by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1432)
The drama of the Irvine 11 came to a close in an exercise of farce on 9-23-2011. Eleven Muslim students were tried in a Santa Ana, California court for heckling Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a February 2010 event at the University of California, Irvine.
The drama of the Irvine 11 came to a close in an exercise of farce on 9-23-2011. Eleven Muslim students were tried in a Santa Ana, California court for heckling Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a February 2010 event at the University of California, Irvine. Guilty with a caveat — Orange Country District Attorney Tony Rackauckas slapped the students with the verdict of criminal misdemeanor but let them off with sentences of community service.
A political trial is a burlesque that is used to titillate and shape public discourse in expedient ways. The state of California has publicly criminalized the students — as the LA Times pointed out, at every job interview, they will have to answer “yes” when employers ask them whether they have been legally charged with a crime. Certainly, the punishment is a token (56 hours of community service and three years’ probation, which will be reduced to one year on early completion of community service). But it illustrates a particular objective at hand: political scapegoating, rather than addressing a bona fide legal concern meriting the intervention of the county and state bodies of law. “What a waste of tax dollars,” noted Muslim Public Affairs Committee’s (MPAC) Salaam al-Marayati, “in the 300 potential jurors that had to be selected for a misdemeanor jury trial.”
Let us turn to the libretto in order to parse out the plot. Following the global condemnation raised by Israel’s 2008–2009 massacre of Gaza, Israel embarked on a whirlwind public relations campaign in order to mend its tarnished image. The Goldstone Report provided an official, legalistic mouthpiece for worldwide anger against Israel, and all of King Netanyahu’s horses and all of his men scoured public forums in the US and Europe, sounding the panicked refrain of Israel’s security.
The University of California at Irvine (UCI) Muslim Student Union, one of the most activist Muslim student groups in the country, strongly identifies with the Palestinian cause, even organizing an Anti-Apartheid week every year to inform the UC student community about the issue. The Jewish Student Union (JSU) competes with the MSU on the issue, to the point that altercations have broken out between the two groups. In inviting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to campus in the wake of the Gaza massacre, the JSU was self-consciously declaring a challenge to its rival. Records indicate that even Oren was aware, before arriving at the venue, that his presence would spark considerable opposition.
During Oren’s talk, 11 Muslim students interrupted him with disciplined, organized statements of protest. “Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” stated one. “You, sir, are a war criminal,” declared another. After this, they peacefully allowed campus security to lead them outside the hall.
Oren’s talk was attended by not only the Jewish Student Union, but also by some members from Irvine’s wealthy, influential Jewish community. While the actions of the Irvine 11 have been scrutinized ad infinitum, what hasn’t been discussed in the media is the behavior of the Zionist residents of Orange County and LA attending the event. The Muslim students in the audience were mocked and screamed at by these sedate, upstanding citizens. Students later spoke of their shock at elderly people shredding their own dignity and telling them, “Do the world a favor, become a suicide bomber,” and “You are animals and primates.” Muslim students in the hall were pointed out, heckled and harassed by the audience members resorting to the kind of foul language and racist vitriol that should have instantly merited a response from the University.
Quite the reverse — Oren’s talk was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the School of Law, and their respective deans in attendance expressed anger against the Muslim students but contentedly turned a blind eye against the elderly Jewish community members harassing the Muslim students. In its public references to the incident, administrators of the powerful 23-campus UC system indicated early on that it was gearing up for a smear campaign.
In a letter released shortly after the February 2010 incident, UC President Mark Yudoff made overt comparisons between the MSU’s acts of civil disobedience and chilling incidents of racism such as students hanging a KKK-style noose in the library or wearing blackface at a social event. “These are the worst incidents of racism I have seen on campuses in 20 years,” wrote Yudoff sanctimoniously, “I understand that students don’t feel safe, they don’t feel comfortable on their campuses.” A May 27 letter sent by Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of Student Housing, charged the MSU with “disorderly or lewd conduct,” “participation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly” and “violation of local, state or federal laws.”
