter alleged, and angering local Jewish organizations, including the federation, which is the initiative’s biggest funder.

The letter said the federation had reviewed the trip itinerary ahead of time with the faculty member and graduate students in charge, and were “surprised to learn” afterward “that they conducted an unapproved, off-itinerary meeting with Aziz Duwaik.” The federation has demanded that the university investigate the incident.

Duwaik is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, but the federation letter pointed out that for years he had been a leader of Hamas, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization.

The Institute for Jewish and Community Research this week is adding its voice to the federation’s, urging UC Irvine to “respond to this serious misuse of funds and gross violation of public trust.”

The University of California system is facing federal anti-Semitism complaints against its Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses. In December 2007, a federal civil rights investigation into similar allegations at UC Irvine by the Department of Education found “insufficient evidence” that the university failed to respond to complaints by Jewish students that they were being harassed.

Notes from LimmudLA 2011 [VIDEO]

If it was a bit easier than usual to find a seat or a parking spot at your synagogue over Presidents’ Day weekend, you may be able to thank the organizers of the LimmudLA conference. More than 500 Jews from Los Angeles and beyond traveled to the Hilton in Costa Mesa for the fourth annual gathering of cross-denominational learning. LimmudLA is one of 50 annual Limmud conferences worldwide, all of them modeled after the United Kingdom Limmud, begun in 1980.

This year’s conference, which began midday Friday and ended midday Monday,  featured more than 200 sessions led by 125 different presenters, including rabbis, artists, educators, academics and other Jews with regular jobs and something to teach. Some presenters were flown in from around the globe (but even they are not paid for teaching), but the majority of the work that made LimmudLA happen was done by volunteers, who are also participants. “Volunticipants” is the neologism favored by the conference’s organizers.

No single person can fully experience the variety and diversity of LimmudLA. Jews of all affiliations — and no affiliation — chose from a dizzying array of lectures, films and workshops. Yet certain moments — the musical Havdalah service on Saturday night, a packed stand-up comedy show that included very young amateurs and seasoned professionals — were experienced collectively.

Two Views of a Contested Land, One Conference Room

Just after noon on Sunday, Shoshana Hikind, executive vice president of Jerusalem Chai/American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, told an audience of about 10 about the work her organization has done to help bring dozens of Jewish families to what she referred to as “the so-called Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.”

“We have brought this area back to life,” Hikind said of the group’s work to insert Jewish families into places like Kidmat Tziyon, more widely known by the Arabic name that the majority of the area’s residents use, Abu Dis. “And why not?” Hikind said. “These are our roots!”

Less than 24 hours later, three people gathered in the same conference room to hear Caryn Aviv, a professor from University of Colorado, Boulder, talk about alternative Jewish travel in Israel and the West Bank.

Aviv described two programs that take Jews on intentionally unsettling journeys: The Encounter program brings American Jewish leaders to listen to the stories of Palestinians living in the West Bank; the more marginal (and, Aviv said, explicitly anti-Zionist) Zochrot program takes Israelis to destroyed Palestinian villages and other spaces within the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel that recall the history of the 1948 Israeli-Arab conflict that Palestinians refer to as the Nakhba (the catastrophe).

Aviv, a sociologist, talked about Encounter as a program inspired by Jewish ideas of justice. Hikind, the wife of New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, talked about the establishment and maintenance of Jewish power and control over Jerusalem. It would be hard to find two more diametrically opposed presentations — and yet Limmud was the venue for both.

Story continues after the jump.

Video by Jonah Lowenfeld. Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek.

Teens at Limmud

All Limmud conferences feature presentations from out-of-towners — New York comedian Joel Chasnoff’s performance on Saturday night was his seventh appearance at a Limmud — but they depend primarily on locals to lead sessions. This year’s younger Limmudniks weren’t exempt from this expectation.

Just before sunset on Saturday, two seniors from Milken Community High School led a discussion about whether morality could be achieved without God, one of about a dozen sessions led by teens. Participants in the lively discussion included two UCLA undergraduates, a few students from YULA and Shalhevet high schools and about a dozen from Milken.

LimmudLA aims to be intergenerational, so there were adults in that room as well. And the teenagers didn’t restrict themselves to sessions that were explicitly teen-friendly: two 11th-graders from Leo Baeck Temple’s Hebrew school participated in a session about the halachic and legal questions surrounding brain death. On Sunday evening, a band made up of kids ages 10 to 16 played a set that included songs by the Doors, Debbie Friedman and a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” to serenade conference co-chair Caroline Kelly.

You Wrote That?

A pleasant evening of Israeli standards at a concert with composer Nurit Hirsch transformed itself into an intimate glimpse into Jewish cultural history.

Hirsch has composed more than a thousand Israeli songs, among them the 1978 Eurovision-winning “Abanibi,” the camp favorite “Ba’Shana Ha’ba’ah,” (“Yes They Do!”) and the musical “Sallah Shabati.”

