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Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

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A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet. (See The death of academic discourse and ‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties.’‘ )

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

News Analysis

This time, the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state.

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses, and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event,” said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of “war criminal.”

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students “had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression.”

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

“It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes,” Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to “come down hard” to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.

JTA

 
 

American Jews respond to Pakistan floods

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Pakistan has been devastated by massive floods. Peter Biro/International Rescue Committee

Nearly a month after pictures of Pakistanis wading through floodwaters began to appear on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, aid from Americans, including Jews, is beginning to arrive in the stricken country.

American Jews are now responding to the call to bring relief to the devastated area, where conditions have been growing steadily worse. The monsoon rains that flooded Pakistan’s northwest region about a month ago have killed more than 1,000 people, and millions more are estimated to have been left homeless. Roads and railways have been damaged, along with schools and other civic infrastructure. The impact on the country’s crops is still being calculated and could run into the billions of dollars.

The American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee each put out an appeal for donations last week.

The AJWS, which has been working with grassroots organizations in Pakistan for years and had raised $42,000 for the Pakistan effort by the end of last week, is delivering aid bags with food, water, pots, pans, and clothes to families in the region. JDC also has worked with Pakistan before — it responded to earthquakes that hit the region in 2005 and 2008 — and the organization has allocated $20,000 from its revolving disaster relief fund that it plans to use to distribute medicine and other supplies. It hasn’t yet raised enough to cover that amount, but officials hope to meet or exceed the goal as their campaign progresses.

“Checks take time to come in,” said Will Recant, assistant executive vice president in charge of international development at JDC. “Not everything is done electronically, and a lot of what we do is done through federations.”

The American Jewish Committee contributed an undisclosed amount from its humanitarian fund to the JDC effort, and a spokesman for the group said it is encouraging donors to give to JDC directly.

In light of the dire situation, Pakistanis likely wouldn’t object to receiving aid from the United States, wrote Aoun Sahi, a journalist in Lahore, Pakistan, via e-mail. “But there will be some problems with the word ‘Jewish’ if printed on clothing especially,” he wrote. “It will not be easy for them to accept aid from Jewish groups from Israel, but they will be OK with American Jewish groups’ aid.”

He added, “I think this is a good opportunity for different Jewish groups to establish links with some Pakistani groups.”

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles said she knows of no aid that has gone from Israel to Pakistan during this crisis. Israel was widely applauded for its rapid response in providing aid and medical services in Haiti after the earthquake.

Though the Pakistani floods have been news for weeks, Jewish groups issued their call for donations only last week.

How much and how fast people donate can depend heavily on media coverage of a disaster.

“The biggest challenge right now is that this has been going on for two weeks, and the media is just now starting to pay attention,” AJWS spokesman Joshua Berkman said, adding that coverage of Pakistan’s floods has paled in comparison with the attention immediately given to the Haitian earthquake.

Larger, nonsectarian U.S. aid organizations are also reporting a slow response to the Pakistani flooding.

“Haiti is the obvious comparison. This response is far slower,” said Susan Kotcher, vice president for development at the International Rescue Committee. Kotcher said the IRC, which made its first calls to donors on July 29, is now getting hundreds of daily donations for Pakistan and has raised a total of $1.4 million from Americans. By contrast, in the first few days after the earthquake in Haiti, the group was getting thousands of donations each day, and raised more than $4 million in the first two weeks.

Some, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have attributed the slow response to the economic hardships facing Americans, as well as to a feeling of fatigue among donors who have contributed to other recent relief efforts. Others say the slow response may be caused by the fact that the devastation from floods, unlike that from earthquakes and tsunamis, develops over time.

“Its destructive power will accumulate and grow with time,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But others suspect that political factors are at play. “I can’t help but have my suspicions,” said Edina Lekovic, communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “The first media coverage that I saw about the floods had more to do with whether the victims were going to rely on extremist groups for aid and relief,” she said, referring to news stories reporting that Islamic charities with connections to terrorist groups were distributing aid to people in flood-affected areas. “That their basic humanity and suffering comes second to questionable aid sources is insulting, and misses the point.”

The slowness of the global response is also being noticed in Pakistan. “Many right-wing organizations have been raising their voices over the slow response of Americans to the disaster,” Sahi said. “Many of them have been comparing the response of Americans to the Pakistani tragedy with the one faced by Haiti, and have been trying to make it a religious issue.”

Asked what might account for the slowness of the Jewish response, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. said, “I don’t think that is an anti-Muslim deal. I think it’s a deeper question of overload” — too many issues to care about at once. American Jews are more concerned with existential threats being made against them by Iran, he suggested.

“If I’m scared that somebody is threatening me, I’m not going to listen to the cries of the neighbors,” Schulweis said. “That’s too bad,” he added, “because in the course of that parochialism, we lose one of the most uplifting values in Judaism itself, which is to be a light unto the nations.”

To help support the relief efforts in Pakistan, visit the websites of the JDC (jdc.org), the AJWS (ajws.org) or the IRC (theirc.org).

Los Angeles Jewish Journal

 
 
 
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