The heavy legal language in official University correspondence was akin to a workout before a boxing match, and indeed, despite petitions and protests from the University community at large (fellow students groups, graduate students, and professors expressing support for the MSU), the University went ahead and delivered the punch. UC suspended the MSU for an academic quarter and sentenced the students to heavy rounds of community service. Lawyer Reem Salahi pointed out that the University was collectively punishing the entire Muslim student organization for the Irvine 11, reflective of “the current post-9/11 climate where Muslims are granted less rights and disproportionately punished.” And indeed, psychological punishment was delivered via threats of suspending the Irvine 11 students.
In short, the University emphatically declared its partisanship with Zionist power groups reacting to the presumption of Muslim American students in believing that they have an equal voice with which to protest Zionist war crimes. Shalom Elcott, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County didn’t even bother to conceal the links between American Zionist influence and the University’s decision. He smugly announced that his organization “worked with the University to resolve the issue.” Nor was Zionist blowback to the Irvine 11 localized to the Orange County community — national organizations like the Zionist Organization of America began to pressure the University, launching a public relations campaign for Jewish donors to stop contributing funds to UCI.
But the matter wasn’t allowed to rest with the University breaking protocol to take punitive action against a student group. The Orange County local government entered into the joust for Oren’s honor, charging the students with criminal misdemeanor for conspiring to hinder someone else’s right to free speech. It was perhaps lost on them that this concern for Oren’s free speech fantastically draws an equivalence between an Israeli ambassador enjoying all the pomp and circumstance of diplomatic immunity, political influence, and media adulation, and marginalized University students struggling to both gain an education and speak truth to power.
Such was the outrage of the Zionist lobby that the State of California, facing a snowballing economic crisis, was impelled to pump out the requisite budget for an elaborate show trial. A search warrant was handed to Google, delivering the MSU students’ personal emails in the hands of the prosecutors. Even as the prosecutor began constructing a pillory from the paper trail numbering hundreds of document, he slapped the Irvine 11 and any other trial participants with a gag order that would prevent them from presenting their point of view in the media.
When the Santa Ana court delivered its September 2011 verdict, it became clear to numerous groups across California and the US at large, that the Irvine 11 prosecution had degenerated into a witch-hunt. “The students were in the wrong, but there’s such a thing as proportion,” commented the LA Times op-ed, “…if college students faced criminal charges every time they misbehaved, we could fill the jails with undergraduates.” The LA Times went on to characterize the county’s prosecution as “over the top.” “The whole sad affair has been taken too far when it could have been — and was — handled more appropriately by university officials,” it concluded
The perception that the Orange County prosecutors had gone too far was widespread. “Except in the case of serious felonies, I object to the town/gown version of double jeopardy, in which punishments occur both on and off campus,” wrote Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors.
Others pointed to Jewish exceptionalism as motivating the trial as an act of revenge for Muslim students daring to publicly criticize an Israeli official. “This is a shameful day for the legal system and the Jewish communal leaders who actively supported this unfair railroading of young Muslim students and unprecedented attack on everyone’s right to free speech,” noted Jewish Voice for Peace in a statement, “How can it be that the Israeli ambassador enjoys more rights in the United States than do young Muslim citizens?” Even The Orange County Register criticized what it felt was the “arbitrary” use by the court of the First Amendment to quash the students, wondering if the district attorney would have filed criminal charges against individuals who “had interrupted a campus lecture on chemistry or biophysics.”
On the other hand, Zionist groups and Christian evangelists voiced their satisfaction with the verdict, while remaining wary of the blowback to the extremity of these proceedings. “The verdict was just announced a few hours ago, but, predictably, the Irvine 11 have already been turned into hero-martyrs all over the web,” complained the Evangelical Outpost. Even the right-wing Jerusalem Post saw fit to weigh in on the issue, calling the September 23 verdict “eminently reasonable” but expressed outrage on “reactions to the decision reflect[ing] either a shaky grasp of the meaning of the First Amendment to the US Constitution or a deliberate attempt to… disparage and delegitimize Israeli policies.”
The Irvine 11 has since announced its attention to appeal the decision, but the ramifications of the case to US politics, culture and academia are still open to interpretation. The local context of ethnic discord cannot be ignored, of course. California’s lush Orange County (one of the most expensive places to live in the country) has been the site of religious conflict between powerful and monied Jewish and Muslim communities, which has certainly spilled out onto UCI campus life.