Hirsch sat at her baby grand in a small conference room, with more than 100 people crammed in. She shared stories of collaboration with Israel’s poets and top vocalists, and her own musical path through modern Israeli history.

“I am going to sing a song that everyone knows, but no one knows that I wrote it,” Hirsch said toward the end of her concert.

It took only a few chords for everyone to start singing along to “Oseh Shalom” — yes, the “Oseh Shalom” that has achieved both folk and liturgical status. She won third prize at the Chassidic Song Festival with that song in 1969. And she sang it in Costa Mesa in 2011.

Two Heads Are Better

Mechitzah minyan? Liberal Egalitarian? Traditional Egalitarian? Maybe Shabbat yoga or a 12-step meeting?

Shabbat morning seemed like a good time for “My Time,” a Torah session using chavruta, where 30 study partners used biblical, rabbinic and contemporary texts as a jumping-off point for discussions about multitasking, staying in the moment and over-scheduling. For around 15 years, Limmud UK has been producing an annual chavruta source book, with textual sources as diverse as the Babylonian Talmud and Klingon proverbs.

This year, Limmudniks from 12 time zones volunteered to compile a source book that debuted in December in the U.K. The batch of 100-page spiral-bound books then traveled in the suitcases of Limmud groupies to New York in January, made it to Los Angeles this month, and are now headed for Philadelphia, Boston and around the world.

Recovery and Renewal

The more than 40 performances, films and artistic sessions at LimmudLA shift the focus to the heart and offer a much-needed break for the mind.

“Freedom Song,” performed late Sunday afternoon at LimmudLA, starred residents and alumni of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Founded 25 years ago, Beit T’Shuvah is the only Jewish residential rehab facility in the country, making Jewish ideas and practice central to the recovery process.

“Freedom Song,” a powerful and emotional musical, juxtaposes a 12-step meeting on one half of the stage with a family seder on the other, exploring the pain and struggle of the recovery process and the rupture addiction causes in a family.

The production, which travels the city and country on request, asks audiences to hold up a mirror to our own behaviors. To what are we slaves? What lies do we tell ourselves to justify small misdeeds, and how do we mistreat those whom we love?

As a conversation with the cast following the production was coming to a close, a cast member brought out a “birthday” cake. David, who had been working the sound board, was celebrating his 365th day of sobriety. For this song, the audience and the cast sang together.

LimmudLA, 1 A.D. (After Debbie)

Leading the liberal egalitarian services on Friday night, Avram Mandell made the weekend’s first reference to the late Debbie Friedman. With a guitar strapped to his chest and a smile on his face, Mandell, the director of education at Leo Baeck Temple, paused before the “Ve-shamru” prayer to remember having seen Friedman and UCLA Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller sing it together at a previous LimmudLA. The moment, Mandell said, embodied the spirit of Limmud, because you had a Reform Jewish woman and an Orthodox male rabbi singing biblical verses to the tune written by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, rabbi emeritus of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village. “And Rabbi Rothblum was in the room,” Mandell added. Friedman, a resident of Orange County whose final performance was in December 2010 at Limmud in the U.K. —  had been a mainstay of LimmudLA, and her absence this year was deeply felt by many.

UC Irvine faculty to DA: drop criminal charges

One hundred faculty members at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), have called on Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop criminal charges against 11 current and former students arrested in February 2010 for disrupting a public speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, on the UCI campus.

The district attorney’s office announced on Feb. 4 that it was filing misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting against the defendants. On a video that circulated widely on the Internet, each defendant can be seen standing up and shouting anti-Israel statements at Oren while he was speaking at the UCI Student Center. One of the defendants, Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23, who was then president of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UCI, is also charged with coordinating the disruption several days before the event.

If convicted, the defendants face sentences that could include probation with community service or fines or up to six months in jail.

The faculty signatories, who included several chancellor’s professors and seven professors of law, said they were “deeply distressed” by the district attorney’s decision to file criminal charges against the students. 

“The students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to the campus from speaking and being heard,” the letter states. “And the Muslim Student Union acted inappropriately in coordinating this and in misrepresenting its involvement to University officials. But the individual students and the Muslim Student Union were disciplined for this conduct by the University, including the MSU being suspended from being a student organization for a quarter. This is sufficient punishment.”

The MSU was reinstated on campus last month after a four-month suspension following a university investigation that found the Muslim council had violated campus codes of conduct for planning and coordinating the disruption. UCI also placed the group on two years’ probation and has ordered members to perform 100 hours of community service.

The letter also states that use of the criminal justice system would be divisive and would risk undoing the healing process that has occurred on campus since the event took place. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sparked critical and often hostile debate at UCI and has caused tense relations between Muslim and Jewish students.

“These events were very traumatic for the campus last year,” said Jon Wiener, a professor of history who signed the letter. “There was a lot of debate among faculty, students and between faculty and the administration about what kind of punishment should there be, was it too much, was it not enough. The suspension of the MSU has ended and they’ve returned to normal campus life this quarter and it’s very important to us that we have a community building process. We thought that was well under way and then the DA has sort of given us potentially a big setback by disrupting this process and throwing us back to the debate over how much punishment is the right amount of punishment,” he said.

