On the frontline: Jewish activism at UC Irvine

[su_intro]It is just another year at UC Irvine – the Muslim Student Union (MSU) recently finished their “Hate week” and the Hillel is preparing to launch IFest, the university’s week-long celebration of Israel[/su_intro]

UC Irvine has been in the headlines many times over the past few years related to anti-Israel activities such as the infamous walkout on Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, but not often have the headlines been about issues that demonstrate a positive attitude toward Israel or the Jewish student body. It is a welcome change to see a more balanced environment developing as a result of the anti-Israel hate events that have been held on campus.

“The situation on campus is both negative and positive” said Jonah Balakhaneh, President of the group Students for Peace in the Middle East. He continued, “It has had a magical effect on many Jewish students who have now gotten very active on campus and focused their efforts on learning as much as possible about Israel.” This is a quite different story from impressions of UC Irvine as a hotbed of anti-Semitism where Jewish students are made to feel uncomfortable year-round. In fact, based on what I have been hearing, things are changing rapidly for the enthusiastic Jewish community.

When Itzik Yarkoni, the new Israel Fellow, arrived at UC Irvine in 2010, he came prepared for a high level of anti-Israel activism and focused his attention on how best to effectively combat it and advocate for Israel. Yarkoni, who was born in Bat Yam, spent several years living in Sderot and helped to run the Sderot Media Center before coming to the UC Irvine campus. In considering the situation, Yarkoni said, “I took my experiences in Sderot and brought them here.” Yarkoni noted that as a student at Sapir College in Sderot, he faced rocket fire and bomb shelters on a daily basis. “I realized that there are two ways to deal with a situation – to either walk away or to stay and fix it.”

The second choice is the one that Yarkoni chose as he became very active in the Sderot Media Center. “Instead of running away from the rockets, we chose to stay so we could document the attacks and present the situation that we are facing to the general public with social media.” This formula, which has been successfully used in Sderot for several years, has now been implemented at UC Irvine, where students are actively working together on a social media team. Through monitoring what is happening around the campus and providing accounts of events, straight from the students, the UC Irvine Social Media team has already paid off. Students have described seeing increased attendance at their events and also have gained a lot personally by learning more about themselves as Jews and becoming supporters of Israel.

The social media team at UC Irvine has responsibility for blogging, photography, and creating videos to document what is happening on the campus. According to Cathy Shutaya, a member of the social media team who manages the group’s blog, “It is important to show that there is a vibrant Jewish community at UCI and that it is not a terrible, anti-Semitic place, as people often describe it.” Shutaya continued, “Beside for one time of the year, during which ‘hate week’ takes place, I cannot feel the tension on campus and that is important to note.” This was a feeling echoed by all students that I spoke with who are active in Jewish life and Israel advocacy.

Similar statements were made by Ari Friedman, a freshman in charge of photography for the social media team. Friedman said, “UC Irvine is a great place for Jewish students interested in discovering themselves and their Jewish identity.” He went on to say, “By being faced with situations throughout the year, it gives students a chance to stand up and represent themselves, as well as a cause that is greater than them.” Along with the day-to-day encounters on campus, students have also been privileged to learn about Israel from Yarkoni and to attend different events and conferences that educate on different aspects of Israel.

Unfortunately, not everything on the UC Irvine campus is totally positive. The MSU just finished up their “Palestinian Awareness Week,” entitled “Palestine: an Invisible Nation.” “Hate weeks” in the past, have provided an opportunity for the MSU to hang inflammatory items around campus, such as bloody Israeli flags, and to bring in speakers, such as Amir Abdel Malik Ali, who during last year’s “hate week” publicly stated his support for terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and called Jews “the New Nazis”. Jewish students felt a bit of relief this year since MSU did not re-invite Ali for an annual return or hang bloodied flags around campus, but still, the week was problematic for several reasons.

This year, “they toned it down a little bit” exclaimed Jonah Balakhaneh. He continued, “Still, they don’t get credit from me because it was supposed to be ‘Palestinian Awareness Week’ and all we found was Israel bashing.” The week of activities included speeches from extreme anti-Israel activists, such as Yisroel Dovid Weiss, head rabbi of the radical Neturei Karta group, UC Berkeley’s infamous anti-Israel professor Hatem Bazian, and fanatic political activist Alison Weir, who over time has promoted slanderous theories, such as that Israel is involved in “organ harvesting.”

“This year they used more Israeli and Jewish speakers than in the past,” said Yarkoni, “but what they’re not telling the public is that these Jewish and Israeli speakers represent an incredibly small minority.” Additionally, they did not tell students that speakers, such as Weiss embraced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or that Bazian once provoked a crowd at UC Berkeley saying, “How come we don’t have an intifada in this country?” In addition, materials found on campus did not recognize Israel’s legal existence as a state. On the “wall” set up on campus meant to depict Israel’s security barrier, a map was posted for the public to view that did not recognize Israel. Instead, Israel’s creation in 1948 was referred to as an “occupation,” which shows exactly where the MSU stands on the conflict.

With all of the efforts that have been made to demonize Israel, it is encouraging to see the Jewish students at UC Irvine standing up for Israel and being proud of their heritage. With the ongoing social media initiative and other activities taking place, it looks hopeful that the Jewish groups on campus will continue to flourish. As many of the students said, UC Irvine can be a wonderful place for Jewish students to study, as well as learn more about themselves and what it means to be a Jew. It certainly appears that the students will no longer tolerate the hate speech on campus or branding of their university as “anti-Semitic” – instead they hope to grow their movement to ensure a positive experience for all students.



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