US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)
On the 8th of February, 2010, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren visited the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to give a lecture on US-Israeli relations. During his speech, a number of UC students, all of them Arab or Muslim, stood up to voice their opinions on the ambassador’s presence and message given its support for Israel’s war crimes and racist policies. Oren was interrupted about ten times and immediately after each interruption, students were removed from the hall by security and police.
On July 4th, 2008, former president George Bush gave a speech in Charlottesville, Virginia about the naturalization of United States citizens. Nine times throughout the president’s speech, anti-war protesters shouted demands for Bush’s impeachment. Despite the repressive legislation and policies of the Bush administration that included numerous attacks on civil rights and liberties, the idea that interrupting a speaker to express a political opinion is a legitimate right was seen as so unremarkable that even Bush himself noted, “We believe in free speech in the United
States of America,” following the interruptions.
After Oren’s speech in California, eleven UC students are facing disciplinary actions including suspension and even expulsion. Most recently, UCI’s director of student housing issued a recommendation to suspend the Muslim Student Union at UCI, a registered student body, as punishment for the protest by these ten individuals.
Following President Bush’s speech, the anti-war protesters walked away along with the rest of the audience members. None were demonized or criminalized, let alone arrested.
The recommendation to suspend the MSU reflects the practice of selective punishment on university campuses. On February 11, 2008, scholar, and writer Norman Finkelstein spoke at California State University, Northridge. Members of the Jewish Defense League attended this talk and interrupted the provost’s introduction, one of them shouting, “Good one, Harry. The Nazi loves you.” They jeered throughout and aimed cameras at the audience, while issuing a steady stream of vitriol at Finkelstein, including: “You’re a sick puppy,” “Don’t call yourself a Jew,” and “Holocaust denier!” One young woman in attendance, a CSUN student wearing a kuffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity and resistance, was ordered, “Go hang yourself with your scarf! The members of the Jewish Defense League were allowed to interrupt Finkelstein at CSU-Northridge, expressing blatant hate speech throughout and facing no consequences during or after Finkelstein’s presentation.
The United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) condemns the censorship and silencing of free speech at UC Irvine and the criminalization of protest by students such as the “Irvine 11” who challenge pro-Israel rhetoric. There is a double standard which insists that one can protest the words of the President of the United States of America and the policies of the US government, but one cannot voice disapproval of an ambassador’s speech on behalf of a foreign state. Israel has continued to commit massacres and engage in collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, most recently in the war on Gaza in 2008-09 and the massacre of relief workers in 2010, and its occupation and apartheid policies have been denounced by the international community and deemed in violation of international law. The demonization of the Irvine 11 reflects the promotion of Israeli exceptionalism and impunity and the criminalization of Arab and Muslim political speech which has permeated the American university system in defiance of principles of racial and religious equality and time-honored traditions of civil disobedience. This gross injustice undermines the fundamental values of academic freedom, critical thinking, and freedom from discrimination, all of which are presumably the hallmark of higher learning and democratic society.
As Israel’s hermetic siege on Gaza’s 1.5 million population – constituting collective punishment – cannot be justified, nor can the collective punishment of a student group and its entire membership including hundreds of Muslim students, staff and faculty in response to acceptable forms of protest enacted by a handful of individuals be defended. The purpose of such disciplinary action, much like the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, seeks to break the will of students daring to speak out against injustice and set an example to intimidate others who would engage in protest of occupation and racism. Students, minorities, and disadvantaged groups have historically engaged in challenges to official narratives that distort history and perpetuate the status quo; we support the right of Irvine 11 and others to protest one-sided or racist narratives supported by the establishment.
Yet the UC administration has not been willing to take a neutral and fair stance, let alone stand on the side of justice and against racial and religious discrimination. As UC President Mark Yudof has publicly stated, “It is difficult for me to separate my public role as President of a state university from my private life as a Jewish man who is active in Jewish causes and a strong defender of Israel.” In addition, pro-Israel off-campus groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Federation–Orange County have gone on record calling for punishment of the Irvine 11. Academic freedom is not reserved just for those who have the support of powerful lobby groups. We believe in a robust and progressive definition of academic freedom, one which upholds the right to challenge dominant narratives and live in freedom and equality.
The recommendation to suspend the MSU, if adopted, will instill fear in the student population and silence open debate, defeating the purpose of a university campus as a place where the status quo is examined and change is demanded when necessary. A clear message will be heard across California and the United States: rights of free speech do not apply to criticism of the state of Israel. USACBI calls upon the Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine to reverse this unjust decision on appeal and restore the integrity of the academy, lest UCI be memorialized as the university that silences dissent and chills student activism.
 An eleventh student was arrested as he attempted to leave the hall along with a large group of individuals. He did not interrupt Oren but was similarly arrested and may face disciplinary charges.