Also a signatory on the petition, UCI School of Law Founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky questioned the wisdom of the district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion in this case.

“Criminal prosecution is unnecessary and undesirable. It sets a dangerous precedent for the unnecessary use of criminal prosecution against student demonstrators,” Chemerinsky said.

On Feb. 9, Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace — whose Web site says it works to achieve a lasting peace that recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination, and that it supports the boycott, divest and sanction movement against Israel —  delivered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures denouncing the charges. The group said members had similarly interrupted a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in November 2010 without being arrested or criminally charged. 

“The targeting of a group of Muslim American students, who were already sanctioned and whose organization was already suspended by their university as punishment, is unacceptable and will only strengthen Islamophobia and attempts to stifle political speech in this country,” Jewish Voice for Peace said in a statement.

Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney, said her office would not be swayed by public opinion or special interest groups.

“The law against the disruption of a meeting has been on books for 100 years and was litigated at the California Supreme Court and it is constitutional,” Schroeder said. “We’re sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. You don’t have a First Amendment right to shut down other people’s right to speak and other people’s right to hear.” 

Arraignment of the 11 defendants is scheduled for March 11 in Santa Ana.

UCI upholds sanction on Muslim Student Union

The University of California, Irvine (UCI) has upheld its decision to sanction its Muslim Student Union (MSU), though it cut short the group’s yearlong suspension to four months. The group may not officially use university facilities during the fall 2010 quarter, recruit new members or raise funds, all part of the fallout for what school officials deemed the MSU’s violation of university codes of conduct related to the repeated disruption of a speech on campus in February by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Campus officials disclosed last week the outcome of an appeal, which the MSU launched in the spring after administrators recommended the group lose its registered status for a full calendar year.

The MSU will be on probation for two years—from Jan. 3, 2011 to Dec. 9, 2012—following the suspension. During that time, its president and three members will be required to attend at least 10 meetings with the director of student conduct. Members must also collectively complete 100 hours of community service before the group can request reinstatement. In its original decision, the UCI disciplinary committee had ordered a one-year probationary period and 50 hours of community service.

“This has been a difficult decision,” UCI Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Manuel N. Gomez, who adjudicated the appeal, said in a prepared statement. “But in the end, this process demonstrates the University of California, Irvine’s commitment to values, principles and tolerance. Although this has been a challenging experience for all involved, I am confident that we will continue to move forward as a stronger, more respectful university community.”

Incoming MSU Vice President Hadeer Soliman called the suspension a form of collective punishment in a Sep. 3 news conference. The suspension applies to the MSU as a group but not to individual students.

UCI officials launched an investigation into the actions by the MSU in February after students heckled Oren at least 12 times and booed him repeatedly before leaving the student center in protest. Oren, whose speech was sponsored by the university, walked off the stage after the first few interruptions, leading UCI officials, including Chancellor Michael Drake, to urge the protestors to stop disrupting the speaker or risk disciplinary action. Oren returned to the auditorium after nearly 30 minutes only to be interrupted again by students shouting anti-Israel vitriol.

Campus police arrested 11 students, eight from UCI, including the MSU president, and three from the University of California, Riverside, all of who were later released. Although their case was forwarded to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, no charges were filed against them.

On May 27, Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of student housing, notified the MSU that campus officials had found that the group and its authorized signers had planned and coordinated the disruption of Oren’s speech at the UCI Student Center. The investigation revealed evidence obtained through social networking sites and personal observations of what officials called a “detailed game plan” for disrupting the speech that identified “disruptors,” and created “scripted statements” that some hecklers read from index cards.

MSU members publicly insisted that the students had acted independently and that their actions constituted free speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment.

In his Aug. 31 letter to the MSU, Gomez disagreed, stating that the protests deprived Oren of his right to free speech and exceeded the students’ free speech protections afforded by both the First Amendment and campus policies. Public actions taken by group members in this matter gave the appearance of MSU sponsorship of “serious violations of campus policies and First Amendment protections,” he added. 

Orange County Jewish groups expressed disappointment with the university’s decision to shorten the suspension. Calling the sanction “merely a slap on the wrist,” the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism, whose 2008 report documented longstanding physical and verbal harassment of Jewish students at UCI, expressed concern that the university’s actions would not deter future incidents of anti-Semitism on campus.

“While the Task Force appreciates that UCI seems to be recognizing that anti-Semitism is a major problem at UCI by maintaining the suspension of the MSU, there clearly exists a lack of courage and moral conviction to fight hatred on campus by the UCI administration,” said a task force statement issued to The Jewish Journal.

“The only way we will know that this decision has been effective is if there is a systemic change in the action and conduct by the MSU and a turn to more thoughtful dialogue that befits a university campus,” said Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County in a statement.

