UC Irvine administrators call to Muslim student group for Palestine protest

In response to intense political pressure by multiple pro-Zionist organizations, administrators at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have recommended the suspension of Muslim students’ right to assemble and practice their faith together on campus. Alleging that emails anonymously “leaked” to the university prove that the Muslim Student Union was responsible for a protest of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s campus appearance by eight UCI students, the administration plans to suspend the more than 250-member Muslim Student Union for a year beginning in September, and place it under intense scrutiny and disciplinary probation if the student group is allowed to re-apply for recognition in the fall of 2011.

The student group is appealing this proposed ban, contending that the MSU did not sponsor the protest, and that the students arrested for interrupting Oren’s speech were acting as individuals. Members have also challenged UCI’s moves to impose what their attorney Reem Salahi has described as “nothing but collective punishment” by proposing to suspend the entire group over a political protest. The ban would become official after a final university decision, pending the outcome of a hearing and if the student group’s appeal fails.

Pointing to sustained efforts by powerful organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America, many are contending that UCI is allowing outside organizations to decide how it treats its students. Many of these organizations have publicly described their role in pushing the administration to suspend the student group, and have announced their intentions to undertake similar efforts on other campuses where students are organizing in defense of Palestinian rights.

While delivering a presentation on US-Israeli relations in February, Oren was interrupted several times by students who were outraged by his disregard for human rights and his attacks on the UN-commissioned Goldstone report. As a previous military spokesman for Israel, Oren defended Israel’s 2006 invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, its winter 2008-09 attack on Gaza, and touted his own role as a paratrooper during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the mainstream media. Although Oren eventually finished his presentation, the university had the 11 students who interrupted him arrested (eight were from UCI, three were from UC Riverside), and the eight UCI students were subsequently brought before the University Office of Judicial Affairs, which informed them that they may face criminal charges in addition to any other punishments the university decides to impose. Although they are all members of the MSU, the students maintained that the protest was not a MSU activity, and that they were acting as individuals (“11 Arrested for Disrupting Israeli Ambassador,” The Orange County Register, 8 February 2010).

The university publicly condemned the students who protested and, in response to demands from the Jewish Federation Orange County (JFOC) and other organizations initiated a Student Judiciary Review of the MSU. While this review was underway, someone anonymously delivered a collection of emails and other documents to the JFOC, the Investigative Project on Terrorism and the UCI that they claimed to have hacked from the MSU’s email account.

Despite its highly-suspect nature and unknown source, Lisa Cornish, head of the Judiciary Review and Senior Executive Director of Student Housing, based her findings almost exclusively on this “evidence” when she concluded that the MSU had violated parts of the Code of Conduct by “plan[ning] every detail of the disruptions” and then “covering up” its involvement by claiming that the protests were not an MSU activity. In her 27 May letter to the students, Cornish said that she planned to have the group’s recognition revoked on 1 September, require the members to complete fifty hours of community service, and have the group placed on disciplinary probation for an additional year if it was permitted to re-register in the fall of 2011 (“Letter to Muslim Student Union Officers” [PDF]). She did not, however, comment on whether the university planned to file criminal charges against the eight students who were actually responsible for the protests.

In light of these possible criminal charges, MSU’s attorney Salahi was unable to discuss the alleged evidence in detail. However, she maintained that the protesters were not acting on behalf of the MSU. She also said that much of the evidence presented was deeply flawed, and that the university’s punishment was entirely inappropriate, arguing that “all Muslim students on campus have been punished for the actions of a few.”

Salahi also pointed out the central role the MSU plays in the Muslim student community. While advocacy for Palestinian rights is one of their more frequently noticed activities, the MSU has also worked with different student and cultural groups on several social justice movements and community service projects. Last spring, UCI’s Cross Cultural Center recognized the MSU’s contribution to the university by awarding it the Social Justice Award.

The student group also facilitates daily and weekly prayers on campus, offers religious classes and organizes social events. Given its centrality to the Muslim student community, many students feel that their right to participate in the campus community as Muslims is being undermined. As newly-elected MSU President Asaad Triana observed, “depriving Muslim students a venue to associate jeopardizes their rights under the First Amendment and is an act of marginalization at a time when Muslim students and Muslim youth already feel besieged.”

