Members of the University of California at Irvine chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on Wednesday night disrupted an event where the film Beneath the Helmet, about five Israeli soldiers, was being shown. The screening was organized by Students Supporting Israel, with backing from the UC Irvine Hillel. According to university officials and local press accounts, the protest of the film included shouting of obscenities, blocking some from entering the room where the film was shown and trying to push open the door to take the shouting inside the room. Authorities were called and police had to escort the Jewish students who had gathered to watch the film from the room. Critics of the actions by Students for Justice in Palestine said that they did not object to a protest of the film, but to making it impossible for students to enter or leave the event, or to hold the event.
Howard Gillman, chancellor at Irvine, issued a statement condemning the way the protest took place, and said that officials were analyzing whether disciplinary action was appropriate. In an email to the campus the day after the incident, he wrote, "Last night, an incident occurred on campus that we believe crossed the line of civility, prompting me to re-emphasize our position on free speech, safety and mutual respect. The incident centered on a film-viewing event sponsored by Students Supporting Israel. A group of protesters reportedly disrupted the event, blocking exit paths. Participants feared for their safety, calling on our police force for assistance. While this university will protect freedom of speech, that right is not absolute. As I mentioned in a campus message at the beginning of the academic year, threats, harassment, incitement and defamatory speech are not protected. We must shelter everyone's right to speak freely -- without fear or intimidation -- and allow events to proceed without disruption and potential danger."
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, also condemned the protest, issuing a statement saying, "We cannot allow Jewish students to be intimidated, threatened or harassed when they exercise their rights to assemble for student programming. Hillel is committed to freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all students. This includes the students who peacefully gathered to watch a film yesterday."
The Irvine chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posted a note on its Facebook page that expressed pride in the protest but did not address the criticisms. "Today we successfully demonstrated against the presence of IDF soldiers on campus. We condemn the Israeli 'Defense' Forces, better defined as Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), because they enforce Zionist settler colonialism and military occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli nation-state," the statement said. "Not only does the IOF commit murders and several violences against the Palestinian people, including its use of Gaza as a laboratory for weapons testing, but it enforces militarization and policing all over the world. The United States send [sic] delegations of police forces to train in Israel by the IOF, such as the LAPD and NYPD for example. The presence of IDF and police threatened our coalition of Arab, black, undocumented, trans and the greater activist community. Thank you to all that came out and bravely spoke out against injustice."