Pro-Israel Voices Get Their Turn at UC Irvine

The main student thoroughfare at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), was transformed into a Middle Eastern street festival last week as hundreds of students from diverse backgrounds gathered for iFest, a celebration of Israel organized by Anteaters for Israel, the campus’ pro-Israel student group, and other Jewish student organizations. 

The weeklong program showcased Israeli culture while highlighting the country’s contributions to the world. Live music, belly dancing, a free hookah lounge and a Moroccan tent offering free henna tattoos punctuated the lunch hour each day, while local Jewish vendors sold Israeli art, jewelry and other wares in a mock Ben Yehuda Street reminiscent of the famous Jerusalem shopping bazaar. An estimated 600 students turned out for the first day’s activities, which included a free barbecue. Evening events included Israeli nightclub-themed parties. The week culminated in a Shabbat dinner at the student center that brought local dignitaries to campus. 

Now in its third year, iFest traditionally occurs shortly after Israeli Apartheid Week, the annual program sponsored by UCI’s Muslim Student Union that casts Israeli’s policies toward the Palestinians as racist and genocidal. On a campus that has seen its share of provocative, anti-Israel activity, iFest leaves politics aside and sheds a bright light on Israel. Students with little or no knowledge about Israel are taught facts about the Jewish state through exhibits boasting Israel’s achievements in technology, the arts and humanitarian aid, receiving prizes when they answer questions correctly.   

“We definitely saw a need to humanize Israel on campus and to bring culture, to show that Israel is not a war zone,” said Jackie Hartfield, a third-year student who coordinated iFest’s marketing initiatives. “It was a reaction [to Israeli Apartheid Week] but not a direct reaction. It was more a reaction to campus in general.”

Hartfield said she was amazed at how little some students know about Israel.

“I heard one student say, ‘I didn’t know Israel was a democracy,’ ” she said. “The students have been learning a lot. It’s been great.”

This year’s event was marked for the first time by a community day on May 26 that brought hundreds of Jews from Orange County, Long Beach and Los Angeles to campus. The widespread desire to support UCI’s Jewish students, particularly among those previously uninvolved with campus life, was sparked in large part by the repeated heckling of Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, by anti-Israel protesters during his Feb. 8 speech at the Student Center, organizers said. 

“Especially because of what happened with Michael Oren and Israeli Apartheid Week, it was important for us to show the [Jewish] students that they have a strong community to back them up and to show the chancellor that there is a large community that really cares about what happens at UCI,” said Orly Glick, a member of the Women’s Council of Hillel, a grass-roots group that formed in the aftermath of the Oren event for the purpose of supporting UCI’s Jewish students.

E-mails allege Muslim students orchestrated Irvine disruption

The Muslim Student Union at the University of California, Irvine, orchestrated the disruption of a Feb. 8 speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, leaked e-mails indicate.

Muslim Student Union representatives repeatedly had claimed that the disruption, which made national headlines and provoked an academic disciplinary process that is still ongoing, had been the impetus of students acting individually. Eleven students were arrested for disrupting Oren’s speech.

The revelation about the e-mails was published Wednesday by the Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism. The group said the e-mails, which were leaked anonymously to both university officials and local law enforcement, demonstrate that the student union not only helped organize the disruptions, but counseled students to assert that they had acted on their own.

In an e-mail to the Muslim Student Union board dated Feb. 6, union president Mohamed Abdelgany described the union’s “game plan” for the Oren speech, including a call for “disruptors.” Later in the e-mail, Abdelgany, who was himself arrested during the Oren speech, laid out the plan for the event itself, which he said would involve “disrupting it throughout the whole time” if possible. Abdelgany also allegedly cautioned disruptors to be loud and firm, but not not lose their composure. “Remember,” he wrote, “that this is a planned/calculated response.”

Representatives of the Muslim Student Union and of the advocacy group Stand with the Eleven did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Denounce Muslim group, UC Irvine chancellor urged

Nearly 2,700 people have signed an online petition encouraging a California university chancellor to publicly condemn an annual Muslim student event.

The document urges University of California, Irvine’s Michael Drake to denounce the Muslim Student Union’s “Israel: The Politics of Genocide” event, which began May 5 and runs through May 21.

“As an American, you have the right to speak out and explicitly denounce anti-Semitism, especially when it occurs on your campus,” the petition reads. “As an educational leader, you have the moral obligation to speak out.”

The petition also calls on Drake to condemn the Muslim group as a whole, alleging that it consistently violates a campus pledge to create “a learning climate free from expressions of bigotry.”

The Irvine campus has been a hotbed of pro-Palestinian activism, and Drake himself has drawn fire in the past from some Jewish groups who have urged him to publicly denounce activity that is said to cross the line into anti-Semitism. Drake thus far has declined to denounce specific activities, speaking out only against hate speech in general.

The two-week program features lectures from noted Palestinian activists such as British Parliament member George Galloway and former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, among other events, according to the Orange County Weekly.

Gaza conflict means local anti-Semitism, JFS gets new logo

L.A. Day School Executive Part of Richardson Probe

A Los Angeles Jewish day school official is at the center of an investigation that forced Bill Richardson to withdraw from consideration for a Cabinet post.

