Middle East Wars on U.S. Campuses

Students at Irvine prepare for "Holocaust in the Holy Land" week -- and educators at many campuses struggle for civility.
May 15, 2006

The Muslim Student Union has a full slate of activities planned for this week on the theme of "Holocaust in the Holy Land." Among today's events are a rally around the idea of "Hamas: The People's Choice." And if you missed the point of the week's theme of equating Israel to Nazi Germany, there is a lecture/rally on Thursday called "Israel: the Fourth Reich."

Not surprisingly, many Jewish students at Irvine are angry. They are not calling for events to be banned, but have asked Irvine's leaders to condemn the language being used as offensive and as a way to hurt Jewish students, not to engage in debate about Israel's policies. Irvine officials are refusing to do so -- saying that they can't get into picking which campus events to disagree with or pick sides between the vocal critics and supporters of Israel on the campus.

Irvine in many ways reflects the way debates about diversity and respecting different groups of students are no longer issues of black and white. A majority of undergraduates at Irvine are Asian American -- and largely uninvolved in a series of Middle East wars that have taken place at Irvine for years. But campus leaders who have spent their careers focused on how to encourage black and white students to get along (and of course Latino students and at some institutions Native Americans or foreign students) are finding that they may have their biggest challenge with religious differences among groups of American students. (While there are some campuses where strong criticism of Israel comes from students from the Middle East, the students at Irvine and many campuses are American citizens.)

"All of our institutions are just so much more complex than they used to be, and the tensions are very different," said Robert M. O'Neil, who is leading the Ford Foundation's "Difficult Dialogues" program to encourage colleges to find ways to debate touchy issues in civil, open-minded ways. "And right now, tensions about the Middle East happen to be most acute."

Irvine has a history of tense Jewish-Muslim relations. Many other campuses are experiencing sharp debates over the Middle East and these debates frequently also focus on issues of free speech. At Pennsylvania State University last month, the president overturned a decision by the art school director, who had called off a student art exhibit that criticized Palestinian terrorist groups. Brandeis University is under fire, meanwhile, for pulling an art exhibit that shows the violence suffered of late by Palestinians.

The tensions are by no means limited to student activities and art exhibits. A scholarly paper that is highly critical of the Israel lobby set off a furor soon after it appeared on the Web site of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The paper -- by professors at Harvard and the University of Chicago -- has been called bigoted and inaccurate by some, and praised by others as on target.

Some academic defenders of the article -- led by Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan -- have started a petition to protest the "character assassination" of the authors of the paper and to call on Jewish leaders to respect academic freedom by not "smearing" such "eminent political scientists" by stating or implying that they are anti-Semitic.

And critics of Cole's analysis of the Middle East are up in arms over his possible appointment to a professorship at Yale University.

The situation at Irvine is a good illustration of how relations can deteriorate, leaving campuses in messy situations. After years of back-and-forth complaints and accusations, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint in 2004 with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, charging that Jewish students were being harassed and intimidated. The complaint -- still under review by the department -- cites incidents in which, the organization says, a Jewish student wearing an Israeli flag lapel pin was followed by group of Muslim students who made death threats, and another student wearing a T-shirt that identified him as Jewish had a rock thrown at him. The complaint also noted the frequent use of materials by Muslim students equating Israel with Nazi Germany.

Irvine officials said that they tried to investigate all the allegations, but that most were made well after the incidents are alleged to have taken place, and as a result they could not be verified. Muslim students have also complained about opposition that violates their rights. A year ago, students at Irvine built a wall to symbolize and protest the wall being built by Israel to separate itself from Palestinian territories. Shortly after the wall was set up at Irvine, it was burned to the ground. Police investigated the incident as arson, but never had leads on who set the fire.

Muslim students make no apologies for their use of Holocaust imagery in their programs designed to criticize Israel.

Kareem Elsayed, a student who is a former president of the Muslim Student Union, said in an e-mail interview that "the pro-Zionist media has allowed for the monopolization of the term 'holocaust'" to refer to what the Nazis did to the Jews. But he said that there have been many holocausts, and that the group looks to link Israel to the Nazis for specific reasons.

"We are using this title to emphasize the fact that the apartheid state of Israel has moved from oppressed to oppressor," he said. "We refer to the apartheid state as the fourth reich to emphasize the fascist and oppressive policies, and genocidal tendencies, of the apartheid state." Those who criticize the use of language linking Israel to the Nazis "are using the issue of the name as a cloak to cover their true intentions of silencing anyone that would reveal the realities of the oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people."

Jeffrey T. Rips, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, which includes Irvine, said that the hidden agenda had nothing to do with open debate about the Middle East. "These aren't lectures or the kinds of events you see on campuses. These are rallies to incite hate," he said.

Rips said that Jewish students at Irvine have a range of reactions on how to respond to these events. Some think they are best ignored, others say that's not an option. Jewish groups plan to set up booths on campus, take out ads in the student newspaper, and hand out leaflets offering alternative views about the Middle East. But no attempt will be made to interfere with the events.

"Jews here have no issue with questioning Israel's policies. "But this is about things that incite hate and that make people feel unsafe."

