The lecture topic was "The Threat to Israel's Existence." The speaker was Daniel Pipes, a Middle East analyst known for his hawkish pro-Israel views and sharp denunciations of Islamic extremism. The setting was the University of California, Irvine, a campus with a national reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Students wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs clustered in the center of the auditorium.
The stage was set for confrontation.
Sure enough, 15 minutes into Pipes's speech, just as he had built up to one of his main points — "The Palestinians must have their will crushed so that they will no longer be trying to eliminate Israel, so they will tend to their own affairs and leave Israel alone" — dozens of Muslim students interrupted him with hostile shouts, before promptly marching out of the lecture hall, chanting "anti-Israel, anti-oppression."
Afterward, the student protesters gathered outside, where they listened to a speaker vow, "It's just a matter of time before the State of Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth." The crowd of students greeted his prediction with a robust cheer of "Allahu Akbar!" — Arabic for "God is great!"
"Our weapon, our jihad, our way of struggling in this country is with our tongues. We speak out, and we deflate their morale, and this is the best we can do right now," the speaker continued. "And our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, they're handling business in their own way. May Allah give them strength."
The scene was recorded on video by a Jewish student, and footage circulated on the Internet. Separate video of the initial interruption aired on the Fox News Channel show "Hannity & Colmes."
The January 31 incident — which prompted the Hillel Foundation of Orange County to announce the formation of a task force to examine antisemitism at U.C. Irvine — was the latest in a series of Middle East-related blowups that have kept the Southern California campus in the news. In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, alleging that there was a "hostile, and at times, threatening" environment for Jewish students at U.C. Irvine. The president of the university's Jewish student group, however, says that the school's poor reputation is not entirely deserved, arguing that the rhetoric embraced by U.C. Irvine's Muslim student group does not reflect the overall environment on campus.
U.C. Irvine though is only the most recent in what can seem like a rotation of California campuses to emerge as the focus of Jewish communal concern. At a number of California public universities, Jewish students have long faced particularly inflammatory rhetoric from anti-Israel activists — a state of affairs that predates even the most recent intifada. While at any given school, such activity tends to ebb and flow, established Muslim student groups in California repeatedly have brought fiery anti-Israel speakers to campus, including one who regularly praises suicide bombers, expresses support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and rails against "Zionist Jews."
"I think the tenor and the tone of the debate and the shrillness of identity politics is meaningfully different in California," said David Harris, director of the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition. "There are different challenges on campuses across the country, to be sure, but at some schools in California — especially large state schools — Israel's supporters on campus are confronted with distinct challenges, including strongly heated rhetoric and a lack of respect and common civility."
At the University of California, Berkeley, amid massive protests by pro-Palestinian students in the spring semester of 2002, the campus Hillel building was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti. According to the Anti-Defamation League, fliers maligning the Talmud were distributed on campus. In May 2002, Laurie Zoloth, then director of San Francisco State University's Jewish studies program, penned a widely forwarded e-mail describing an incident in which pro-Israel students on her campus were surrounded by "an angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths" and had to receive a police escort back to their Hillel building.
While things have quieted down considerably at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State since 2002, relations remain tense between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students. San Francisco Hillel's executive director, Alon Shalev, said that while there are still anti-Israel protests at S.F. State, "there's no intimidation or the insults that were bandied before."
Observers of campus affairs cite various reasons for the frequent militancy of anti-Israel sentiment at some California schools. They note that many California campuses have large Arab and Muslim student populations, while the percentage of Jews is often not as high as at East Coast schools. Another contributing factor, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a historically radical political climate. At some California campuses, the prevalence of extreme identity politics provides pro-Palestinian students with allies among militant members of other minority groups. Observers also point to a handful of aggressively anti-Israel speakers who make the rounds of California campuses, citing in particular Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based African-American Muslim cleric.
Last spring, Ali gave a notorious speech at U.C. Irvine during a week of activities sponsored by the campus Muslim Student Union under the rubric "Holocaust in the Holy Land." Speaking on a campus plaza behind a sign reading "Israel, the 4th Reich," Ali noted that Israelis are "reluctant to get on buses and things, or go to the café," adding, "It's about time that they live in fear." He said that whereas Israelis are "coming to live," they are opposed by "people who are ready to die, who say either victory or martyrdom. You can't fight against that."
"We will fight you until we are either martyred or until we are victorious," he said. "That's how we look at it. And they know that that's how Muslims believe."
Ali has been a regular presence on California university campuses for at least a decade. At U.C. Berkeley in the late 1990s, Ali was a fiery fixture at yearly anti-Israel protests organized by the campus Muslim Student Union. In the past five years alone, Web research by the Forward found, he has appeared more than two-dozen times on over a dozen different California campuses, usually sponsored by established Muslim student groups, including regular speaking engagements at annual region-wide gatherings sponsored by the western division of the national Muslim Students Association, or MSA West, one as recently as January. Many but not all of Ali's campus addresses are focused on Israel.