UCI’s Muslim Student Union has long claimed a spot in the news for its brand of uncompromising activism on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Zionist organizations operating in Orange County and nation-wide have long sought for a way to muffle them. Oren’s embarrassment, coupled with the UC system facing economic hard times with the imploding Californian economy, provided such groups the perfect opening to neuter the MSU and make them into a cautionary tale for student activism across the country. While Muslim advocacy organizations like CAIR, MPAC and the like have championed the Irvine 11, they remain limited in their resources, abilities, and reach. Against Oren and his place in a political culture where the US Congress reveres the Prime Minister of Israel more than their own elected president, they face an unequal contest.
The Irvine 11 saga also illustrates the growing obviousness of the moral bankruptcy of university administrations across the country, increasingly beholden to the US military industrial complex. Since the storied 1960 US university protests against the Vietnam War, the Pentagon, CIA and other militarized wings of the government have actively sought to dismantle the universities as a place of social critique.
The strategies have ranged from providing university science and tech departments with stratospheric budgets for military research, plugging up the money designated for liberal arts, and creating campus watch organizations to closely monitor Marxist and Islamic influences. It is not at all ironic that Michael Oren’s biography proudly states that he has taught at Yale, Columbia, and Georgetown. Post-9/11 politics accelerated the surveillance/militarization of the university, with the likes of Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes commissioned to purge academic life of influence from Arab and Muslim professors and students.
Wall Street has also claimed its stake in the American academy, with top Wall Street financiers winning top spots on universities’ boards of regents and financial advisory panels. Wall Street’s influence on the academy has led to the privatization of US education, signaled by soaring tuition costs and replacing student grant with interest-heavy loans. The University of California, which originated as the US’ most innovative public education project, has now tipped the scale toward becoming a private institution whose prohibitive costs are blocking out low-income (and often, minority) students, who a few years ago would have been able to afford a higher-quality education at a fraction of the cost.
Massive student protests broke out against the UC Regents in 2009 when it announced an 8% percent tuition hike for undergraduates. While the university responded in typical draconian fashion, arresting students and calling out the police in full force, no one was slapped with charges of criminal misdemeanor (side note: is protesting against Oren a greater offense than yelling slogans at the regents, and smashing the windows of the administrative buildings?). The University only responded with an additional 9% tuition hike in June 2011, while slashing budgets of key programs and student services.
UCLA student Alex Jreisat noted that these increases will force him to borrow more money and go deeper in debt. “It’s tragic that the regents keep balancing the budget on the backs of students,” he said. Certainly, the California state government, increasingly influenced by the Orange County Republican power base (fountainhead of the Republican electoral rebirth since the good old days of Ronald Reagan), has played the role of cheerleader for this marauder-style privatization. It is an open secret that University officials are mere overseers for the Wall Street boardsmen. When the New York Times interviewed Yudoff in 2009, questioning why he as the President of the University of California system needed $800,000+ yearly paycheck when the President of the United States makes roughly $400,000, his quip was a model of self-indulgent bad taste. “Throw in Air Force One and the White House,” he said, and I’ll consider reducing my paycheck.
So, in final sum, there are no surprises. The UCs, which have so blithely signed away the trust of public education to its Wall Street boardsmen, would certainly not hesitate to turn its back on the rights of Muslim students who trusted in the values that the academy poses for —freedom of speech, community activism, and commitment to ideals. No surprise then, that UC would be concerned about the “free speech rights” of Michael Oren to the extent it would railroad over the rights of its own students. No surprise, too, that the Orange County legal apparatus would allow itself to be transformed into a tool of discipline and punishment for Muslim students and their tax-paying families on behalf of a foreign official.
What is unfortunate is that the debate over the Irvine 11, including arguments made by the students’ defense, has focused so narrowly on the issue of free speech. It is not about the freedom to speak, it is about the insider-status of the speaker that gives his or her words the gloss of legitimacy. As public universities sell away the future of their students, and as state governments trade out the livelihoods of the residents, the tale of the Irvine 11 becomes part and parcel of the saga of how the US demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice the rights of the many for the privileges of the few.