UC Irvine clears students of pro-Israel groups’ accusations
Charlotte Silver, Electronic Intifada, Aug 25 2016
Three months after a group of students at the University of California, Irvine, protested an event sponsored by
Anteaters for Israel and Students Supporting Israel, the university has concluded its investigation into allegations of misconduct. The results of the investigation deal a blow to efforts by national pro-Israel organizations to stifle free speech on campus. The 18 May protest had sparked accusations that students from a coalition of groups including Students for Justice in Palestine had harassed, threatened and intimidated the participants and attendees of the event, which featured a film and a panel of IOF soldiers. Students Supporting Israel, which has chapters on a number of campuses, appears to be an astroturf organization backed by well-funded Israel lobby groups closely tied to the Israeli government. The day after the incident, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman sent an email to the entire student body, condemning the protest for “crossing the line of civility” and suggesting it contained “threats, harassment, incitement and defamatory speech.” But a 58-page report produced by CrystalRae Lugo-Shearer, the director of the school’s Office of Student Conduct, finds that the most troubling claims are not true. Based on interviews with 11 witnesses and eight video clips, her conclusions about what took place that evening are mostly consistent with the version of events documented by the observers from the National Lawyers Guild and students from Students for Justice in Palestine who spoke to EI at the time.
The school’s investigation soundly refutes claims made by Students Supporting Israel, the Orange County Hillel chapter, ZOA and the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights, pro-Israel organizations all of which tried to paint the protesters as threats to Jewish students on campus. The investigation confirmed that members of Students for Justice in Palestine had been denied entrance to the event. Letters from the Brandeis Center and ZOA had urged the UC Irvine administration to find the protesters in violation of codes of conduct, specifically urging them to report the incident to the Orange County District Attorney’s office for criminal prosecution. ZOA painted a lurid picture of the 18 May events, amounting to a riot in which Jewish students were terrorized and forced to hide by a “hateful mob” intent on forcing their way into the room where the screening was being held. Both organizations’ letters invoked the 2011 precedent in which 10 students faced criminal charges for protesting a 2010 speech at UC Irvine by Michael Oren when he was the Israeli ambassador to Pindostan. Lugo-Shearer did find, however, that it was “more likely than not” that the student protest had generated so much noise as to disrupt the viewing of the film, a documentary about IOF soldiers. On this basis, Lugo-Shearer found the student protesters in violation of one policy on student conduct:
Obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other university activities.
The sanctions imposed on the group are a warning and an assignment to host an educational program. Notably, Lugo-Shearer said she considered seven other possible violations, including physical violence or threat of violence, harassment motivated by a person’s race, religion or national origin and violating local and state laws. She found the SJP students violated none of these. Julie Hartle, a student representative from the National Lawyers Guild Student Chapter at UC Irvine who advised SJP during the investigation, said in a statement released by Palestine Legal:
We are satisfied that the factual findings of the investigation align with what SJP and legal observers have said all along. However, we believe the peaceful protest was an entirely appropriate response to the lockout, and that no sanctions were warranted.
One of the signatories of the ZOA letter is Brooke Goldstein, who was recently filmed at an anti-BDS conference where she revealed a new strategy to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights. The director of the Lawfare Project, a legal group founded with the support of the CPMAJO, Goldstein urged Israel advocacy groups to go on the offensive, saying:
The goal is to make the enemy pay, and to send a message, a deterrent message, that similar actions such as those that they engage in will result in massive punishments.
In her speech on Jun 2, about two weeks after the UC Irvine protest, Goldstein indicated that her legal group was preparing another Title VI challenge against US universities, specifically naming UC Irvine and San Francisco State University as likely targets. A Students Supporting Israel representative told media the group was in talks with national organizations about taking legal action against the university if it “turns a blind eye to the incident.” Goldstein also admitted her group was encouraging Jewish students on those campuses to file police complaints against Palestine solidarity activists, “so we can pressure the DA to bring criminal charges against those students, just like was done with Michael Oren’s speech.” In keeping with this strategy, in Goldstein’s letter to UC Irvine Chancellor Gillman dated Jun 6, she urges the school to take firm disciplinary action against the protesters, arguing the school is obliged to do so under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. She also urges the administration to refer the case to the district attorney’s office for criminal prosecution and to condemn the protest as anti-Semitic. In June, the university confirmed that it is policy to refer such incidents to the Orange County District Attorney’s office. EI understands that this referral was made, however the district attorney’s office did not respond to requests for information on the status of any investigation.
Lugo-Shearer’s findings suggest that many of the claims promulgated by members of Students Supporting Israel and the Hillel Center were grossly mischaracterized, possibly in order to smear the protesters and subject the incident to official and criminal scrutiny. Despite this nearly comprehensive repudiation of the accusations leveled at SJP, the UC Irvine vice chancellor of student affairs sent out a school-wide email last week emphasizing that SJP had been issued a “warning” for violating one rule. The vice chancellor may have placed emphasis on this minor violation to appease the outside groups pressuring administrators to take tough disciplinary action against Palestine activists.
This week, The Guardian and The LA Times revealed that right-wing casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has poured millions of dollars into a task force dedicated to combatting the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. UC Irvine is one such campus that the task force will target. Lisa Armony, the executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, told The LA Times, that she was concerned about the growing coalition between communities of color and Palestine solidarity groups, commenting:
It’s very worrisome, and Jewish students then get shut out of dialogues about social justice.
Armony is also the director of the Rose Project, which was established in 2008 by the Jewish Federation to “counter delegitimization” of Israel at UC Irvine. She and the Rose Project had promoted the idea that the protesters on 18 May had “made aggressive and threatening remarks to participants and physically intimidated and threatened one student attempting to enter the event.” The protest had been organized by groups representing Muslim, Latino, Asian and Black students. Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestine Legal, said:
This incident marks the second time there has been an attempt to criminalize student speech at Irvine. This incident represents a growing effort to stifle the speech activities of students who advocate for Palestinian freedom and equality. As we’ve seen in many other instances, false accusations against student protesters here led to a lengthy investigation for an otherwise typical protest on campus.“Such vilification by Israel advocacy groups has become commonplace, and has a harmful chilling effect on student speech.