By Aaron Elias
IRVINE, California–By now we’ve all heard about the eleven Muslim students who intentionally disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren at UCI on February 8th. The incident has exploded into arguments about free speech all over the world. There is much debate over whether or not the Muslim Student Union (MSU)–already infamous for inviting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers to UCI’s campus–was involved in the interruptions.
As a UCI student who attended the event and saw everything that happened, the whole situation has left me–and many other students–thoroughly embarrassed. Since the MSU’s president and vice president were among the 11 arrested disruptors, there’s little doubt in my mind that the whole thing was at the very least discussed within the club’s social circle, if not outright officially organized by their leadership. I recognized nearly all of the disruptors and their supporters as MSU members and saw that many of them were wearing shirts from past MSU anti-Israel weeks. When the group of Muslim students finally got up and noisily left–I heard some of them chanting, “This is our campus.”
A coalition of students on campus has begun a grassroots campaign to fight to protect our right to free speech at our school. Anybody interested can find more information at the campaign’s website http://www.wewontbesilenced.com/.
A lot of people have also been eyeing how the UCI administration has reacted to the entire matter, in particular Chancellor Drake. The Chancellor has always been the recipient of harsh words for refraining from condemning the MSU’s provocative rhetoric as hate speech, even when their speakers shout Jewish conspiracy theories on campus.
The sheer rudeness of the interruptions to Ambassador Oren, though, has finally given the Chancellor room to criticize behavior that has been a constant thorn in his side. After the disruptions, Drake took the microphone and expressed how much the disruptors’ actions embarrassed him and the school as a whole. In an e-mail titled “Why Do Values and Civility Matter?” Drake wrote to the UCI student and faculty body condemning the interruptions and discussing the importance of common civility: “I am disappointed that some in our community seem more comfortable engaging in confrontation than collaboration, and in closing channels of communication rather than opening them.”
In the week following the incident, the campus paper also published an open letter from Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez discussing free speech. “No one can steal the right to speak from someone else,” Gomez’s letter pointedly stated: “No one’s right to speak is greater than anyone else’s. If you want to claim your right to speak, you must acknowledge and respect the same right for everyone.”
Personally, while I understand he has a lot of legal matters to take into consideration, I’ve always wanted to see the Chancellor crack down on the MSU for inviting such hateful speakers to our school. It’s no secret that the MSU has been a constant annoyance for UCI admin, and this situation is only going to worsen the relationship. And while many people are foaming at the mouth at the timidity of Drake’s response, we must ask the question: what else can he do?
Drake has already explicitly condemned the students’ actions as a violation of free speech. He may not have directly criticized the MSU since there is no undeniable proof linking them to the interruptions (yet), but this is certainly the closest he has ever come to doing so. The offending students are currently waiting academic and legal punishment, as they should be, and no doubt the MSU– whether linked to the interruptions or not–is going to suffer as an organization. As it should for a club is only defined by the actions of its leaders, who are elected by the club’s majority.
Always eager to play the victimization card, many supporters of the MSU disruptors’ actions have martyred them as “The Eleven.” Their most-used excuses for supporting such pre-pubescent behavior is that these students were merely standing up to evil; that if a person breaks a law with justice in his heart, it’s okay; and that Oren’s very presence is antithetical to free speech, so shutting him up is alright. They completely disregard the fact that Ambassador Oren, no matter what they believe, is a human being like the rest of them, albeit a civilized and infinitely more mature one.
The MSU disruptors’ embarrassing actions have also led the Zionist Organization of America to finally lose hope for UCI. The ZOA recently released a statement urging all prospective students–not just Jewish ones–to avoid UCI and for donors to cease giving money to the school, citing anti-Semitism and widespread hate as their main reasons. Undoubtedly, the statement is going to affect how many Jewish families view UCI.
This is the worst thing any Zionist organization can do in fighting for Israel.
Orange County is the second most Muslim-populated area in America. No matter what the ZOA says or does, the Muslim population at UCI is going to increase, thereby insuring its anti-Israel legacy. If Jewish students stop attending UCI, then the pro-Israel presence on campus will die, and the MSU will have free reign to brainwash the unsuspecting neutral student body with its half-truths and lies.
I’ve attended UCI for 4 years. Not once have I ever feared for my safety as a result of the MSU’s actions. That is not to say they haven’t tried to start physical fights with Jewish students, nor is it to say I haven’t heard some of their members mutter anti-Semitic, sexist, and racist comments between themselves, but they don’t own the campus. Their hatred, however loud, has not infected the rest of the school, and I like to think that is in large part due to the actions of pro-Israel students counteracting their hate rhetoric with peace rhetoric. UCI is home to some anti-Semitism, but it’s not enough to avoid going to UCI. What university–or any institution–isn’t host to at least some bigotry? In fact, Jewish life at UCI is thriving, and I invite any concerned readers to please peruse the UCI Hillel’s website (http://ochillel.org/) for proof of this. While I stand alongside the ZOA in its support for Israel, I must respectfully disagree with its stance on UCI.
The MSU’s interruptions have affected the way nearly everybody views UCI, including UCI students. I’m not proud that, through inaction, my university has bred this belief in certain students that it’s okay to tread all over other people’s rights for your own selfish reasons. However, I am glad to finally see Chancellor Drake take steps at addressing this degenerate behavior that continues to embarrass our university each and every year. And I am very glad to see how many diverse and free-thinking people support the Ambassadors’ inherent freedom of self-expression, regardless of their political views. It’s my own hope that, if and when this is all resolved, the members of the MSU who joined for religious and social reason, not political, will find a way to extricate themselves of the leech-like hold their leadership has over them- much like the hold Hamas holds over Gaza. The MSU leadership is welcome to go off and make its own anti-Israel club instead of subverting religion for political gain. Perhaps then Jewish and Muslim students can finally take steps at reconciling and stemming the fury on campus.
Aaron Elias is a student at the University of California, Irvine.