Official Efforts Exhausted

With great interest and frustration, I read the Sept 19. article entitled ‘Zionists Allege Discrimination.’ It is imperative that the actions taken by the Zionist Organization of America be viewed within the proper context. The involvement of the ZOA and the submission of a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in October 2004 was precipitated by Jewish students at UC Irvine who, over the course of more than two years, had repeatedly complained to the UCI administration that they were being subjected to harassment, intimidation and discrimination on campus.
Students and organizational members of the Israel on Campus Coalition had repeatedly asked UC Irvine officials to refrain from taking actions that showed university endorsement of hateful speech and conduct, and also to speak out against such expressions of hate. The officials consistently refused to do so, stating that they could not act because the First Amendment protects speech and conduct. While it may be true that the university cannot restrict the speech and conduct under the First Amendment, there is no reason why UCI cannot exercise its own free speech rights and condemn the speakers and programs on campus that incite hatred of Jews and of Israel. UCI’s Principles of Community state that ‘acts of bigotry and abusive behavior will not go unchallenged within the university. Tolerance, civility and mutual respect for diversity of background, gender, ethnicity, race and religion are as crucial within our campus community as are tolerance, civility and mutual respect for diversity of political beliefs, sexual orientation, and physical abilities.’ The university is having tremendous difficulty recognizing that the speakers and programs that demonize Jews and delegitimize Israel are an expression of anti- Semitism.
It must be made clear that those who initiated the complaint to the OCR support First Amendment rights. At no time has any party asked the university to limit the content of speech. We have asked the university not to endorse such speech and also to condemn expressions of anti-Semitism, much like presidents of other great universities (Harvard and the university of Michigan) have done. The university has an obligation to speak out against hate, and indeed has done so on occasions when the hate was directed at other groups. Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez continues to view the situation as a free speech issue. His disappointment with the OCR proceeding is matched by those who are equally disappointed by the intransigence of the administration in refusing to exercise its own freedom of speech by reminding the UCI community that there is no place for anti- Semitism on this campus.
A welcome move by the administration took place last April, when Dean of Students Sally Peterson, Gomez and other UCI officials attended an academic conference regarding the Middle East. It should be pointed out that this conference was triggered in part by the complaint that the ZOA filed. Peterson approached several of the distinguished faculty at the conference, and invited them to teach courses on modern Israeli history as visiting professors. Grant funding is being sought. The administration has also fostered attempts at dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students. These actions are welcome, though sorely belated. In fact, one might speculate that the university’s new willingness to show some awareness of the problem is a direct consequence of the filing of the complaint with the OCR. Litigation is often necessary when other, less formal efforts have been tried and failed. At the very least, some good has already come out of the actions of the ZOA, and I and many others are hopeful that more good will follow as the OCR investigation proceeds.