His speech last spring at U.C. Irvine was not out of the ordinary. "In America, you're mostly fighting with your tongue. But you should also learn how to fight with the sword," he told attendees at the 2004 MSA West conference at U.C. Berkeley, according to a report in the East Bay Express. He reportedly urged attendees to "work on building Islamic infrastructures in the USA now," acknowledging, "There will be some poop-butts who will not want to live under sharia law and will leave."
During a 2005 speech at U.C. Irvine, he referred to Palestinians who blew up Israeli buses as "freedom fighters," railed against the "Zionist-controlled media," called America "the belly of the beast" and accused supporters of a two-state solution of being "Uncle Tom Palestinian leaders." Speaking last year to Muslim students at California State University, Long Beach, he said that "Zionist Jews were behind" a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"It is an extraordinarily disturbing development for those of us engaged in interfaith efforts to see mainstream student groups repeatedly invite such a hateful demagogue as Malik Ali to speak at campuses across California," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Levin said that Israel, Zionism and foreign policy are all "legitimate areas of criticism and spirited public debate," but that Ali's rhetoric embraces "classic Jew-baiting" and "glorification of suicide bombings."
Another repeat guest speaker of U.C. Irvine's Muslim Student Union is Muhammad Al-Asi — an outspoken anti-Saudi imam and admirer of the late leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. In sermons posted on his Web site, Al-Asi condemns the media for failing to present "information that debunks the Holocaust," calls for Muslims to "take on the cancerous Israeli presence in the Middle East" and says that American troops are in Afghanistan in order "to set back Islamic self-determination for many years to come."
Appearing in February with Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in an event co-sponsored by a left-wing student organization headed by the president of the Muslim campus group — Al-Asi leveled a new charge. When asked about the crisis in Darfur, he said, "these humanitarian tragedies are always, it seems to me, at the service of the Zionist-imperialist nexus."
Marya Bangee, who handles external public relations for U.C. Irvine's Muslim Student Union, told the Forward that the conflict on her campus is not between Jews and Muslims. "We're not against Jews, we're against Zionists," she said. She noted that the MSU had also hosted "Holocaust Industry" author Norman Finkelstein, a bitter critic of Israel, and Neturei Karta's Weiss.
Bangee, who is also communications director of MSA West, said that the person who spoke to demonstrators outside the Pipes speech was a former student who was "speaking as an individual." Referring to the speaker's remark about wiping out Israel, Bangee said, "He was talking about the political apparatus of Israel, not the people there. I don't think anybody condones the mass murder of thousands of people."
She said that her club has invited Ali to campus "more than once because of the fact that he represents a viewpoint that is not normally represented in the mainstream. He is somebody that stands behind his words rather than just speaks. There are definitely statements that he makes that we would not agree with."
But she expressed skepticism regarding charges that Ali is antisemitic.
"Anything that is antisemitic is really wrong. We don't stand for hate-speech whatsoever," she said. "I personally have not heard anything where he has said anything along that line. I think sometimes some of the things he says get taken out of context."
Bangee previously had written an article in U.C. Irvine's campus newspaper, New University, blasting Hillel for bringing Pipes to campus. "By inviting Daniel Pipes as their guest speaker, the message O.C. Hillel sent was one of hatred and intolerance," she wrote.
Yehudit Barsky, an American Jewish Committee staffer who monitors Islamic extremism, says that the character of the national Muslims Students Association, an umbrella organization for many campus Muslim groups, contributes to tensions. "The MSA was established in 1963 in this country by people who are followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and basically the line for the MSA really has not changed," she said. At MSA West's annual conference this past January — at which Ali was a speaker — the official program's list of 11 suggested books included works by Hassan al-Banna, founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyid Qutb, an anti-Western Egyptian intellectual who influenced many contemporary jihadists.
The Israel on Campus Coalition's Harris stressed, however, that a large campus Muslim population did not inevitably lead to clashes with Jewish students. As an example, he cited New York University, where Jewish and Muslim students have successfully built bridges.
Cindy Greenberg, executive director of NYU's Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, said that at her school "Muslim-Jewish relations are friendly, strong and productive." She said that the school's Muslim chaplain has played a critical role in fostering good relations between the two groups on campus, including a joint fellowship that brings Jewish and Muslim students together for dialogue and volunteer work.
"It's not that we shy away from difficult topics," she said. "We have difficult conversations but we have them together."
Alex Chazen, president of U.C. Irvine's Jewish Student Union, said that "there are students within MSU that want to dissent. The only issue is that if you're a religious Muslim at U.C. Irvine, you want to be a part of the Muslim community in U.C. Irvine, if you're not part of MSU, then you're kind of outcast."
He said that media coverage "does tend to exaggerate" the situation at U.C. Irvine. "It's really the MSU that is very steadfastly anti-Israel, antisemitic, but once you get past them, the majority of the campus is either pro-Israel or indifferent," he said.
Chazen said that, unlike some other California campuses, left-wing students at U.C. Irvine haven't jumped on the anti-Israel bandwagon. He said that the only people who seem supportive of the MSU's rhetoric have been followers of fringe political figure Lyndon LaRouche.
"Especially in today's American climate," he said, "a radical Islamic message isn't really going to get you many friends."