For years, anti-Israel student organizations like the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine have held an annual “Israel Apartheid Week” on college campuses across the nation. The events draw widespread criticism for their frequent use of hateful rhetoric, incitement to violence, thinly-veiled anti-Semitic speeches, and flagrant distortion of facts and history. For years, this circus sideshow of half-truths and hatred has gone unhindered, with no political pro-Israel or even moderate week to rival it.
That changed last month at the campus of UC Irvine.
From May 19 to 21, a new club on UCI’s campus by the name of Movement for Peace in the Middle East (MPME) lined the main campus road with several displays depicting facts about the Jewish refugees in the Arab world as well as Islamic terrorism targeting Israel and Jews, Nazism in the Arab world, and the connection between the campus Muslim Student Union (MSU) and terror groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another display explored ways to achieve peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event followed the MSU’s annual “Israel Apartheid Week” the week before. While the MSU’s week is full of half-truths, opinionated speakers, and often violently hateful rhetoric directed at the state of Israel and “Zionist Jews,” MPME’s displays dealt solely in well-documented, historical facts.
I was on campus at the time of the event. The displays towered over 10 feet and drew a lot of attention from passersby. A booth on the road handed out shirts for the event that read “I AM PRO” on the front and “PRO-ISRAEL, PRO-PALESTINIAN, PRO-PEACE” on the back. Each day, members of the MSU could be seen gathered at one of the displays arguing with pro-Israel students. Offended MSU members consistently made claims like “It’s Islamophobic!” and “You’re only telling one side of the story!”
Oh, irony is bitter.
I had a chance to sit down with the founder of MPME, Isaac Yerushalmi, to talk about the unofficially christened “MPME Week.” Yerushalmi was president of UCI’s Anteaters for Israel for two years in a row and currently serves as the president of MPME. He has achieved near-superstar status in the Zionist and Jewish communities around Irvine (and beyond) for his ingenuity, passion, and strategic mind concerning Israel. Yerushalmi comes off as one of the most moderate and level-headed Zionists you will ever meet.
AE: What is the goal of MPME?
IY: The goal of MPME is to educate students on many of the issues that are left out of the conversation on campus, to raise awareness about Israel’s struggles, i.e., terrorism, prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and so on. We also touch on how Jews have historical struggles in the Arab world, like ethnic cleansing. We educate on prospects for peace, most specifically a two-state solution. We believe peace is possible and practical; it should be in the best interests of Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S.
AE: What are some of the responses you’ve received about MPME Week?
IY: The majority of students appreciated hearing a different perspective on these issues. They found it refreshing on a campus where you predominantly hear an anti-Israel voice; not pro-Palestinian, but anti-Israel. A lot of people came up and expressed support for the event, even Muslims.
AE: There was a lot of secrecy about MPME Week in the weeks leading up to its advent on campus. What was the reasoning behind this?
IY: We wanted to maintain an element of surprise, strategically speaking. There are students on campus who have tried to sabotage and disrupt [these kinds of] events.
We had a team of maybe 6 people [to work on MPME Week], but throughout the week we got help from 15 people. It was a relatively small group and passive event. We weren’t going out and rallying up people. It was like, here are some facts. Let people soak it in. There are certain student groups that try to make one side seem evil, inherently evil. Our purpose is to show why Israel is doing what it’s doing.
We spent only 3 weeks [preparing] the event [because we were just] testing the waters this year. In the future we will make it bigger, maybe bring academics, activists, different types of people to come speak. This was just a small test.
AE: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
IY: Everything we presented was factual. We stand by all those facts. We believe they are relevant and important for people to know. We did have a panel that was talking about Nazi influence in the Arab world, particularly discussing Nazis that took asylum in Arab countries and their influences in the context of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Our purpose was to show that influence. In regards to referencing MSU, that too was entirely factual. We covered it up because we found many students were offended by it; we didn’t want people to close their ears to everything else presented just because of that one thing. We chose to cover it up because we don’t want to polarize. We want to educate, not divide. But we stand by it; it was factual. For doubters, we presented sources by request.
Ultimately our message is one of peace. We believe in the Palestinian right to self-determination, as well as the Jews’ right. We want to see a prosperous Palestinian state, but it’s important to realize that can’t come at the expense of Israel’s security. We support the [Obama] administration trying to mediate, to help the two sides come to a comprehensive agreement that will bring Israel safe and secure and internationally recognized borders and help the Palestinians create the state they desire. Our message is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace. There was a clear contrast between this and the MSU’s week … [which] tried to slander the Jewish state and made accusations that were false. It was condemned by campus faculty and the UC president. Regardless of what they say and how they distort facts, they never presented a solution that solves both the legitimate concerns of Israelis and Pals. On the contrary, MPME presents a solution to the Palestinian desire for self-determination, sovereignty, and increased freedoms, as well as Israel’s concerns for security and legitimacy in the international community.
With the introduction of MPME Week comes a new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian tensions on UC Irvine’s campus. No longer will the infamous “Israeli Apartheid Week” be a presence on UCI’s campus without facing an equal if less hateful response. Anteaters for Israel, the campus’s pro-Israel club, holds an annual Israeli culture festival named iFest that is warmly received by the UCI community (iFest is also Yerushalmi’s brainchild), but does not concern itself with politics so as to maintain a positive and more attractive atmosphere.
Because of this, Jewish students have been clamoring for a direct political response to the ever-hateful “Israeli Apartheid Week” for years. MPME Week is that response, and considering Yerushalmi’s track record for planning and developing campus events and clubs, it is only going to get bigger.