Rips said that there is much to be proud of in the Jewish community at Irvine, but that the university is losing prospective Jewish students because of a perception that the entire campus is anti-Semitic (which he doesn't think is true). "I hear from parents [of prospective students] all the time and that's what they hear," Rips said.

Sally Peterson, dean of students at Irvine, has worked at the university since 1974 and she said that she's seen a gradual shift away from students tensions based on race to the point today where issues of religion, international affairs, or ideology can set off a controversy -- and are more likely to do so than issues of race.

Irvine has so many potentially controversial events that the student affairs staff has a Free Speech Advocacy Team, members of which attend all such meetings or lectures to make sure that university rules are followed and to witness what happens. If, after the fact, there is a dispute, the university doesn't want to rely on second-hand reports, Peterson said. "We want our eyes there."

As a public university, Irvine also opens most of its events to the public, and while Peterson said that is appropriate for a state institution, it complicates her job. At controversial events, she said, problems are more likely to be caused by non-students than students. Beyond dealing with controversy, Irvine also tries to promote discussion of issues like the Middle East that involve balanced panels and programs that are not focused on the question of declaring one side or the other to be" right." Some of these events have been quite successful, she said, drawing large audiences. In contrast, she said, events sponsored by partisans of the Palestinians or Israelis tend to draw people who agree with the program organizers.

Officials at Irvine have been criticized by many Jewish groups for not publicly criticizing the repeated use of Holocaust language and imagery to criticize Israel.

Rips, of Hillel, said that Jewish students accept the idea that "the university has to protect free speech and can't stop programs." But he said that the request he and others have made repeatedly of Irvine isn't that it stop programs. "The university has been consistent in protecting free speech, but the university has its own free speech. They can say that these events are going on but they condemn them."

Having events semester after semester where Israel is compared to Nazi Germany "gives the perception" that Irvine accepts such a view as legitimate, Rips said. "Silence sometimes makes a statement," he said.

Peterson said that there is no way Irvine can get in the business of commenting on individual programs or their titles. "If we were to comment on this particular speaker, we'd have groups saying 'why aren't you commenting on that speaker?'" she said. "When you are a large university, there are lots of issues that people want us to say something about, and we're not there to do that."

Some academic leaders who think university leaders can condemn offensive speech think there is good reason to avoid the Middle East debate. O'Neil, who is running the Difficult Dialogues program, is also director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and is a former university president (University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin System). O'Neil is a strong believer that speech must never be limited and that campuses must be open to a full range of ideas -- however infuriating or even hurtful they may be to some people.

O'Neil said, however, that colleges need to look at offensive events not just as events, but as opportunities to learn. This is a conviction O'Neil said he has had since he worked as a truck driver at a Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire in 1957. One morning he arrived to start his day, and he found the remains of a burning cross. The camp director wanted the ashes cleaned up right away and O'Neil said that's what he did, feeling that it would have been presumptuous for him, as one of the few non-Jews working there, to tell the director what to do.

But clearly a professor-in-making even as a truck driver, O'Neil said that the course of action bothered him. "There was a possible lesson here -- you could really see something," he said, about the nature of bigotry, and he wishes that the camp participants had all talked about it.

So when bigoted speakers come to campuses, O'Neil said, you start by defending their right to speak, but you can go beyond that -- or at least you do when you can. "In general I tend to be a strong defender of the power of university presidents and chancellors to condemn," he said. "But in the particular Middle East context, the risk is so high that what may appear to be a neutral, principled condemnation may appear to partisans on both sides to be taking sides in an inappropriate way," he said. As a result, O'Neil said, a president who might not hesitate to speak out about a racially charged event "might feel constrained."

O'Neil recalled that in 2002, when the late James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College, prepared an open letter opposing the intimidation of Jewish college students, several hundreds college presidents signed. But hundreds of others declined to sign the statement, which was published in The New York Times, because it didn't also comment about bias problems faced by Muslim and Arab students.

"There is unique volatility on this particular issue," he said.

Since this issue shows no sign of going away, O'Neil said that he hopes Ford's Difficult Dialogues project -- through which colleges were selected in December to receive $100,000 grants to promote civil, open discussion on tough topics -- has a positive impact. Many of the first 27 grants focused on issues of religion, and a number related specifically to the Middle East. Macalester College, for example, is receiving a grant to promote work on a dig in Israel and planning "peace summits" on the Middle East, to bring together various thinkers at the college's Minnesota campus.

Caryn McTighe Musil, who leads the Office of Diversity, Equity and Global Initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that promoting tough conversations is essential -- and vexing -- for colleges. Take the issue of comparing Israel with Nazi Germany. "I don't think one says to a group that you may never use a word in a certain way because it would offend me," Musil said.

The job of colleges is to explain why using "holocaust" as Irvine's Muslim groups does causes offense -- and also explaining why they are doing so. "I think colleges should talk about why comparing Israel to the Nazis is not defensible," Musil said. "But I also think you have to explain why a Palestian might see parallels," she said. There is not genocide, but there are identification passes, borders changing, and more. "Higher education has to provide a space for this discussion."

But college leaders shouldn't expect it to be easy, she said. "There are issues on which there are irreconcilable differences and that really tests the limits of what a campus community is about."


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