Free Speech, the Pro-Israel Lobby, and the Case of the ‘Irvine 11’

Free Speech, the Pro-Israel Lobby, and the Case of the ‘Irvine 11’

Free Speech, the Pro-Israel Lobby, and the Case of the ‘Irvine 11’

The “Irvine 11” are fast becoming First Amendment poster children. A closer look at the long history of several external organizations’ interest in their case, however, suggests that these students are facing more than a violation of free speech.


After enduring a disputably legitimate trial, ten students were convicted in September of disrupting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at the University of California, Irvine last February.

This came as no surprise: in an unprecedented move last year, the UCI administration issued a binding recommendation to ban a registered student group for that same offense, convicting the students of a flippant breach of the university’s free speech code. The decision was issued amid allegations that the administration silenced the group, the Muslim Student Union, to placate fuming off-campus pro-Israel groups, who had long been voicing their opposition to the MSU and its activities.

The four-month investigation culminated in a punishment that is rarely applied and traditionally reserved for extreme cases of hazing and alcohol abuse: MSU is the first registered student group to be banned at UCI, ever.

What compelled the administration to send down such a heavy-handed verdict that would not only stifle campus life but also put out a widespread chilling warning about the boundaries of free speech on university campuses? 

Oren set the stage for what would become a first-amendment battleground on February 8th of last year when he was disrupted by eleven students, who would be later arrested and christened as the “Irvine 11.” These students likely thought they would wear that arrest like a student activist’s badge of honor, but were soon made an example of by the administration and its influential friends, and learned that there is a high price to pay for dissent against Israel.

The protest was clearly intended to disrupt Oren and stall his speech. The section on free speech and advocacy in UCI’s student conduct code states protests must not infringe on anyone’s right “to teach, study and fully exchange ideas”. 

The “Irvine 11” are now first amendment poster children, but it seems that this was not the case at hand anyway. The students claim they acted as individuals, but evidence provided to the university by an anonymous source includes intercepted MSU listserv emails that suggest that the protests were organized by the MSU. University officials maintain that it is not just the protest that landed the MSU in deep waters, but the fact that they denied involvement in it. A closer look at the long history of several external organizations’ interest in the MSU however, suggests there are more powerful forces at play here.

Exaggerated Response

Why is it so alarming that the MSU was banned? Protests are commonplace and controversy is tradition at university campuses. Disrupting a speaker doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of offense a student would face criminal charges for, or for which a registered group of over 250 students would be collectively punished. The MSU organizes more than 300 events annually for its members and for the larger campus community. Most events promote interfaith dialogue, humanitarian efforts and spiritual learning.

The “Irvine 11” are no pioneers, in fact, in 2005, Harvard University looked strangely like UCI. Norman Finkelstein was invited to speak by a student group and was disrupted repeatedly by shouting protestors, who even forced him to stop speaking temporarily. The students, many of whom were members of Harvard Students for Israel (HSI), technically violated the school’s Protest and Dissent Guidelines, and the Harvard Crimson even condemned the protest in an editorial. The Oren situation at UCI is hauntingly reminiscent of Finkelstein at Harvard in 2005, just reversed, but the Harvard Students for Israel suffered no consequences whatsoever.

External Pressure

The confounding decision suggests that UCI had folded in the face of unyielding pressure by outside organizations. Twelve pro-Israel groups including StandWithUs, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sent a letter to UC President Mark Yudof, criticizing the university’s reaction to alleged anti-Semitic acts and stating that many Jewish UC students feel "an environment of harassment and intimidation” on UC campuses. It seems that shutting down the Muslim Student Union was just “a step in the right direction,” said Rabbi Aaron Heir of the Simon Weisenthal Center. In response, Yudof recognized the groups’ concerns and promised to do “everything in [his] power" to protect Jewish students. Groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs have been keeping a vigilant eye on the MSU since as far back as 2001, and have been attempting to snare them for one reason or another. “The MSU has been of concern since 2001 because it regularly invites speakers and mounts displays that often cross the line between criticism of Israel’s policies into bias that includes lies and half truths,” said Roberta Seid, Education/Research Director of Stand With Us and lecturer at UCI.

In 2004, the ZOA manufactured much furor when a few dozen Muslim students wore green stoles with Arabic script on them at graduation. It mounted complaints stating that the stoles incited terrorism against Jews and Israel and were a statement of support for Hamas. Experts later verified the stoles simply stated the Islamic creed and a prayer asking God for increased knowledge. 

Later the same year, the ZOA filed a complaint against the university to US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights about alleged anti-Semitic speeches by speakers invited to UCI by the MSU, and discrimination against Jewish students. A three-year investigation by the Office of Civil Rights concluded the speeches were based on opposition to Israeli policies, not the religion or national origin of Jewish students, and that university officials acted appropriately. Not pleased with the outcome of this investigation, a group of local citizens formed a task force in February 2007, to conduct their own investigation. The Orange County Task Force on Anti-Semitism released their own report a year later, singling out the MSU in their findings stating, “The Muslim Student Union is agenda driven and unchecked by the bounds of propriety,” and “the University has failed to educate its Muslim students about citizenship and American values.”

