This month's Israel Apartheid Week at UC-Irvine proved one thing to me beyond all doubt. It cannot be left up to the university or the students (Jewish or non-Jewish) to counter the invective that flies around the campus during the anti-Israel events put on by Muslim Student Associations. Nor can one rely on the major national Jewish advocacy groups. It must come from the local community, both Jewish and non-Jewish to stand up and take a stand.
Let me explain why. UCI, fairly or unfairly, has acquired a reputation across the land as the worst campus in the country when it comes to harassment and intimidation of Jewish students arising out of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That is the opinion of David Horowitz and other observers. Whether you agree or not, it is pretty obvious that Jewish students on many many campuses in the US and Canada are in for a stressful college experience if they choose to assert their Jewish identity and support for Israel. The situation is getting tenser and tenser on many campuses at least during Israel Apartheid Week, which is an international movement.
I have written many times about the situation at UCI. Of course, attitudes among Jewish students are varied because they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with different levels of religious devotion and support for Israel. Therefore, at UCI you will hear different opinions from Jewish students on how bad the problem is. I will repeat again that 99% of the students at UCI are not anti-Semitic and play no role in the problem. Enough said about that.
I want to address the issue that surfaced during Israel Apartheid Week when large numbers of the community showed up on campus with American and Israeli flags and posters to counter the MSU and their speakers-peacefully. It was an enormous success. Yet,it must be said that many Jewish students were not comfortable with the community presence. In fact, the position of Hillel, the Jewish support organization on campus, was that "The students did not want them" (the community protesters). That may be true for many students for different reasons including fear that it would just escalate the tensions on campus between Jewish and Muslim students. I know that many Jewish students prefer to engage in civil dialogue with their Muslim counterparts.
First of all, I reject any statement from Hillel or anyone else that implies that they speak for every Jewish student on any campus. They cannot. As for the students themselves, I have met many Jewish students and heard many opinions. I respect each and every one I have met. They are fine young people, who will contribute much to this country in the future. With all due respect, I have to say that the issue is bigger than just them-though the community is vitally concerned with their well-being on campus. Students come to college for a few years and they leave-to be replaced by another generation who will have to deal with the same issues.
In addition, to quote two of my colleagues, if they see anti-Semitism at the corner dry cleaners, they will be there. If they see it on a university campus, they will be there. UCI is a public university supported by tax-payer money. We all have an interest.
In addition, this problem does not exist just at UCI. It is spreading to campuses all over North America. As we all know, it is a problem that affects every person in America even beyond the campuses.
It has become clear that the universities-with few exceptions- cannot or will not deal with the problem. They talk about free speech and the Constitution. They also know that organizations like CAIR, the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild are itching to file lawsuits if the university takes action. UCI is in that position as we speak. Countless letters and meetings with university officials go on for years and result in nothing concrete.
In Orange County, the Jewish community has been awakened, at least to a large extent, by the disruption of the Israeli ambassador's speech at UCI on February 8th. Prior to that, they had been assured for years by the OC Jewish Federation that everything was ok at UCI and that there was no anti-Semitism. Hillel told everybody the same thing.
Two things about the Jewish Federation. This is a big umbrella group that receives big bucks from donors and funnels it out to other smaller groups for various purposes. The university also depends on large donations from major donors, many of whom like to see their names plastered on university buildings. It's a big deal.
In addition, Hillel as a national organization supporting Jewish students, works within the university infrastructure and depends on the university to support their functions. That makes it pretty hard to make waves.
Having said that, it is a fact that in the past several years, the Jewish Federation of Orange County and OC Hillel have been an obstacle to efforts to bring public attention to the problems at UCI. They have been too connected to the university, and in the case of the Federation, to donors to want the university to look bad. There are some Jewish students who will tell you that they were advised to stand down when they wanted to complain to the university about anti-Semitic words and deeds. They were told that if they made a ruckus, prospective Jewish students would not want to come to UCI. (Don't worry, I can produce those students in a heartbeat if if I have to.)
This resistance extended to last week, when the Federation and Hillel opposed the presence of the community at the events. On Thursday, the principal organizer of the community turnout was angrily berated by "someone very high up in Hillel". The same week, protesters were asked by Hillel to move several yards away from the speaking area to an area set up by Hillel. They refused.
On Wednesday, that same organizer was mocked by "someone very high up in the Jewish Federation" because on that particular day, there was a low turnout. (Alison Weir was the speaker, which explained the low turnout.)
So you see, all week people from the community turned out with American and Israeli flags and posters saying "Don't bring hate to UCI". They conducted themselves peacefully. And in return, they get mocked by the Federation and berated by Hillel.
Message learned? The OC Jewish Federation and Hillel are part of the problem.
Oh, they are making a pretense of standing up since February 8th. The CEO of the Federation is running around making strong statements to any reporter who will listen that the university must take strong action against the Muslim Student Union. Why now? Obviously, he is under a lot of pressure from people who want to know what the Hell is going on at UCI. So now they (Federation, Hillel, American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League all sign a joint letter to the chancellor, publicize it and cry, "Stand with the Four".
Gimme a break!
Where were they when the Orange County Independent Jewish Task Force on Anti-Semitism and the Zionist Organization of America were going public with their complaints? Where was the support? Now they all want to look like they are doing something. They are protecting their little empires, that's all.
I repeat, the lesson learned at UCI is that it is up to the community to get involved. Whoever wants to join among faculty, students or organizations is welcome. Those that don't support the community-stand aside and stay out of the way.
After all, the issue is way more important than who gets their name on a building.