Semitic speech wars

149100062 4d9ff20623The Los Angeles Times has been covering a story about Muslim activists and their Jewish critics on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The story has been brewing for years but let's look at the recent events. In March, Muslim college activists decried the College Republicans plan to hold a discussion about Islamic militancy on campuses and whether some Islamic groups in the United States are apologists for terrorism. That, along with the group's publication of the infamous Muhammed cartoons, didn't go over well with the activists.

For the last few years, the Muslim Student Union has put on public programs opposed to the existence of the state of Israel. This year's program featured a mock Israeli "apartheid" wall set up in the center of campus. The Times' Kimi Yoshino wrote about the coming program in mid-May:

Controversial events scheduled at UC Irvine next week with such provocative titles as "Holocaust in the Holy Land" and "Israel: The Fourth Reich" are sparking outrage among Jewish students who are asking administrators to denounce aspects of the event.

Jewish students and community leaders say the program is the latest in a string of offensive incidents at the university. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights is investigating anti-Semitism at UCI, the first probe of its kind at a college.

The post-event story from the Times' Ashraf Khalil presents the controversy more in the he-said, she-said manner:

These clashes have been the latest in years of tension, mistrust and back-and-forth accusations between activist Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine.

In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized. The next year, an antiZionism mural erected by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case.

Khalil frames the story in a very interesting way:

At the heart of the UC Irvine issue is a fundamental question: Can one be aggressively opposed to the policies and even the existence of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

I think this is an excellent question that is important but difficult to ask. I also think it helps for Khalil to boil down the complexities of campus clashes. But I'm not sure if he's right that this fundamental and important question is the one through which this conflict must be viewed.

Khalil makes a bold move by framing the debate in the way he does, but this could also be viewed in other ways: as a free speech issue or a campus speech issue or a trend story about the rise of Muslim activism on campuses or a story about public reaction to Muslim activism. Perhaps in subsequent stories he could look deeper how students react to Muslim activists when they say they oppose the "existence of Israel." For instance, this quote -- from one of the speakers brought in by the activists -- could be taken in a variety of ways:

"The apartheid state of Israel is on the way down. They are living in fear . . . and it is about time they live in fear," said Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Oakland-based Islamic activist, during a May 15 speech on the campus quad. "The truth of the matter is: Your days are numbered. We will fight you until we are martyred or until we are victorious."

Khalil goes to great lengths to clarify that Ali is attacking Zionist Jews as opposed to Jews in general. I would be curious to read how various students on campus interpret these remarks. It would also be interesting to readers whether these various groups are taxpayer funded. And I would like a lot more explanation of the religious motivations of the various parties. Still, the Times has been doing a pretty good job covering this local issue.

Photo via Flickr.

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