David Rubin, board chairman of the Orthodox Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, is also the CEO of CDR Holdings, which is under federal grand jury investigation for an alleged “pay-to-play” deal to acquire a New Mexico government contract worth $1.48 million.

Rubin and his company reportedly donated at least $110,000 to three political committees formed by Richardson, most of it around the time that CDR received the contract in 2004. President-elect Barack Obama picked Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, to be his secretary of commerce, but Richardson withdrew from consideration on Sunday.

Media reports have noted that Rubin has donated millions of dollars to liberal and Jewish causes over the years. Among his other political contributions over the past decade were two $5,000 donations to the Women’s Pro-Israel National PAC in 1998 and 1999.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Swastikas Found at Camarillo Preschool

A Jewish preschool in Camarillo has once again become a victim of a hate crime, with swastikas and anti-Semitic messages written in black marker on its sidewalk and walls.

In what investigators believe to be the third such incident for the preschool in a year, Gan Camarillo Preschool, part of Chabad Jewish Center of Camarillo, was vandalized on New Year’s Eve. Two similar incidents occurred at the school in 2008.

Julie Novak, senior deputy at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, said no arrests related to the incident have been made.

Ross Bonfiglio, a public relations officer with the Sheriff’s Department, characterized the hate speech scattered on the property as “offensive,” “profane” and “anti-Jewish” in nature.

Rabbi Yosef Muchnik of Chabad Jewish Center of Camarillo said he is pleased with the work the Sheriff’s Department is doing in reaction to the crime, including the installation of a surveillance camera and beefing up patrol in the area.

“It’s happened before,” he said. “We feel it’s just ignorant young teenagers who are venting hatred randomly.”

Muchnik said although the children at the school are too young to understand the nature of the crime, the center might be meeting soon with preschool parents to discuss the vandalism.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Hamas Posters Found at Irvine Synagogues

Police are investigating as hate crimes the posting of anti-Israel and pro-Hamas placards at two synagogues.

Three letter-sized, hand-written signs were discovered Dec. 30 at Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Irvine. One poster proclaimed, “Gaza — The New Shoah” and a second read, “Hamas Recognizes Israeli Genocide.”

Similar posters were found on the same day at the nearby Reform Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot.

Kevin O’Grady, Orange County regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the “targeting of temples to express anger toward Israeli action in Gaza.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jewish Family Service Changes Logo

For the first time in Jewish Family Service’s 155-year history, the social service agency is re-branding itself in order to increase public awareness of the organization’s many programs.

The new branding, being rolled out as JFS programs update their materials and renovate services centers, includes a revised logo, new tag line — “A family of services. A family that serves.” — new agency colors of brown and light blue and a style guide.

“Our new branding will help us communicate more effectively with the public, our clients and policymakers about JFS’ critically needed services for the vulnerable,” Paul Castro, CEO and executive director, said in a statement.

The campaign, which was created by Innovation Protocol, was honored recently by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals with a gold MarCom Creative award in the pro bono category.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Israeli Film Takes Top Honors

An Israeli film was named the best picture of 2008 by a society of American critics.

“Waltz With Bashir” was the choice of The National Society of Film Critics at its annual meeting Jan. 3 in New York.

The film combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war documentary theme and a psychoanalytical approach to recover the memory of a traumatized Israeli soldier.

Director Ari Folman is the film’s central character, as a 20-year-old infantryman whose unit spearheaded the Israeli advance into Lebanon in June 1982. The announced goal was to stop incursions and rocket attacks on northern Galilee towns by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel’s current incursion into the Gaza Strip to eliminate Hamas rocket attacks provides “Waltz” an added relevance.

“Waltz” already had earned recognition at international film festivals, from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Golden Globes nominating committee.

The top pick by the national critics is rarely emulated by the Academy Awards voters, but the local buzz is that “Waltz” may well become the first Israeli film to win an Oscar.

— TT

$10 million in scholarships helps day school flourish

The start of the new academic year at Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School (TVT) ushered in what could be a new era in its outreach to Orange County’s Jewish community. This fall, administrators began disbursing the first installment of a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor for scholarships to new and returning students at the county’s only independent K-12 Jewish day school. The gift is payable at the rate of $1 million annually.

It’s a step toward increasing TVT’s enrollment, bringing it closer to its 1,000-student capacity, up from the 585 students who now attend. More importantly, acting head of school Derek Gavshon said, the infusion of cash is intended to eliminate finances as an impediment to a Jewish education.

“Between three Jewish day schools in the county, we should be able to capture a lot more kids than we have,” Gavshon said. “The main reason why we cannot is financial.”

About 25 percent of the school’s 377 families receive financial aid, previously capped at half of the annual tuition of $14,000 to $17,000. Gavshon hopes that removing the aid cap, as the donor requested, will help the school attract new students and provide relief for current families struggling with economic hardship.