The ZOA has labored relentlessly to legitimize its scorn for the MSU, and found itself at odds with the university itself in the process. The group urged UC President Yudof to address issues of anti-Semitism at UCI, citing many MSU activities as problematic and calling out UCI Chancellor Michael Drake for being irresponsive. A representative at the Jewish Federation of Orange County said, “The community has had concerns with the activities of the MSU for at least the last seven to eight years,” and said the Federation itself has been involved “directly” for five years. The ZOA and company’s strong-armed efforts and the city of Irvine’s conservative demographic created a dangerous cocktail. 

Hamas in Orange County?

An MSU event in May 2009 served as the real linchpin in solidifying a formidable coalition of pro-Israel organizations against the Muslim student group and successfully brought government attention to its activities. In an event co-sponsored by several other student groups, the MSU featured George Galloway and collected minimal donations to support the humanitarian convoy, “Viva Palestina” to legally provide medical aid to Gazans. The pro-Israel community rallied behind the ZOA, who in a letter to UCI’s Chief Campus Counsel, claimed that the MSU was using the university as a fundraising base for Hamas. Amid these allegations, Viva Palestina issued a statement confirming that the promises made to donors “were upheld to the highest degree. Every transfer of funds for medical supplies and the purchase of vehicles to be used for humanitarian purposes was well-documented.” Still, the ZOA  may have influenced California Congressman Brad Sherman to pen a letter to Chancellor Drake that said, “I believe your investigation will confirm that UCI MSU has solicited funds for a terrorist organization…and at a minimum prevent the MSU from operating on campus…” After an eight month long internal investigation, UCI responded saying that while the MSU failed to mention it was fundraising, the university was “unable to determine whether the failure was negligent, reckless or intentional,” giving no legitimate credence to the ZOA’s weighty allegations about terrorism. This drew sharp critiques from the ZOA and other members of the Jewish community, and intensified the chasm between the off-campus groups and the UCI administration.

Oren, the Coup de Grâce

Fast forward to the Oren debacle: The ZOA sprung up immediately—releasing a statement calling on all potential donors to withdraw support from UCI, and Jewish students to not enroll there. It slammed Drake with ignoring anti-Semitism and for not holding “student groups like the Muslim Student Union to the university’s clear standards of conduct,”  threatening, “UC Irvine must now pay the price for its inaction.” For Jewish groups on campus, this battle cry was over the top.  Leaders of five student groups called the ZOA’s demand “counterproductive and one of the worst ways to deal the MSU at UCI,” in an open letter. In fact, many sources on campus have cast a veil of skepticism on whether or not the claims of anti-Semitism coming from these external groups are even accurate. In the past, off-campus groups have drawn attention to what’s not really brewing at UCI—distorting facts, taking things out of context and playing up controversy because, “it’s more interesting to read about poor little Jewish students getting beat up by Muslim kids.” Once again, the commotion was being heard far from campus grounds.

The ZOA succeeded in sending a bold message to the university.  By intensifying pressure, these external groups were now mobilizing much more than just issuing public statements to get the university’s attention. In a meeting with UC President Yudof a month after the incident, Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation Orange County; Gerald Solomon of the Samueli Foundation; and Jeff Margolis and Dr. Jim Weiss of the Jewish Federation’s Rose Project voiced their grievances about the MSU’s alleged involvement in disrupting Ambassador Oren. This wasn’t the first time Jewish leaders were meeting with UC officials either. Seid of StandWithUs stated she “has also met with deans and other officials over the last several years to discuss the problem of extremism and anti-Israel/anti-Semitic hate propagated by the MSU.” Rabbi Heir confirmed that he spoke with all the chancellors regularly and held “high level meetings” with Chancellor Drake to “make many of these points to them face to face.” In an article published in J Weekly, Elcott, of the Jewish Federation, said “we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership,” and Hillel President Wayne Firestone added, “I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university…[are] in order here.” These, along with other testimonies, confirmed suspicions that off-campus groups have a vested interest in the MSU’s status.

Amid swelling tension, UCI’s administration punished the entire MSU in one fell swoop. The resounding implications of this resolution undoubtedly sent tremors through student groups across the nation. When asked about Muslim organizations on other campuses, Rabbi Heir hinted that “they are part of the familiar cast of characters when it comes to those groups that demonize Israel and delegitimize Jewish people very often.”

What has happened to the Muslim Student Union at UCI casts a dark and deterrent shadow on the status of free speech on university campuses. And the Muslim students in Irvine have faced a brick wall of commanding opposition from pro-Israel groups who seem to have now established their rank with the UCI administration and further, with the District Attorney’s office in Orange County. 

As the case of the Irvine 11 escalated from an internal disciplinary proceeding to a criminal prosecution, the drastic measures taken by the District Attorney’s office fueled renewed suspicion surrounding the legitimacy of the charges against these students. The issue was no longer about the MSU, but pro-Israel groups remained in the picture. Before a grand jury investigation was launched, Rabbi Hier exercised his clout when he met with Susan Schroeder, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ chief of staff. After the verdict found all students guilty, these groups scrambled to commend Rackauckas for his “courageous” efforts. The MSU’s suspension was eventually reduced, and the students who were charged will serve no jail time, but the forces at work here did accomplish transforming the image of ten Muslims students from impassioned activists to criminals and thugs. The Irvine 11, the MSU at UCI, and an entire community that flanked them in support, were reduced to outlaws and those that defend them. The case may have closed on the Irvine 11, but students all over the country may now be intimidated into thinking twice before they pick up a picket sign or rally in the streets for a cause they believe in.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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