The university’s proposed one-year suspension of the Muslim Student Union could have a chilling effect on free speech.
Students across the country are monitoring events at UC Irvine as pro- Israel groups try to reestablish their deterrence capacity on American campuses. After a 4-month-long investigation, UC Irvine’s administration last week announced an unprecedented recommendation to suspend for one year the Muslim Student Union (MSU), a registered campus organization, for its alleged involvement in disrupting a Feb. 8 speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Eleven students were arrested and may face criminal charges as well as disciplinary action by the university. A June 17 Times editorial called the recommendation “an apt punishment for what was clearly an inappropriate protest”; on the contrary, the administration’s draconian response will unquestionably have a chilling effect on student activism at UC Irvine and across the country.
The decision comes after several months of intense pressure by a number of off-campus Zionist organizations. In February, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called upon Jewish donors to withhold donations from UC Irvine and urged Jewish students not to enroll there. Their absence would be tragic. No student wants a Judenrein campus, but we also don’t want one in which Muslim student life is suffocated. The ZOA’s threat was intended solely to strong-arm university administrators into harsh action. And it appears to have worked.
Hillel President Wayne Firestone pronounced that “strong disciplinary procedures by the university … [are] in order here.” Shalom Elcott of the Jewish Federation of Orange County publicized his expectation of a “very specific response from the University of California leadership” and that he “is working intensely with multiple channels of leadership on a local, national and international level” so that “justice may be served.” After a visit from leading Jewish leaders, including Gerald Solomon of the Samueli Foundation, a key donor to the UC system, UC President Mark Yudof, a self-proclaimed Zionist, declared his outrage at the students’ protest of Ambassador Oren, that the students should be prosecuted and that the MSU should be disciplined.
Although the decision is being appealed by the MSU, it represents the alarming lengths to which defenders of Israeli policies will go to stifle criticism. Three weeks ago the world watched in horror as Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of aid ships trying to break Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza. Nine humanitarian workers were killed. In the days that followed Israel mounted a public relations assault aimed at quelling the international outrage. Israel was chided by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Press Assn. in Israel for releasing highly edited and reality-distorting footage it had stolen from journalists and flotilla passengers. News outlets were warned to “treat the material with appropriate caution.” Rather than demanding a full and independent investigation, several members of Congress have asked the Obama administration to ban flotilla participants from entering the United States (where presumably they’d be able to speak to Americans about what happened on the ships).
The university’s decision seems similarly designed to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. Condemning an entire organization of more than 250 members that represents Muslim student life on campus to a yearlong hiatus and banning the leadership from assuming future positions conjures up images reminiscent of a military coup d’état and the subsequent banning of the deposed party’s top brass from politics.
The MSU organizes more than 300 events annually for its members and for the larger campus community. Most events aim to enhance members’ spiritual lives through study circles, interfaith discussions and charity work. Recently the Cross Cultural Center at UC Irvine honored the MSU with the Social Justice Award for its dedication to advocacy for the less fortunate. Banning the organization will not only affect the students associated with the disruption, but all Muslims on campus and the entire student body.
Moreover, the administration’s decision comes in the context of an ongoing effort by pro-Israel groups to effectively thwart growing criticism of Israel on American campuses. All over the country, students, many of whom are Jews, are organizing for Palestinian rights and an end to Israeli aggression. Zionist groups, woefully afraid of this phenomenon, are spending millions of dollars to stem this tide.
The students were fully within their rights to protest the presence of the spin doctor for Israel’s January 2009 rampage in Gaza, what Amnesty International called “22 days of death and destruction,” and what former South African judge Richard Goldstone concluded in a report for the United Nations was a war crime and possibly a crime against humanity. Even President Obama was briefly disrupted by anti-abortion activists during his May 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame University, yet no one was arrested or punished for associating with the offenders.
History will surely absolve the 11 UC Irvine students and condemn those who legitimize war criminals. Today as I write, hundreds of activists across the country and world are preparing for another flotilla to break the illegal siege on Gaza. Similarly, Muslim and non-Muslim students at UC Irvine and nationwide will not be intimidated by McCarthy-era tactics. They will continue to fight for justice and speak truth to power no matter the price they may have to pay.
Omar Kurdi is an alumnus of UC Irvine, where he earned degrees in history and international studies and was an active member of the Muslim Student Union. He hosts the Morning Show on One Legacy Radio.