Irvine Community and Jewish Groups React to Muslim Student Union Suspension
The University of California, Irvine (UCI) is the second youngest campus in the California state university system. UCI has made its mark among prestigious American universities, steadily rising in the U.S. News & World Report ratings of “America’s Best Colleges.” Following the al-Qaeda terror attacks on September 11, 2001, however, the prestigious and relatively subdued Orange County campus began drawing attention and earning a reputation as a breeding ground for anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic sentiment.
At UCI, certain registered student groups, while claiming to exercise rights to free speech, have violated state and university policy. This is particularly true of the Muslim Student Union (MSU), which is part of the national network of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). The organization, more than any other campus group, is known for its seditious rhetoric and hostile, militant activities. Several students and faculty have reported feeling intimidated or even frightened in the presence of MSU members. Such victims have often chosen to remain silent rather than oppose campus organizations whose confrontational tactics and agendas were, over recent years, increasingly tolerated by the university administration and community. As a result of its members' belligerent and sometimes violent behavior, Irvine’s MSU has rendered itself among the most severely hostile Muslim student organizations in North America.
That is why UCI’s latest move, which was initially publicized by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, has attracted particular interest. UCI’s administration made an unprecedented decision to suspend the MSU for a full year. The decision was made after a school investigation found that the organization planned disruptions during a February speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The decision to suspend the group was not so much about the fact that the MSU disrupted a speech, but that the group later lied about its intentions and actions.
The suspension, if appeals by the Muslim Student Union are unsuccessful, will take effect during the 2010-2011 school term. The chapter will also be required to complete 50 hours of community service before it is able to file appropriate paperwork to have the organization reinstated. If the group is successful in that procedure, it will, however, face a year of disciplinary probation following reinstatement.
In a letter dated May 27, 2010, Senior Executive Director of Student Housing Lisa Cornish detailed the findings of the school investigation. The 14 pages detail that the MSU violated four separate school policies involving dishonesty, obstructing disciplinary procedures, disorderly conduct, and "participation in a disturbance of the peace of unlawful assembly.” These violations transpired during a talk given by Michael Oren on February 8. His remarks were interrupted at least 10 different times by students, including those who repeated the tiresome canard of an Israeli genocide and who shouted accusations that Oren was a murderer and a war criminal. Oren briefly suspended his talk, resuming it only after school officials tried to restore order and repeatedly advised the audience that the outbursts violated student conduct codes.
Prior to the disturbance of the event, UCI officials were notified that there was an organized plan to disrupt the speech. The Investigative Project on Terrorism cited emails in which an MSU official wrote:
"We've already discussed the different options in the GA (general assembly) meeting and we took a vote," a February 4 email to the MSU board said. "So now that we have voted on one method of action, we all go through this together, insha'Allah ta'ala together as one MSU … one Ummah."
Officers from the MSU denied that their protest at the Oren event was an organized effort, stating that actions were carried out by individuals and were not on behalf of the MSU. In particular, MSU President Mohamed Abdelgany wrote the following:
I would first like to say that all of my actions on Monday were done out of my own individual accord and were not on behalf of the Muslim Student Union or any other organization at UC Irvine.
The spokesperson for the MSU, Hadeer Soliman, went on the record with the Los Angeles Times stating that the disruption "was not put on by the MSU, but rather by students acting on their own." Soliman made the same claim in an editorial written for UCI’s official school paper. Screenshots of MSU emails are available on the Investigative Project for Terrorism website.
UCI's investigation concluded that "the disruptions were planned, orchestrated and coordinated by the Muslim Student Union." Furthermore, a spokesperson for the university, Cathy Lawhon, also noted that the members of panel which conducted the inquiry “have had no prior issues with the group.” Cornish’s letter also cites the February 3 MSU meeting in which a stated goal was to send Oren a message “that he knows that he can't just go to a campus and say whatever he wants" by "push[ing] the envelope.”
The MSU issued a statement that the group plans to appeal the university’s recommendation of suspension. The group maintains that the students who disrupted Oren "acted in their personal capacity."
In her letter, Cornish said MSU members invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to her questions. Cornish also noted that there were several occasions during the Oren event in which MSU members were warned to stop.
The move to suspend the MSU over this recent incident has been welcomed by some in both the UC and wider Jewish communities. Shalom Elcott, the president of the Jewish Federation, expressed approval for the administration’s decision on the official blog of the Jewish Federation of Orange County:
"We commend the University for its judicious decision in support of free speech and civil discourse,” he said. “The University’s disciplinary action regarding the MSU establishes an important and appropriate precedent and sends a powerful message to other universities across the nation."
