So why is the UC Irvine Academic Senate sponsoring a demonstration this Wednesday in support of religious tolerance and freedom of religious expression on campus?
It may come as a shock to discover that some people in the outside community believe it is not safe for persons from certain religious groups to walk on our campus. Such rumors are being repeated, causing a significant amount of alarm both in Orange County and across the country. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is investigating UCI. A documentary film circulating across the United States implies that UCI students from certain religious and ethnic backgrounds are threatened.
What is happening at UCI that has generated such bizarre characterizations of our campus?
The nucleus begins with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. This story includes land seizures, walls built to separate communities, problems with housing, employment and education, refusals to negotiate peace, broken truces, terrorism, suicide bombers, assassinations and civilian deaths.
Criticisms that Israel is not acting ethically and should be forced to return land and negotiate with the Palestinians are met with stories of terrorism and suicide bombers, and viewed by some as tantamount to anti-Semitism. Suggestions that Hamas needs to forgo violence and recognize the security and legitimate existence of Israel are treated by others as outlandish demands, rebutted by a long list of wrongs imposed by the Israeli government. The political and the religious become intertwined and, sad to say, it becomes all too easy for anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments to emerge.
These attitudes spill over to our own campus. I have heard speakers invited by some student groups ranting about the ‘Zionist Jews’ in ways that in my opinion are clearly anti-Semitic. A few speakers demonize Israel and Jews in the United States who support it. This I find highly repulsive and against my beliefs in tolerance and respect for all and a peaceful and productive solution to a long-term political and religious challenge in a land claimed by many peoples for many centuries.
I have also heard what I believe are disturbing demands on our campus to forbid any discussion of Israel’s right to exist. Strident statements have been made that UCI should only allow balanced debates, with certain political views always having a chance to be represented in every venue on campus. These actions would have a chilling effect on our constitutional right of free speech, and infringe on our civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Out of the controversy developed by the hateful speech of a few extremists and the desire to control certain speech, rumors have evolved that UCI is not safe for certain religious groups.
So what should we do?
Firstly, we can maintain UCI as a safe space where students, faculty and staff of all religious backgrounds can feel free to practice their religions (or no religion at all).
Interfaith at UCI hosts space for Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with daily Muslim prayers and Jewish Shabbat services and meals every Friday evening. The Spiritual Alliance at UCI reaches out to students who have alternative spiritual practices. Read any signs along Ring Mall and you will see evidence of a number of other vibrant religious communities.
The Difficult Dialogues program at UCI helps students understand the roots of religious and ethnic conflict and encourages them to actively take part in finding creative solutions for conflict resolution and peace building. The Academic Senate next year, under the leadership of Professor Timothy Bradley, has offered to help build further dialogues between religious groups on campus that have difficulty understanding each other.
Secondly, all of us can speak up when we hear or observe incidents that we feel are counterproductive for maintaining a tolerant environment on our campus.
When you hear anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or anti-(fill in the religion of your choice) derogatory statements, speak up right there and then. Let the individual know you find such speech offensive. You do not have to be confrontational, but you can assume that the person speaking does not realize the significance of what was said, and you will help enlighten him or her. Reporting incidents to Web sites is not sufficient; you must speak up publicly, and let the others around you know about your concerns. I recall a poem my father used to quote by Martin Niem