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Israel: Interrupted in Irvine

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What began as a lecture by a foreign dignitary interrupted by 11 students last Monday, Feb. 8 eventually erupted into a storm of backlash critiquing the students who interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, the presence of Oren on campus and the campus policies that were not designed to prevent such outbursts. Beyond the religio-political conflicts inherent in these complaints is the real question: Should this sort of speech/response be encouraged on the UC Irvine campus?

Barely six minutes into Oren’s presentation, a student stood up and, reading off a cue card according to witnesses, yelled out, “MR. OREN! MASS MURDER IS NOT FREE SPEECH!”

The student was promptly escorted outside the lecture hall by UCIPD officers without incident. After two further interruptions, Oren left the stage and Mark Petracca, chair and associate professor of political science, assumed the microphone as moderator and criticized the students involved for not showing Oren the respect due for a guest of the University. Chancellor Michael Drake followed Petracca and pleaded with the rowdy members of the audience to represent the UCI campus with respect.

Oren reassumed the stage and, despite seven further interruptions and a mass-walkout by students surrounding the interrupters, completed his half-hour lecture. Unfortunately, Oren did not stay for the originally planned half-hour of public question and answer.

The immediate response was mixed.

Third-year psychology and social behavior major and exchange student, Dalia Azizollahoff, felt the interrupters’ points could have been more articulated had they waited for the question and answer section of the lecture.

“I want to know what they were feeling and thinking … I want to learn their opinions and what they have to say,” Azizollahoff said, but added that the effect of the interruptions were shocking.

“Personally, as a Jew, I feel scared and threatened. I’m new to campus and didn’t expect anti-Semitism in Southern California,” Azizollahoff said. “I didn’t expect it to be so hateful and so determined.”

“I was disappointed to see what happened,” fifth-year political science major and former President of Anteaters for Israel, Isaac Yerushalmi said. “One of the great things about coming to UCI [is that] we can sit down at the same table to talk.”

Other immediate reactions were more concerned about the interrupters’ right to free speech at a campus event.

“I wish the hecklers were given a better stage to speak,” fourth-year biological sciences major Aayah Fatayerji said. “I wish there was a stage for both perspectives to be shared equally with equal support from Admin.”

Fatayerji stated that it was the responsibility of the University to have unbiased sponsorship due to the event’s support by the Law and Political Science departments.

Fatayerji criticized other audience members’ responses to the interrupters, including “Go back to the West Bank” and “Go back to Bahrain.”

Second-year political science major Zach Tune expressed his desire for equal reprimands from Admin for the reprisal the interrupters received from the crowd.

Chancellor Drake issued a statement on his Web site the day after on Feb. 9 condemning the interruptions as blockading free speech on campus.

“This behavior is intolerable. Freedom of speech is among the most fundamental, and among the most cherished of the bedrock values our nation is built upon. A great university depends on the free exchange of ideas. This is non-negotiable. Those who attempt to suppress the rights of others violate core principles that are the foundation of any learning community. We cannot and do not allow such behavior,” the statement said.

Moran Cohen, fourth-year business economics major and current president of Anteaters for Israel considered the event a success despite the interruptions.

“I’m not happy that there were disruptions [that prevented] a dialogue in a civil and mature fashion. I wanted everybody to hear what [Ambassador Oren] had to say.”

Anteaters for Israel helped sponsor the event after adopting it from the Political Science department on campus, who were originally contacted by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles to host Ambassador Oren.

The Muslim Student Union at UCI issued a statement on Feb. 8 before Oren’s lecture condemning his campus visit.

“We strongly condemn the university for cosponsoring, and therefore, inadvertently supporting the ambassador of a state that is condemned by more UN Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined,” the statement said. It also condemned Oren’s personal involvement in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts as a member of the Israeli Defense Force earlier in his life.

The statement, combined with two of the interrupters’ ties to the Muslim Student Union – Mohamed Abdelgany is the current president and Osama Shabaik is the current vice president – provoked questions of MSU involvement in the event.

Public Relations for the Muslim Student Union, Hadeer Soliman, denied MSU’s involvement.

“The MSU did NOT organize the protest in response to the invitation of the Israeli ambassador to speak at UCI, and the individuals who spoke did so acting on their own accord,” Soliman said, but added, “The MSU believes in one’s right to speak freely, whether it is the Israeli ambassador’s right to promote Israel’s propaganda on campus or individuals who respond to the Israeli ambassador and disagree with him.”

Shabaik confirmed his involvement in the protests and subsequent arrest as independent of MSU.

“The actual commonality between all the protestors was that we are all supporters of the Palestinians’ right to sovereignty, human rights, and dignity,” Shabaik said. Shabaik denied anti-Semitic intent in the protests.

“Criticism of a nation-state is very different than criticism of a religious or racial population. My protest and those of the others were targeted at Israel and its crimes against the Palestinians,” Shabaik said.

The 11 students who disrupted the event were charged with section 403 of the UCIPD penal code – disrupting a public event on the University’s property. The list of arrested students was released Tuesday afternoon. Those from UCI were Joseph Haider, Osama Shabaik, Ali Sayeed, Asaad Traina, Mohammad Quereashi, Aslam Akhtar and Hakim Kebir. The students from UCR were Shaheen Nassar, Taher Herzallam and Khalid Akari.

The case has been submitted to the Orange County district attorney, according to UCIPD Chief, Paul Henisey. Further punitive action by the Office of Student Conduct is pending their investigation, but policy allows a review if the punishment is suspension or dismissal, while a warning or probation does not allow appeal, according to Media Relations Director, Cathy Lawhon.

Tensions flared in online forums, like the comments of the OC Register’s coverage of the story, and in public radio, where UCI professors Gustavo Arrejano and William Lobdell weighed in on the issue, particularly commenting on the way it made UCI, already a hotbed of tension between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups, appear to the outside world.

But it was UCI School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s perspective that explored the most important, non-partisan implications of the disruptions: whether the students who interrupted Ambassador Oren were within First Amendment protection making their voice heard. Chemerinsky weighed in on the issue during a lecture sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and planned months before the Oren lecture.

Chemerinsky noted first that free speech is only preserved in areas that are public forums – on campus, these include the sidewalk, or Ring Road, or the flagpoles. But within an enclosed space, specific to University policies, the University creates time, place and manner rules for which speech is allowed. The ambassador’s lecture, located inside the Student Center, was subject to these restrictions and did not allow all protections of speech accorded by the First Amendment.

“You have the right – if you disagree with me – to go outside and perform your protest. But you don’t get the right to come in when I’m talking and shout me down. Otherwise people can always silence a speaker by heckler’s veto, and Babel results,” Chemerinsky said

Chemerinsky answered student questions that concerned the Oren lecture, which included the remark that while civil disobedience has a place in public discourse, its practitioners are still subject to punishment from breaking the law. Chemerinsky also clarified that the School of Law would sponsor any event, regardless of political position, as long as it didn’t cost the law school anything.