Tuition aid of that magnitude is rare in the pricey world of Jewish day schools. Still, the gift complements TVT’s mission to make Jewish education accessible to children who would otherwise have no opportunity to be attached to their religion or cultural roots.

Perched high on the hills in Irvine’s sprawling Samueli Jewish Center, TVT’s $18 million, 21.5-acre campus is a far cry from the converted Costa Mesa warehouse where several dozen elementary students first met in 1991. Relocating the school to its permanent site in 1998, alongside the bustling Merage JCC, the Jewish Federation and other community organizations placed it in the hub of the county’s rapidly developing Jewish communal activity.

“The concept of the Samueli Jewish Center enabled a lot of Jews to come out of the woodwork,” said Gavshon, a South African-trained attorney and the school’s former business manager who took over as chief administrator 17 months ago. “Suddenly, they had a place go and their kids had a place to go, which heightened their awareness of their Judaism.”

“With the Jewish community’s focus being here, the focus is on Tarbut as well,” he added.

Drawing predominantly from Irvine, Newport Coast, Tustin and Laguna Niguel, TVT attracts a diverse student population, at least half of which is unaffiliated with a synagogue or religious movement. The wide range of backgrounds, from observant to traditional to nonpracticing, can be challenging, Gavshon said, especially when it comes to tefilah (prayer), where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform practices diverge greatly. The school provides students with a range of observance options, including an Orthodox minyan with a mechitzah along with a mixed-gender service, allowing students to practice where they feel spiritually comfortable.

A staff of 131 delivers the school’s project-based, hands-on curriculum, which is roughly 65 percent secular and 35 percent Judaic. Emphasis is placed on teaching by demonstration, with students actively applying their knowledge to practical situations. A nine-to-one student-teacher ratio at the elementary level and 14-to-one in the middle and upper schools creates a caring environment where teachers attend to their students’ individual needs. That is a comfort to many parents turned off by the vast number of students in the public school system and the implications that has for education.

“There is a whole culture of friendliness and communication at Tarbut,” said Mike Natelson, whose oldest daughter, Danielle, graduated in June 2008. “We decided on Tarbut because we had such a good feeling of caring. Danielle blossomed in kindergarten, and her first grade teacher felt like an extended member of the family working with our kid.”

For Natelson, a former Los Angeles public school teacher, and his wife, who works in the Tustin Unified School District, enrolling their younger daughter, Gabrielle, now a 10-grader, in TVT’s more intimate kindergarten class three years later was a no-brainer.

Middle-schoolers will be housed in their own unit this year for the first time. Administrators hope that separating the middle-school students from their older peers will allow them to explore the host of puberty-induced identity issues in a pressure-free environment.

“The learning process is different, so the school needs to be different; the layout of the class and access to teacher must be different,” Gavshon said.

To encourage students to bond with teachers and each other, they spent the fall’s first three days of school off-site at “middle school boot camp.” Without their cell phones, PDAs and other means of contact to the outside world, students engaged in trust-building and relationship-developing exercises intended to foster camaraderie and to prevent bullying from becoming a problem during the year.

That ethos of caring is extended beyond the school’s majestic Jerusalem-stone walls to the larger community. Tikkun olam — repairing the world — has become the fourth “R” of TVT’s rigorous curriculum, as students are taught to integrate their Jewish experience into everyday living. Ideas for community service projects flow freely in a collaborative exchange between students, faculty and parents that supports student initiatives and encourages creative thinking.

As a seventh-grader, Jaclyn Singer, now a freshman at San Diego State University, started a food drive to assist Marine families at Camp Pendleton. The experience, said her mother, Jill Singer, left a lasting impact

“The event changed all of our lives,” said Singer, of Laguna Hills. “Since that time, our family continues to assist Marine families through Orange County-based Moms4Marines.”

“Jewish life values [and] a deep and treasured understanding of Jewish history and law have created a rich foundation for Jaclyn to live her life,” she added. “She is empowered by her Judaism because she understands it and cherishes it.”

“We emanate a commitment to our core values,” lower school principal Jean Oleson said. “We’re creating global and economic awareness and connection.”

That awareness led sixth-graders to donate 2,000 books to the budget-stricken Orange County Educational Arts Academy in Santa Ana last year and to paint the school library. TVT was recently named an “O Ambassador,” in a program run by Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network and Free the Children. The program promotes awareness of poverty, education and sustainable development in struggling countries and promotes fundraising programs for development projects overseas. TVT students will raise funds for an African elementary school throughout the year.

Gavshon brimmed with excitement as he showed off the school’s high-tech facilities, including a TV studio, where students can learn production skills while staging a live weekly news program. The music room is home to Tarbut’s very own five-student garage band as well as choral and other musical programs. The lower school is built in five self-contained “villages,” complete with classrooms, teacher workrooms and an open-concept computer lab.

Last year, the school inaugurated a college-counseling center, where full-time counselors help students navigate the application process.

“We have the luxury of being able to look at each child and see what their potential is,” Gavshon said. “We must tap into that and extract the fullest potential so that each student will defend Judaism, be solid in themselves and be prepared for life. The first question we ask alumni is ‘Were you prepared?'”

