Spring didnít bring its usual light-heartedness or harmony to the University of California at Irvine (UCI) in 2006. Instead, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) darkened the atmosphere with a series of events that fostered prejudice, ignorance and ill-will in the campus community. The week-long program, menacingly entitled "Holocaust in the Holy Land," did not promote education, dialogue or understanding. Rather, its sole purpose was to demonize Israel and Jews.
This was not a singular occurrence. Over the past few years, the MSU has regularly sponsored similar programs even though Jewish student groups repeatedly pleaded with the MSU to invite more moderate speakers and to engage in dialogue instead of offensive propaganda that only polarized students. The UCI administration also remained strangely deaf to Jewish groupsí concerns, claiming "free speech" trumped all else despite the fact that in the months prior to the MSU event the administration had been more attentive because Jewish organizations engaged them in dialogue and organized conferences.
This past spring, however, the Jewish groupsí requests again were ignored and the events went on as scheduled. The result was a week-long assault against Israel and Jews that was blatantly anti-Semitic and even glorified violence and terrorism.
Jewish community organizations mobilized to support students and faculty who were deeply disturbed by the planned program. Along with the American Jewish Congress, Hillel and the Zionist Organization of America, StandWithUs staff spent every day on the campus engaging students in dialogue and providing sound- bite signs.
The week kicked off with agitprop. The MSU set up an "apartheid wall" in the center of campus which was so large that the administration had to call the fire department to make sure that its size was within legal limits. Two Arab students dressed like IDF soldiers "guarded" the "wall" and pretended to harass passers-by to reenact the experience of Palestinians. The wall was plastered with propagandistic photos. In one, an IDF soldier menacingly pointed his gun at a womanís head; in another, monstrously large IDF soldiers dragged Palestinian children away. The message was that Israel is a brutal power; the Palestinian victims are innocent children and women. The "wall" stayed up the entire week.
The four speakers that were the centerpiece of the program are so extreme that they have even been marginalized by the communities they purportedly represent. Ironically, the Muslim speakers promoted the worst stereotypes of Muslims.
The American born Imam Muhammed Al-Asi, who spoke on "Hamas: The Peopleís Choice,"was removed as Imam of the Washington DC Islamic Center in 1981 at the request of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern governments because of his pro-Khomeini rhetoric. Saudi Arabia barred him from making the hajj to Mecca.He is notorious for anti-Semitic comments, such as "You can take the Jew out of the ghetto but you cannot take the ghetto out of the Jew," and for claiming that Nazi anti-Semitism was justifiable. He is closely associated with Ahmed Huber, the neo-Nazi Swiss convert to Islam who praised Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini as the "living continuation of Adolf Hitler." He has voiced support for an "Islamic World Order," endorsed Khomeiniís fatwa against author Salman Rushdie and claimed that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were actually carried out by Israeli Mossad agents who infiltrated Afghanistan in order to "criminalize Muslims." Yet the MSU believes he is a respectable speaker and that UCI students could be enlightened by listening to his diatribes.
The MSU also invited Rabbi David Weiss, touting him as a clear-headed Jew brave enough to speak out against the charge that anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. In reality, Rabbi Weiss, whose speech was "Zionism Hijacking Judaism," belongs to a fringe, ultra-Orthodox group called Neturei Karta, which has been at the forefront of those intensely opposed to Zionism. Its members believe that God punished the Jews with exile for their sins and that a Jewish state cannot be reestablished until God redeems them and the Messianic Age begins. They consequently view Zionism and Israel as sinful departures from Judaism and call for dismantling the Jewish state. They indulge in the kind of libel typical of fanatical anti-Zionists. Rabbi Weiss has charged that "Israel kills people to harvest and sell their body parts." His group, which has received funding from the Palestinian Authority, was vehemently condemned by the Jewish Orthodox and Hassidic communities in 2002 and has been barred from their synagogues and communities for decades.
The third guest was also a notorious anti-Zionist and historical revisionist Jew, Dr. Norman Finkelstein, whose work has been denounced by scholars and reviewers for being "the hate campaign of a zealot," for "indifference to historical facts" and for being nothing more than "an anti-Semitic lampoon."He charges that a cabal of corrupt Jewish elites began to exploit the Holocaust after 1967, turning it into an industry to "shake down" undeserved money from Europe and to provide justification for Israelís "illegal occupation" of the territories by painting Jews as perpetual victims. He has charged that Jews have brought anti-Semitism on themselves, in part by creating this industry. He has also praised Hizbollah. A professor at DePaul University, he has been unable to get tenure at any university, including Princeton, where he trained for his PhD. Finkelsteinís mentor, Noam Chomsky, remarked that he
literally could not get the faculty to read his thesis or to come to his thesis defense ... [and] they will not even write a letter for him saying that he was a student.
The final speaker, Imam Abdel Malik Ali, is a firebrand rhetorician who uses street slang to vilify Jews and to rouse his audiences to fight for the victory of Islam in America. He has voiced support for "implementing Islam as a totality" in which "Allah controls every place—the home, the classroom, the science lab, the halls of Congress." Notorious for such anti-Semitic comments as "The Zionists control the media, and the Zionists have spied in your classrooms,"Malik Ali and others who shared the podium at a 2004 Berkeley Muslim Students Association event shocked and embarrassed many Muslim students, according to the East Bay Express.
In the spring of 2006, the MSU had an opportunity to promote dialogue between two polarized groups and also to help teach understanding of Islam, a religion they complain is often misunderstood. They squandered this opportunity. Instead, "Holocaust in the Holy Land" promoted extreme anti-Semitic prejudices and re-enforced damaging stereotypes of Muslims.
It is not clear that the MSU recognized their program was frankly racist and counter-productive, damaging both Muslims and Jews.
Such programs pose a serious problem on many campuses. These speakers represent the ugliest, most irrational element in todayís political debates. Campus administrators have a responsibility to distance themselves from the misinformation and prejudice. Otherwise, universities give tacit approval to hate-mongering and fail to fulfill their mission to educate the next generation.
Hopefully in the future, UC Irvineís administration and student groups will work together to teach the difference between free speech and hate speech, and to encourage programs that promote understanding, tolerance and responsibility.