Reporting on the opening statements in the Irvine 11 trial, Nora Barrows-Friedman wrote for The Electronic Intifada that the Orange County District Attorney claimed the defendants conspired to “shut down” Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on 8 February 2010.
“What their intention was, make no mistake, was to shut him [Oren] down,” Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner told the jurors. As evidence that Oren’s speech was “shut down,” Wagner claimed that Oren was unable to perform a question and answer session he planned to deliver for audience.
But new evidence has surfaced that raises serious doubts about whether Oren even intended to deliver a question and answer session, and suggests he may have rushed out of the University of California-Irvine auditorium for reasons entirely unrelated to the student protest. In light of the evidence, there is good reason to believe that Oren’s speech was not “shut down” by anyone but himself.
During opening arguments, jurors viewed a videotape of the protest of Oren in UC Irvine’s Student Center. According to a Los Angeles Times account of the proceedings, the video showed that Oren arrived thirty minutes late for his speech, “but not because of the students’ disruptions” (“Video shown in Irvine 11 courtroom,” 8 September 2011).
A rushed appearance
In fact, Oren was late because he decided to linger at a pre-event reception. After the fourth demonstrator rose to voice their discontent with Oren, the ambassador left the stage for 15 minutes. Then he returned to the stage to finish his speech. Finally, the last group of student protesters “stood up and walked out, cheering and chanting as they did so,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
After returning to the stage, Oren declared that he “wished they [the student protesters] had stayed … it was that community I wanted to address.” Then he resumed his speech, completing it in its entirety without any further interruptions. The portion of Oren’s speech that he delivered after student demonstrators left the auditorium can be viewed in its entirety in a video captured by a pro-Israel activist. It begins at 25:00 and ends at 34:00 with Oren thanking his audience and receiving a standing ovation (“Muslims torpedo UC Irvine invited speaker, Israel’s Ambassador Oren,” YouTube).
By this time, Oren stood before a packed auditorium of avid pro-Israel supporters, including a number of elderly people who traveled from miles away. But instead of engaging in a question and answer session, Oren rushed off the stage with a phalanx of grim bodyguards in tow. He had a more pressing engagement to get to.
VIP tickets, photo-op with Kobe Bryant
The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles had arranged VIP tickets for Oren to a Lakers-Spurs game that evening at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. The ambassador had to hurry off in time for tip-off, denying his audience at Irvine the chance to engage with him. A photo shows Oren and Israel’s southwestern consul general Jacob Dayan posing with Lakers star Kobe Bryant in the Lakers team area after the game, which took place on 8 February 2010 (see also “Kobe Bryant: I’m a big fan of Israel,” israel today, 15 February 2010). Oren, who can be seen beaming with delight, is hardly the portrait of a traumatized crime victim.
According to an official listing of the Oren event, “US Israel Relations from a Political and Personal Perspective,” Oren was scheduled to speak from 5:30 to 7pm — no question and answer session was scheduled (see “US Israel Relations from a Political and Personal Perspective,” UC Irvine School of Social Sciences website).
The Lakers-Spurs game began at 7:30pm PST (10:30pm EST). Considering that Oren had already arrived thirty minutes late for his speaking engagement, he had an impossibly narrow window of time between the end of his speech and the beginning of the game. If Oren had any hope of reaching Staples Center in time for tip-off, or close to it, he would have had to have left early, or at least remained with his audience for far less than the hour and a half period he was scheduled to speak for.
To get from the UC Irvine Student Center, where Oren’s speech took place, to the Staples Center, Oren had to travel approximately 44 miles. The drive, according to Mapquest, takes about 55 minutes. But Mapquest did not factor into its estimate the delays typically caused by Los Angeles’ infamous rush hour traffic.
I lived in the Los Angeles area for five years. On several occasions, I drove from central Los Angeles to Orange County, where UC Irvine is located. At 7pm, during the height of rush hour, it sometimes took me two hours to get to my destination on the 5 freeway. On the 405 freeway, a multilane traffic disaster area that was recently closed for days of expansions, leading to the regional commuting nightmare known as “carmageddon,” it would often take longer than that. How Oren was able to make it from Irvine to Los Angeles during the peak of rush hour defies the imagination.
Under the circumstances, Oren probably viewed a question and answer session with Israel’s most devoted Los Angeles-area supporters as a dangerous diversion from the good times that awaited him at courtside. The ambassador was not “shut down.” He simply had better things to do.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author working between Israel-Palestine and the United States. His articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, Electronic Intifada, Salon.com, Al-Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a writing fellow for the Nation Institute and blogs at Al Akhbar English. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.