Visitors trekking across Anteater Plaza last week couldn’t miss “The Wall,” a facsimile of the concrete wall dividing Israel and the West Bank, an annual accompaniment to the Muslim Student Union-sponsored Israeli Apartheid Week. This year, “A Call to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel,” featured a week of speakers supporting the Palestinian cause, including controversial activist Amir Abdel Malik Ali, whose statements prompted a stern e-mail response from Chancellor Michael Drake to the UCI community supporting Malik Ali’s right to free speech but denouncing his support of terrorism.
Among such attention-grabbing fare, however, a small debate slipped under the radar of the UCI community when the NPR-hosting KPCC radio station sponsored a debate Monday night in the South Coast Repertory titled “UCI aftermath: Jewish-Muslim tension in Orange County” and featured a UCI student and community leader for both the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian side of the issue.
Larry Mantle, host of the KPCC program “AirTalk,” moderated the discussion between fifth-year political science major Isaac Yerushalmi, last year’s president of Anteaters for Israel; UCI graduate Omar Zarka, last year’s president of the Muslim Student Union, which supports Palestinian causes; David Lehrer, President of Community Advocates, Inc. who advocated for civil dialogue adhering to University policy; and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The event was specifically in response to the disrupted Feb. 8 lecture by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, in which eight UCI students and three UC Riverside students were arrested by UCIPD for interrupting Oren’s presentation. The debate broadened into a general discussion of the tension between those with pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian perspectives in Orange County and what steps could be taken for dialogue between the sides.
Mantle started the discussion inquiring whether Zarka felt Muslim students on the UCI campus feel marginalized.
“Sure. Throughout the year, things would be great … but when it came specifically to the issue of Israel-Palestine, we would always get special treatment, to say the least,” Zarka said about hosting events on campus.
“Whenever someone speaking about the Israeli issue comes to campus, they will many times be sponsored by the University,” Zarka said. “Other than that, from an administrative perspective on what we were allowed to do on campus … we were highly scrutinized; we were unable to do what other groups were able to do.”
Mantle turned to Yerushalmi, asking if Jewish students feel intimidated on the UCI campus.
“Jewish students certainly have a lot of issues and gripes, especially with the Muslim Student Union,” Yerushalmi said.
“We tried to come on campus and express our views about what’s going on in the region, but we’re very often shouted down or intimidated by Muslim students on campus.”
Yerushalmi agreed with Zarka that administration was not allowing the space on campus to be used efficiently for club events, but rejected the notion that UCI administration favored one group over another, asserting it was “more complicated than that.”
When asked by Mantle, Al-Marayati insisted that the nature of the campus tension was not a Muslim-Jewish issue but a Palestinian-Israeli issue.
“In America, there is no debate on [the Palestinian-Israeli] issue nationally,” Al-Marayati said. “We have a debate on pollution, we have a debate on health care, we have a debate on the war, we have a debate on Guantonamo, but when it comes to the Palestinian government, it is non-existent. There is a knee-jerk reaction against sponsoring anyone who is on the Palestinian side.”
Lehrer cited his experience with campus tension, especially the conflict on the UCR campus in the 1970s. Lehrer championed the free dialogue in the University environment and couldn’t imagine obstacles for personal expression that Zarka mentioned; he felt that students with grievances against the University have ample channels in administration and student services to address them, not to mention the press and its love for controversy.
Mantle repeatedly returned the debate to what could be done to bridge the gap between the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian communities, but none of the pundits could agree on a strategy beyond a vague call for dialogue. Yerushalmi cited efforts by AFI to host a barbeque with MSU, which the latter rejected and counter-proposed a debate, to which AFI rejected.
Zarka maintained that, by supporting Israel, AFI is a political group and could only be met on diplomatic dialogue terms. Yerushalmi praised the non-partisan Olive Tree Initiative, a program designed to educate interested UCI students on the multiple perspectives of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, which he had participated in.
Mantle opened the debate to audience question, and an audience member who identified herself as a staff member at UCI asked what three things Yerushalmi and Zarka would see changed to help solve the conflict. Zarka wanted nonpartisan treatment from the school for scheduling and putting on events and equal treatment about who the school would allow to come and choose to sponsor or not sponsor; Yerushalmi answered that “we just want them to be our friends.”
The debate became heated at times. Lehrer and Al-Matayari exchanged vitriolic statements about the manipulative nature of outside organizations along with a cultural resistance to siding with a non-Western cause, but Yerushalmi and Zarka maintained their composure through disagreements and counter-statements. Zarka even elicited laughs from the crowd when he recounted incidents about being mistaken for Jewish due to his appearance, highlighting the ideological differences, not ethnic differences, which separated the conflict.
A truncated but unedited version of the debate is available on KPCC’s website at: http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2010/05/11/uci-aftermath-jewish-muslim-tension-in-socal