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June 23, 2016 2:28 am

University of California, Irvine: A Space for Free Speech, and a Safe Space for Jews

avatar by Lisa Armony

An anti-Israel mob at University of California, Irvine on May 18. Photo: Paula Prizio.

An anti-Israel mob at University of California, Irvine on May 18. Photo: Paula Prizio.

The Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine and their supporters took a strong stand recently, showing the campus community that we will not be intimidated or allow our vocal support for Israel to be stifled.

In May, a pro-Israel event sponsored by the UC Irvine student organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI), with support from Hillel, was targeted by anti-Israel protesters on the UCI campus.

A dozen students had gathered in a classroom to watch the Jerusalem U film, Beneath the Helmet. The program was meant to inform young people about how their contemporaries in Israel prepare physically, mentally, and emotionally for the awesome task of protecting their country. A screaming mob disrupted the screening, tried to force their way into the room, and chased one student into hiding after she had been caught outside when the protesters arrived. Our students and staff had to be protected by campus police.

How ironic that at a site intended for learning, anti-Israel students tried to shut learning down. Through bullying masquerading as social justice, they sought to make a statement that engagement with Israel will be met with harassment and intimidation.

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The incident made the news. It scared some people. And it made people question whether pro-Israel students can safely hold events on their own campus.

Three weeks later, the campus and broader communities made a statement of a different kind. More than 400 students, alumni, and Jewish community members gathered for a rescreening of Beneath the Helmet at the UCI Student Center.

IDF Commander (Res.) Eden Adler, featured in the film, attended the event and shared his personal story with the audience.  Middle East expert, US army veteran, and attorney Elan Carr also spoke; I was also a speaker, representing Orange County Hillel and the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services. We were joined by colleagues and friends from many other organizations who partnered with us on the event, including Jerusalem U, Chabad of UCI, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, and the Secure Community Network of Jewish Federations of North America.

Our messages that night was clear. The community and the university will not allow our students’ right to engage with Israel on campus to be curtailed. Freedom of speech and assembly, and the rights to inquire and learn, are fundamental values of UCI that belong not to only some students, but to everyone.  Most important, our students stated forthrightly that despite the egregious incident of May 18, they feel safe at UCI. They implored audience members to send their children and grandchildren to UCI in order to grow and strengthen the community of students connected to Israel.

With two student missions departing for Israel this summer, and a full slate of Israel programming scheduled for next year, Hillel, the UCI Jewish community, and our supporters have reaffirmed that our campus is a safe space for free speech and for Jews.

Lisa Armony is Executive Director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County and Director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.

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