Cornish’s recommendation to suspend the entire MSU has raised several questions about the role that outside pressure from several well-known anti-Palestinian organizations played in its decision. Husam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, observed that the disruption of Oren’s speech “was nothing but a peaceful and symbolic protest of the Israeli ambassador at UCI,” suggesting that the university’s response “appears to be politically motivated to silence any future peaceful and legitimate criticism of Israel’s brutal practices.”

Much of this political motivation came from well-known Zionist organizations like the Jewish Federation Orange County (JFOC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — all of which openly demanded that the university suspend the entire student group after February’s protest.

The JFOC began attacking the MSU for its alleged “anti-Semitism” when the student group first began publicly criticizing Israeli policy nearly a decade ago. The JFOC immediately allied with campus groups like Hillel to pressure the administration to silence criticism of Israel, claiming that it intimidated Jewish students. The JFOC soon partnered with the ADL, which began to put even more media and political pressure on the administration to take action against the MSU.

The ZOA also joined in the effort, and began pressuring various contacts within the University of California administration to suspend the MSU. In a personal letter to UC President Mark Yudof, for instance, ZOA President Morton Klein condemned the UCI’s MSU along with the UC Santa Cruz’s Committee for Justice in Palestine, and accused the chancellors of both universities of being “grossly deficient” in their efforts to silence criticism of Israel (“Letter to Mark Yudof, Re: UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz,” 8 August 2008 [PDF]).

Outraged by the protests against Oren, virtually every Zionist organization involved began calling for the MSU’s suspension in February. Although the ZOA placed itself at odds with several other organizations when it initiated a Jewish boycott of UCI, the different factions still managed to coordinate a fairly organized campaign to have the student group suspended.

The campaign against the MSU became so intense that its vice president, Hadeer Soliman, described it as an outright attack on the students’ “most basic rights of Freedom of Association,” and said that the MSU’s antagonists are “not seeking justice but rather censorship.”

As opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people continues to grow, its apologists in the United States are focusing more of their energy and resources on silencing dissent on college campuses. While personal attacks on faculty are fairly common, the only other time an entire student group has faced punishment for a political protest was when UC Berkeley temporarily suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine group during an investigation in 2002. As MSU spokesperson Mahdis Keshavarz pointed out, the extent to which the university has allowed outside organizations to dictate its treatment of its students is both unprecedented and alarming. “By allowing an outside institution to come onto campus and influence its students standing,” she explained, “UCI is failing to protect them and setting a dangerous precedent.”

Such a precedent appears to be exactly what supporters of Israel are hoping for, as many of the organizations involved expressed their conviction that the MSU’s suspension will have a significant impact on other campuses. In its press release, the ZOA said the ruling “sends a powerful message to other colleges and universities … making it clear that this bigotry against Jews and the Jewish State will not be tolerated” (“ Muslim Student Union Suspended at UC Irvine”). The subtext to this message, it seems, is that all pretenses of academic freedom on the nation’s campuses have finally been discarded, and further objections to Israeli apartheid will be met with swift retaliation.

Describing the UCI’s vilification of its Muslim students as yet another “criminalization of Arab and Muslim political speech which has permeated the American university system in defiance of principles of racial and religious equality,” the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel recently released a statement of solidarity that condemned the administration’s attack on students’ “rights of free speech” and calling on them to “restore the integrity of the academy” by repealing its ban (“Statement Condemning Disciplinary Action against the Irvine 11 …,” 13 July 2010).

UCI’s actions to punish one of its student groups for a political protest is a direct threat to academic freedom and the right of students to organize and speak freely. As more right-wing organizations begin to target the academy, students in other social justice movements may soon find themselves under attack by outside organizations. While the precedent set by the UCI’s actions could intimidate some students into submission, others may respond by building stronger solidarity with students engaged in different and related struggles for social justice at home and abroad.

Editor’s note: This story originally failed to note that the ban on the MSU has been recommended by university administrators, but not yet imposed pending the outcome of a hearing and appeals. It has been updated to reflect these facts.

Brian Napoletano is a member of the International Socialist Organization and the former Public Relations officer for Purdue University Students for Justice in Palestine. He has previously written for The Palestine Chronicle, MRZine, and Socialist Worker. He can be reached via email at b.napoletano A T gmail D O T com.