Both Sides Have Spins on “Punishment” to UCI's Students for Justice in Palestine

Is the glass half empty or half full or, more appropriately, half Israeli or half Palestinian? Because, like everything else involving clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students on the campus of UC Irvine, the latest development is being spun differently—depending on who is doing the spinning.

The rotating began on Thursday, when it was revealed that campus administrators, after months of deliberations, had concluded an investigation into a protest by UCI students barred from last May's screening of Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front, which follows Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Ten students were trying to watch Wayne Kopping's documentary when they were interrupted by up to 50 people from UCI's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and other campus groups that wanted to enter so they could debate the reported attendance of actual IDF soldiers, whose forces the critics blame for lopsided attacks on Palestinians in Israel.

Pro-Israel students were “aggressively confronted and threatened,” according to Michelle Yabes of the Washington, D.C.-based Brandeis Center, which represents a UCI sophomore who was reportedly “physically intimidated” during the clash.

Shortly after the incident, amid calls from 36 pro-Israel groups for some kind of action, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman released a statement claiming the protesters “crossed the line of civility” and indicating the SJP chapter would face disciplinary proceedings.

However, that prompted members of the Los Angeles, Orange County, and UCI Law student chapters of National Lawyers Guild to send Gillman a letter stating they had served as volunteer “legal observers” at the screening and witnessed none of the divisive behavior that had been pinned on SJP.

Indeed, these independent watchers claimed barring the protesters from the screening was an apparent violation of campus policy, and they reported hearing no anti-Semitic or un-American slurs, as some pro-Israel advocates later claimed, but they did hear counter-protesters scream, “thank God” and “they deserved it” as a protester read aloud the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces.

Despite those revelations, an unknown third party requested an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) into possible crimes committed by the protesters. Prosecutors declined to file charges, saying nothing criminal occurred. This was, of course, the same OCDA that drew criticism (and, to be fair, applause in some corners) for prosecuting the so-called “Irvine 11” in September 2011.

Promoting the fact that the first screening of Beneath the Helmet had been disrupted, the UCI chapter of Students Supporting Israel presented a second showing on June 8, accompanied by the Jerusalem U-produced short film Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus. That event sold out and was peaceful.

So that brings us to the end of the story …

… Uh, not so fast.

The screening re-do did nothing to diffuse the rancor over the first showing. Amid calls from both sides of the debate for UCI administrators to do something, Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham wrote in a campus-wide email last week:

After a thorough review, the student conduct investigation is now complete. The investigators found that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the group that organized and led the protest, violated Student Conduct Policies regarding disruption: “Obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other University activities.”

UCI values its diverse mix of cultures and opinions. We support and defend groups exercising free speech and assembly, yet we must protect everyone’s right to express themselves without disruption. This is a bedrock principle of our university. Let’s continue to work together to foster a safe environment that allows the open, civil, and robust exchange of ideas to flourish.

Some pro-Israel groups and the Orange County Register zeroed in this week on the SJP being slapped with these “sanctions:” a warning in effect until March 29, 2017, and an order that the chapter present an educational program to members on how to host a positive event.

However, UCI's SJP chapter had a very different take on the administrative action, playing up that UCI had “dismissed” the allegations against the student organization. 

“After interviewing witnesses and reviewing extensive video footage, UCI’s Office of Student Conduct released a 58-page report finding that SJP students arrived peacefully at the event but were locked out by its organizers, Anteaters for Israel / Students Supporting Israel,” reads the statement.

“Members of SJP, joined by students from other student groups, began demonstrating outside the event when they were locked out. The report confirms SJP’s account that their protest was peaceful, and found claims made by attendees of the event that protesters blocked the exits and threatened attendees to be unsubstantiated. The report only found SJP to be in violation of a policy prohibiting 'disruption' of university activities because the volume of the protest made it 'more likely than not that the participants could not hear the screening of the movie.'”

Indeed, SJP claims that UCI’s findings “are consistent with” the reports from the on-scene observers and conforms with the OCDA's decision not to pursue criminal charges.

Still, at least one legal observer believes any sanctions against SJP is unwarranted.

“We are satisfied that the factual findings of the investigation align with what SJP and legal observers have said all along,” says Julie Hartle, a student representative from the National Lawyers Guild Student Chapter at UCI, in the same SJP statement. “However, we believe the peaceful protest was an entirely appropriate response to the lockout, and that no sanctions were warranted.” 

Palestine Legal, an “independent organization” based in Chicago “dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom,” finds organized efforts to seek campus discipline and criminal charges against pro-Palestine students at UCI “fitting a pattern.”

“This incident represents a growing effort to stifle the speech activities of students who advocate for Palestinian freedom and equality,” says Dima Khalidi, Palestine Legal's director.

“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.”

Someone else is critical of sanctions against the UCI SJP chapter—although not for the same reasons as those fearing a chilling of pro-Palestine speech. 

“UCI has turned its back on the Jewish and pro-Israel campus community,” Ilan Sinelnikov, founder and president of Students Supporting Israel, told The Algemeiner (“The fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America”). 

“On the one hand, the school writes that SJP broke the student code of conduct,” Sinelnikov continues. “On the other hand, the punishment is no more than a written warning and that SJP needs to host an ‘educational event.’ SSI and many other pro-Israel groups that worked with the university during its investigation believed the school would come up with just and fair results.”

Aron Hier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's director of Campus Outreach, considers UCI’s written reprimand to SJP “a completely feckless ‘punishment.’”

“The university’s message here is clear,” he told The Algemeiner. “Pro-Israel free speech deserves less First Amendment protection than other forms of free speech.”

Meanwhile, the Register and other news sources picking up the pro-Israel spin are chastised in a new statement UCI's SJP sent the Weekly this morning:

It is concerning that members of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) made false and inflammatory statements that were then repeated in news outlets, including the OC Register, and by the Chancellor, without interviewing witnesses, legal observers, or waiting for the investigation to conclude. This type of negligence is potentially dangerous to these young students.

It is also bewildering that a news outlet would focus on the somewhat benign finding that the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protesters were too loud and ignore the rest of the 58-page report detailing SSI and College Republican students making serious false accusations of criminal conduct against SJP students. This after locking them out of the event, which, incidentally, would have been SJP’s chance to dialogue with the other student groups in the Q&A.

Focusing on the sole finding that the protest was “disruptive” further illustrates the double standards SJP has been held to merely for speaking out against human rights abuses. This is further emphasized by the fact that there were various student groups who partook in the protest, but SJP was the only one called in for inquiry or falsely accused of harassment.

SSI and the College Republicans need to understand that while they might not like it when people disagree with their views, mere disagreement is not threatening or harassing. There is no excuse for making false accusations that could end in criminal charges. They, like the SJP, always have the right to lead a peaceful protest when they feel the need to express countervailing opinions.

And so it goes …

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