Columbia and Barnard aren't the only campuses where right-wing Zionists have fought bitter campaigns in the name of defending Israel and Jewish students. The unlikely site of the latest battle, as intense and angry as anything in Manhattan, is the University of California, Irvine (UCI). I should know--I teach there.
UCI has been described as a place where rocks are thrown at Jews, swastikas painted on campus buildings and Hamas slogans displayed at a commencement ceremony. These charges have been disseminated widely--not only in the Jewish press, including the Jerusalem Post, but also in such mainstream media outlets as Fox News, where Bill O'Reilly featured the Hamas commencement story. And they were listed in a formal complaint filed by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) with the US Office of Civil Rights (OCR), arguing that Jewish students at UCI were the target of harassment and that the university had failed to protect them from anti-Semitic acts.
The OCR exonerated the UCI administration in a report issued in November. You might think that would have been the end of it, but the report only escalated the ZOA claims of Jewish victimization and its campaign against UCI. Three Republican senators--Arlen Specter, Sam Brownback and assistant minority leader Jon Kyl--and five members of Congress recently expressed "concern regarding anti-Semitic incidents aimed at Jewish students" at UCI and complained about the OCR report.
The OCR issued its report after federal investigators visited the campus eleven times to monitor demonstrations and interview students and staff. Stone-throwing at Jews? The ZOA complaint listed one stone thrown at one Jew in 2004. Swastikas on campus? The ZOA complaint listed one swastika found in a men's room toilet stall--with Bitch Ass Asians written underneath. "The campus police investigated the incident immediately," the OCR found, "but were unable to determine the culprit or the motive." The swastika was promptly removed. And the "violently anti-Semitic" commencement where Muslim students displayed "Hamas slogans"? At the 2004 commencement some Muslim students wore green stoles over their gowns that contained Arabic script. The script, according to faculty members who read Arabic, spelled out the creed recited daily by all devout Muslims, "There is no god but God"--the equivalent of the Jewish "Shema Yisrael" ("The Lord is One").
After the OCR concluded that there was "insufficient evidence" that the UCI administration had failed to protect Jewish students from harassment, an off-campus, ad hoc Jewish group issued its own report in February. It urged Jewish students "with a strong Jewish identity" to leave UCI and newly admitted students not to enroll.
And then there's Daniel Schroeter, an internationally recognized scholar of Moroccan Jewish history who was appointed to UCI's Teller Family Chair in Jewish history fourteen years ago. Recently he's been denounced not for anything he said but for not taking a public position in favor of the ZOA campaign. Part of the problem, apparently, was that he worked on a program promoting campus dialogue between Muslims and Jews, and he brought to the campus Muzammil Siddiqi--a Muslim scholar who often speaks to Jewish groups. Siddiqi, who received an award in 1999 from the National Council of Christians and Jews, was invited by George W. Bush in September 2001 to participate in the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at Washington National Cathedral. Nevertheless, Schroeter was condemned by some local Jewish activists for bringing to campus someone with "connections to terrorists." Clearly feeling the pressure, Schroeter decided to accept an offer from the University of Minnesota. Cheaper real estate and a bigger Jewish studies program were factors, but Minnesota is also a place where the Jewish studies faculty have not been targeted or harassed by right-wing Zionists.
It's true that the campus has an active Muslim Students Union, which sponsors Zionist Awareness Week, during which speakers denounce Israeli treatment of Palestinians and have shouted "Death to Israel!" It also sponsored an event titled "Holocaust in the Holy Land" and had a torn Israeli flag marked with what appeared to be blood. One speaker at Zionist Awareness Week in 2006, Amir Abdel Malik Ali, said, "The Zionist Jews own Fox News.... They got the CIA. They got the media. They got Congress."
The ZOA complaint argued that Zionist Awareness Week created a "hostile environment" for Jewish students. The university's position has been that the Muslim Students Union has a free speech right to make these statements as long as it does not target individuals. And of course the Jewish students have a right to hold their own rallies and put up their own signs.
The statement by the three senators criticizing the OCR for exonerating Irvine appears to have a broader legislative purpose. Their letter, addressed to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, whose department oversees the OCR, argued that Jews are a protected group under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is a clear endorsement of the ZOA position that Jews have the same right under that law to federal protection from anti-Semitism that blacks have to protection from racism.
The ZOA, which claims a national membership of 50,000, is a militant defender of Israeli settlement of the West Bank and regularly targets liberal Jews and others who criticize that policy. The lead item on its website in April attacked the Harvard Hillel for sponsoring a Breaking the Silence tour, in which Israeli soldiers who have served in the territories speak out against Israeli policy, describe their actions in the territories and talk about "what being part of an occupying army does to the occupier" [see Eyal Press, "Israeli Army Vets Speak Out," The Nation online, March 1]. ZOA head Morton Klein said the exhibit sponsored by the Harvard Hillel "incites hatred of Israel, violates the Jewish law of not bearing false witness, and plays into the hands of Israel's enemies."
In the most recent round of this battle, the ZOA condemned the national Hillel summit in March for inviting UCI chancellor Michael Drake to speak on the university and anti-Semitism. That criticism was featured in a widely read story in the Jerusalem Post. At the conference Drake condemned anti-Semitism but defended the principle that the university should remain "content neutral" and refrain from regulating student speech. The ZOA has demanded that Drake not only condemn anti-Semitism in general but also denounce specific anti-Semitic statements made by campus speakers.
After Drake's appearance at the Hillel summit, leaders of four Jewish student organizations at UCI issued a statement saying they "strongly supported" the chancellor and declared that while "verbal anti-Semitism...unfortunately continues to exist on campus," Jewish student life was prospering, with more than100 students attending Hillel's weekly Shabbat dinners and seventy-one joining the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.
For a while it looked like the campaign may have gone too far. The report that called on Jewish students to shun UCI attacked the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Orange County Jewish Federation and Hillel for "complicity" with UCI in failing to protect Jewish students. But the ZOA claimed a crucial victory in early June when it announced that the OCR would open a new investigation of anti-Semitism at UCI, focusing on Muslim Students Union activities in May 2007. A triumphant ZOA declared that if UCI is found to have failed to protect Jewish students' rights, the entire campus "can lose its federal funding."