In contrast, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) commended the decision while asserting that it was long overdue. “While the ZOA has commended the university for finally taking action, we believe that sanctioning the MSU was long overdue,” said Susan Tuchman, the director of the Zionist Organization of America's Center for Law and Justice. “For years now, the ZOA and others have identified numerous instances where the MSU had violated university policies. We’d repeatedly called on the administration to enforce its own policies and punish the wrongdoers, but that didn’t happen.”
In October 2004, the ZOA expressed concern about the MSU’s pattern of hatred in action. After several concerned Jewish students filed reports alleging anti-Semitic harassment, the ZOA initiated a Title VI complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Jewish students at UCI. The ZOA had attempted to use diplomacy to address the hostility on campus, but UCI administrators ignored their efforts, prompting the organization to turn to Title VI. “There were many instances of misconduct by the MSU that the ZOA, students, and others had repeatedly brought to the UCI administration’s attention,” explained Tuchman. “These incidents were either ignored or whitewashed by the administration. For example, university policies expressly prohibited harassment based on religion or ethnicity (among other things), which creates a hostile or intimidating campus environment. Student after student reported to us that they’d complained to the UCI administration about anti-Semitic hostility on the campus, and that their complaints were essentially ignored. UCI’s policies prohibit physical assault or other conduct that threatens a person’s health or safety."
Tuchman said she was receiving troubling complaints from students that they were being assaulted or feeling threatened, and that their grievances were neglected by administrators and police.
In its report, the OCR found that complaints dating back several years, including documented instances where rocks were thrown by MSU members at a Jewish student and the destruction of a Holocaust memorial in 2003, did not contribute to a hostile environment on campus because they “constitute isolated acts that were unrelated to the timely alleged acts.” Because the complaint with the OCR was filed over 180 days after the incidents in question occurred, they were disregarded in the investigation. In other instances, OCR investigators found that university officials acted appropriately or that the complaint could not be conclusively identified as anti-Semitic. For example, a swastika found in a bathroom in the Social Ecology building was not considered anti-Semitic because there was a vulgar phrase directed against Asians in the same bathroom and the OCR could not ascertain whether the swastika was referring to Asians or Jews.
The OCR decision suggested that Title VI did not apply to Jewish students as a racial or national origin group. The decision did, however, spark concern from members of Congress. Members of the House also asked whether OCR’s policy for enforcing Title VI was affording Jewish students the protections they deserved. The criticism from members of the House and Senate likely compelled the OCR to re-evaluate the case. On April 25, 2008, a letter to the ZOA from the OCR indicated that it planned to launch a new investigation into the incidents that occurred at UCI. The OCR determined after its first report that several of the ZOA’s allegations were “appropriate for investigation under the laws enforced by OCR.” Although more than two years have passed, there has been no conclusion to the case.
A group of local citizens in the Irvine area started a group to investigate anti-Semitism at UC Irvine. The group was comprised of various academic, professional, and religious leaders, and had Jewish and non-Jewish members. It became known as the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism (OC Task Force) and its goal was “to study, investigate, and issue a report on alleged incidents of racism and anti-Semitism at the University of California – Irvine (UCI).”
The OC Task Force also stated: “We are not singling out any specific group. We are looking at all instances of alleged anti-Semitic and racist activity.” After mounting an investigation in which students, faculty, and other key witnesses were interviewed, the OC Task Force released a report in December 2007. The report’s findings demonstrated a troubling pattern of anti-Semitism on the part of the MSU that was ignored or even, in some cases, justified by the UCI administration. The OC Task Force’s most serious recommendation was for “Jewish students to consider enrolling in other universities.” The report can be read in its entirety on the official website for the OC Task Force.
Responding to the recent suspension of the MSU, Ted Bleiweis, executive director of the group, was more cautious than many in the UCI community who have commended the suspension recommendation. “The evidence presented in the May 27, 2010, letter from UC Irvine to MSU officials appears to demonstrate an organized and deliberate attempt by the MSU to stifle Ambassador Oren's First Amendment right to free speech and the audience's right to hear what he had to say,” said Bleiweis. “It remains to be seen if the administration will actually follow through on its recommended action. In addition, keep in mind that until the appeals process has been completed, it is premature to draw any conclusions about the outcome.”
Gary Fouse, an adjunct teacher at the university, has blogged about the situation on campus for several years. He suggested that the disruption of the Oren event has opened the eyes of many in the community. “This incident made so many people realize that there was a problem at UCI in spite of the denials by the university and groups like the OC Jewish Federation,” he said. “Many in the local community, including ACT for America, got involved. They held meetings. They wrote letters to [UC President] Yudof and [UCI Chancellor] Drake. They demanded action.”
Fouse also cautioned against believing the suspension of the MSU will solve issues on campus. “I look for the MSU members to do things under other sympathetic student groups.” Fouse also believes that the issues on campus are far more extensive than a squabble between Muslims and Jews. “The issue is bigger. It concerns everybody,” said Fouse.