They seem to be. The nationally recognized Blue Ribbon school boasts a college matriculation rate of more than 98 percent and SAT scores well over the national average.

“[TVT’s approach] stems from an innate love and passion for children and learning,” lower school principal Oleson said. “We see learning through the eyes of children and we share in the excitement of learning.”

Jason Lezak earns first individual medal

BEIJING (JTA)—Jewish Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak followed up his relay heroics with a bronze medal in the 100-meter men’s freestyle.

Lezak, whose late dash in the 4 x 100-meter men’s freestyle relay propelled the U.S. team to the gold medal and a world record, finished in a time of 47.67 seconds Wednesday at the Water Cube in Beijing. He trailed Alain Bernard of France at 47.21 seconds and Australian Eamon Sullivan at 47.32.

For Lezak, at 32 the oldest male swimmer to ever qualify for an Olympic team, it was his first individual medal in his third Olympic Games. He had won five relay medals, including three gold.

“That’s what’s been driving me the last four years since Athens,” Lezak said when asked how it feels to earn his first individual medal.  “It definitely feels good.”

Lezak, of Irvine, Calif., had overtaken Bernard in Monday’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Bernard and Sullivan had exchanged the world record in the semifinals.

Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv

Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at www.irvineeruv.org. For more information, e-mail drsamuels@pacbell.net.

Irvine Campus Set for Grand Opening

The Bermans and Michaels expect their daily routines and social lives will alter substantially mid-August because of membership in the county’s greatly expanded Jewish Community Center (JCC), relocated in Irvine.

"I’m looking forward to that sense of community, of running into people and they are not in their cars," said Jackie Michaels, of Irvine, whose family of six were JCC devotees elsewhere.

"It’s exciting for us to have everything so central to us," added Mark Berman, 37, of Newport Coast, whose first JCC experience was at the Costa Mesa facility’s preschool where his wife, Sharon, volunteered. Their third son is among 230 preschoolers who will be the first to swarm over the center’s pristine playgrounds and classrooms.

Four years after its genesis, the community building for the JCC and six other Jewish agencies officially opens Aug. 15. It is the centerpiece of the nearly $70 million Samueli Jewish campus, a symbol both of the community’s maturation and a hoped for renaissance of Jewish cultural life.

Met initially with skepticism by many of the community’s leaders, the project’s principal champion gradually won support for an envisioned Jewish neighborhood.

"That was my motivating factor," said Ralph Stern, of Tustin, who shouldered the task of raising the center’s $20 million tab, defining how it would run and reshaping its staff.

Since 2000, Stern, who runs a dental financing business, seized every business trip as a chance to scrutinize other JCCs. Such an undertaking didn’t faze the center’s president, either. Mary Ann Malkoff develops buildings for religious clients. (A tribute lunch for Malkoff is scheduled Sept. 12 as new JCC board members take office.)

The center’s catalyst was the constraints on growth at nearby Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School. Its founder, Irving Gelman, coveted six adjacent acres for expansion. As the landowner refused to subdivide the parcel, industrialist Henry Samueli bought the adjoining 20 acres and an anonymous donor agreed to underwrite the upper-school expansion, a combined gift of $40 million.

"It’s the kind of opportunity you can’t let go by," Stern said.

Since he likens philanthropy to investing, Samueli said the community building is already a success. "It’s rallied so much support; the community has really stepped up. To contribute time and money, you know they all believe in it," he said.

A month of special events will follow to showcase the sort of services possible. A full fall programming catalog is to be distributed in August and most programs would start next month. Sampler programs include pilates, chamber music, a mitzvah camp, swim teams and a triathlon.

Also new is the hiring of Rabbi Rebecca Schorr as the center’s director of Jewish education, a move that initially raised territorial hackles by some pulpit rabbis. Allaying competitive concerns, Schorr said she’s focused on one-day adult education topics, preschool Judaica and serving as the staff’s pastoral counselor.

Despite higher annual fees that upset some members of the former Costa Mesa facility, more than 760 "units," comprised of singles or families, were committed as of mid-July. The tally includes 100 seniors, 40 of whom took advantage of scholarships, said Dan Bernstein, the center’s executive director.

Bernstein hoped for 500 members as of Aug. 1. His first year target is a 1,000-unit average, which he predicts will be reached by August 2005 as the roster ascends to 1,300 units.

"Nobody doesn’t come here and go ‘wow,’" said Bernstein, hired in December for his know-how opening a similar sized facility around an aging JCC in Sarasota, Fla.

With characteristic reserve, Stern is not yet popping celebratory corks.

"The feeling of exhilaration, I haven’t felt it yet," he said. Several loose ends remain, such as delivery of a $15,000 Holocaust monument. "When you have 25 of those details, there is still a lot of work to be done," he said.

