As Hillel International and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law continue to push for a strong response from UC Irvine administrators to a May 18 incident, when more than 50 protesters allegedly threatened 10 Jewish and pro-Israel students, campus officials say they are still investigating.
The 10 students were trying to watch Wayne Kopping’s documentary Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front, which follows Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, when they were “aggressively confronted and threatened” by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) faithful, according to Michelle Yabes of the Washington, D.C.-based Brandeis Center, which is representing sophomore Eliana Kopley, who was reportedly “physically intimidated.”
Kopley has said she had just left a Holocaust-related event on campus and was walking to the location of the screening hosted by Students Supporting Israel when was met by an angry crowd pounding on the doors and windows and chanting against the Jewish state. Kopley claims she was physically forbidden from entering as one protestor shouted, “If we’re not allowed in, you’re not allowed in!” and others yelled “Fuck Israel!” and “Intifada, Intifada—Long live the Intifada!”
“I was terrified,” Kopley told the pro-Israel news site Haym Salomon Center. “There is no other word to describe how I felt.”
That feeling was apparently shared by a group of female students who followed her as she escaped to safety in a nearby room.
“When I turned back, at that moment, I looked at one of the girls and wanted to hide and cry,” says Kopley, who by then was on her cell phone with her anxious mother. “My mom keeps asking what’s going on. But I couldn’t even say complete sentences. All I managed to say was ‘protesters’ and she started yelling at me to call the cops.”
Which is what Kopley did. The thing is, according to SJP, is campus police were accompanied by actual IDF soldiers who together “threatened” a Rainbow Coalition of “peaceful” protesters. More on that in a bit.
UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman released a statement shortly after the incident stating the protesters “crossed the line of civility,” adding that the campus SJP chapter would face disciplinary proceedings.
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” to ensure the demonstrators’ constitutional rights to free expression and the occupation of public spaces were not infringed upon.
“Several outside groups have alleged in the aftermath that protesters threatened students, blocked exists and otherwise engaged in threatening and dangerous behavior,” reads the guild’s letter to Gillman. “These accusations were and remain unsubstantiated and in fact are demonstrably false. We believe that false depictions of that night contributed to the letter you sent out to the UCI community, which declared that the students ‘reportedly disrupted the event, blocking exit paths,’ and that the event participants ‘feared for their safety, calling on our police force for assistance.’”
The legal observers claim demonstrators: were forbidden from entering the event, an apparent violation of UCI policy; worked cooperatively with law enforcement; and, when told by campus police that the attendees of the film had left, walked away peacefully as a group to the Cross-Cultural Center.
During the entire incident, the legal observers say they heard no malicious or anti-Semitic language nor “death to all white people” uttered by protesters, as was later reported.
“Indeed, the most ‘uncivil’ language was used not by members of the protest,” states the letter, “but by counter-protesters who screamed, ‘thank God’ and ‘they deserved it,’ while a protester read aloud the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces.”
Gillman can obviously use a larger mail slot. The Brandeis Center and Hillel International sent a letter this week to the chancellor “urging a strong response to the physical intimidation of a Jewish student and the campus climate of intimidation aimed at Jewish and Pro-Israel students,” noting that the organizations first sought “swift action” more than six weeks ago. They call for UCI “to identify all students that terrorized Kopley and threatened, harassed and intimidated the Jewish and pro-Israel students.”
“The campus investigation of this incident and its impact is still under review,” Cathy Lawhon, the UCI spokeswoman, tells the Weekly. “We take the responsibility seriously, and we are allowing time for all parties to receive due process. Once the investigation is completed, more information will be forthcoming.”
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Shortly after the incident happened, SJP posted a statement on its Facebook page claiming it is being singled out and that several other campus organizations joined their lawful protest.
“The presence of the IDF, better known as Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), and police threatened our coalition of Arab, Jewish, Black, Latinx, API, undocumented, trans, and queer students and the greater activist community,” reads the post. “Our demonstration was held to protest the presence of military and police forces on campus, which threaten the lives of Black and Brown people every day.”
Ironically, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists do find common ground on one issue: the UCI administration’s response (or alleged lack thereof) to incidents like this.
The Brandeis Center and Hillel International claim UCI policy, the University of California’s newly revised Statement of Principles Against Intolerance, the University of California Code of Conduct and the California Penal Code are not being enforced to ensure a “campus climate free from intimidation and harassment of all students, including Jewish students.”
Reads the SJP post: “In talking about providing a ‘safe environment’ for all students on campus, administration’s double standards must be acknowledged. There have been countless incidents, reported and unreported, to which administration has never been responsive to. Two years ago, two members of SJP were cornered and harassed by a visiting IDF soldier. Last year, a suspicious older man with a briefcase demanded to interrogate the MSU [Muslim Student Union] as to their beliefs on [the] Charlie Hebdo attack, just to name a few occurrences. These incidents reflect the violence that institutional and systemic policies exercise against minority populations.”
The pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups also express commitments to the freedom of expression for all students, including the right to reasonably protest.
Gee, two areas of agreement. Perhaps that’s something to build upon. Knowing the history of Muslim-Jewish relations at UCI, don’t hold your breath. (Unless you are being water boarded.)