Some gifts toward a $3 million endowment for the center’s overhead are still to be finalized, Stern said, though one significant piece recently fell into place. The former Jewish campus, a gift from Sandy and Allan Fainbarg and Ruth and Arnold Feurstein, was sold for $5 million to a developer. Proceeds will fund the center and the agencies’ transition costs, Stern said.

Even before the doors open, Michaels can anticipate a sense of entitlement: "It’s a place where you know you belong."

Robbo to Sing at Center Gala

Songwriter and performer Robb Zelonky tangos to the lyrical subject of cleaning up a messy room and morphs into an Elvis impersonation when he sings, "Don’t Wanna Share My Toys."

Zelonky, known to kids as Robbo, brings his family-oriented songfest to the stage as part of the Irvine Jewish Community Center’s grand opening events on Aug. 17.

"I was a theater major. My show is very visual and theatrical and participatory," Zelonky said. "Even dads like it, which is saying something."

Zelonky is scheduled to appear in Irvine after a two-month tour of California, bringing a special show with songs tailored to Jewish culture. He has also produced four secular CDs.

His most recent recording, "Kid’s Life," features celebrity voices including Teri Garr, Linda Gray, Steve Harris, Henry Winkler and Vanna White. Zelonky puts his own stamp on classic Jewish songs in his 1997 CD titled "A Part of a Chain."

Zelonky started entertaining through concerts for kids in 1990, making appearances at Jewish camps and school music programs in more than 70 cities. He has performed at the White House and the Cincinnati Folk Music Festival. His CDs earned Parent’s Choice gold awards for both 2000 and 2002.

After 32 years of guitar playing, Zelonky samples from a variety of musical styles to create his original mix of music and positive messages that inevitably have his audience singing and dancing along.

"I perform 80 shows or so a year, half Jewish, half secular," Zelonky said. "No Christian music though. Just stuff about monsters and owies."

Robbo’s Concert for Kids takes the JCC stage Aug. 17, 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. l

Teens Aid Russian Children

Knowing little about Judaism, 11 Russian immigrant families in the Los Angeles area began meeting in 1991, holding Shabbat dinners together and learning Jewish teachings from their children, many of whom were enrolled in Jewish day schools.

Among them was Olga Belogolova’s family, which had emigrated from Kiev and settled in Irvine. Last year, one of the havurah’s teens learned that a 9-year-old cousin, Alona, hospitalized with pneumonia in St. Petersburg, was going untreated because her parents lacked money for medicine.

Together, the families pooled $3,000, and forwarded the funds to St. Petersburg’s rundown Children’s Hospital No. 19. Just $500 was needed for Alona’s recovery. The havurah’s generosity was acknowledged with a long list of supplies purchased by the hospital. Antibiotics for an ear infection, for example, cost $3.

“We realized we could help more people than just the family friend,” said Belogolova, 17, co-founder and president of the CureKid Foundation, established last year to assist one ill-supplied Russian hospital. Her mother, Alla Korinevskaya, teaches math at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School; her father, Igor Belogolov, is a programmer.

The teenager and her friends identify with the plight of Russian children. For the last year they have been sharing their cause at community events, such as the recent Israel fair, and also organize fundraisers, such as an arrangement last month with a local restaurant that agreed to contribute a percentage of one night’s receipts.

“I always tried to find a community service,” said the Woodbridge High senior. “I never found anything that interested me.”

Information about the foundation can be found at

Another Chance to Buy Israeli

Last year’s Israeli merchant fair in Irvine — the first stop in a three-month caravan — spoiled vendors with large crowds open pocketbooks and home-cooked meals.

Merchants are already clamoring for a reprise on May 23 as part of "O.C. Celebrates Israel," a communitywide event including entertainment, folk dancing, a fashion show and food on the playing field of Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School.

"One or two shows lived up to Orange County," said Jeb Brilliant, of Garden Grove, a volunteer who has since become a commercial coordinator for other venues seeking to host Israeli craftsmen.

The collapse in Israel tourism has hurt merchants, and Jewish communities around the United States have demonstrated support of Israel by turning social halls into faux souks. Yet, many events held in smaller Jewish communities, or are poorly marketed, yield vendors’ little profit, said Brilliant.

"When you consider our expenses, it’s very tough," said jewelrymaker Michael Vagner, 43, who absorbs his own travel costs and fees averaging $250 per event to participate. He is one of at least 40 vendors who will open for business temporarily in Irvine on May 23.

"Now we rely on these fairs," said Vagner, whose wife, Nurit, remains in Shohan, Israel, with their three children and produces silver and gold baubles from a home studio. "Our clients that came every year for Pesach, if they don’t come to us, we’re coming to them."

Organizers hope to again host vendors in their homes and drum up an estimated 5,000 customers. The Israel event is chaired by Mali Leitner and organized by volunteer leaders David Prihar, Charlene Zuckerman, Dassie Feingold, Alex Yospe and Rosa Yospe Dan Abir, Jena Kadar and Adrienne Stokols.

Volunteer opportunities are available by calling Hagit Partouche at the O.C. Jewish Federation, (714) 755-5555, ext. 240.