A video still shows a man wearing a Palestinian scarf and a T-shirt with Arabic. He was part of a group of Israeli soldiers harassing students at UC Irvine in May.
University of California, Irvine is once again investigating the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine group after a protest of an event featuring Israeli soldiers last month.
But members of Students for Justice in Palestine say they are the ones who endured days of harassment and intimidation by Israeli soldiers invited to campus to give a panel discussion about the Israeli army.
The SJP students say they were subjected to days of racial and sexual slurs in what they believe was an attempt to provoke a reaction.
UC Irvine has been a focal point for Israel advocacy groups seeking to categorize support for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.
Documents obtained by Palestine Legal through a freedom of information request show that over the last year Israel advocacy organizations have consistently pressured the UC Irvine administration to crack down on Palestine activism.
They were also instrumental in the school’s adoption of a policy that conflates opposition to Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, with anti-Semitism.
“On the offensive”
In early May, UC Irvine’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel invited members from the Israeli organization Reservists on Duty to campus, coinciding with an Anti-Zionism Week being organized by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.
With chapters on several campuses, Students Supporting Israel is backed by Israel lobby groups and has close ties to the Israeli government.
Reservists on Duty says it was founded in 2015 by “Israeli reserve combat soldiers” with the mission to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses in the US.
The group describes itself as taking “an extremely proactive approach towards confronting BDS and the movements that defame” Israel and its army.
Reservists on Duty also says that it aims to counter Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, two groups documenting army abuses that Israeli leaders have dubbed “traitors” and “enemies” of the state.
“We decided to change strategies, stop being on the defensive and to go on the offensive,” Reservists on Duty co-founder Amnon Goldstof told The Jerusalem Post last year.
Reservists on Duty evidently enjoys high-level support from Israel’s military establishment. Its 2016 conference was addressed by Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet secret police, as well as by a high-ranking military officer.
Racial and sexual slurs
Six people, including at least five soldiers, from Reservists on Duty first appeared on the UC Irvine campus on 8 May, the kick-off day of Anti-Zionism Week.
This video posted on Facebook by Jewish Voice for Peace shows some of the actions by members of Reservists on Duty that Palestinian rights activists have also described to legal advocates and to The Electronic Intifada:
On the first day, two of the soldiers carried Israeli flags and wore shirts identifying their support for the Israeli army, while the others disguised their intent: at least one person wore a traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, while others claimed to be from Palestinian cities and attempted to speak with the students in Arabic. Some feigned naivety about the issue, while secretly recording responses.
This tactic is reminiscent of Israeli soldiers who dress up as Palestinians – so-called mistaravim – in order to act as provocateurs at demonstrations or to carry out extrajudicial executions in the occupied West Bank.
The next day the group returned, this time they all wore clothes that more honestly identified who they were.
Over four days in total, the group of soldiers showed up to the mock wall. They hurled racial and gender insults while one woman aggressively filmed the activists’ faces and conversations.
They told Daniel Carnie, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, that he is “not a real Jew” and told him to take off his Jewish skullcap.
A 30 May letter to UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, signed by Palestine Legal attorney Liz Jackson on behalf of a coalition of civil rights groups, describes what happened at the mock wall.
According to the letter, when the students began a chant that compared Israel’s wall to the US wall at the Mexican border, one of the soldiers shouted, “We want the Mexicans!”
And when a Black student asked one of the hostile members of Reservists on Duty to leave, he called her an “18-year-old punk-ass bitch,” then followed her around shouting at her.
The letter alleges that a “male soldier taunted a female demonstrating at the wall in a sexually threatening tone, saying in Arabic, ‘You want me to stick it in you, don’t you.’”
“These soldiers do not just use propaganda, they use intimidation tactics like taking video footage,” Ghiyath Alazzah, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Irvine, wrote in an email to other SJP groups on the West Coast.
Alazzah also accused the soldiers of “using hidden microphones, attempting to incite to violence by using extremely racist and sexist obscenities in Arabic, English and Hebrew, and even going so far as to physically grab a student.”
“We are sending this email to you to warn you all that your campus may be targeted next,” Alazzah wrote.
Administrators watch passively
School administrators witnessed the confrontations, but did not intervene.
Dean of students Rameen Talesh was one of the administrators present during the week’s activities, according to Carnie and Alazzah.
Carnie told The Electronic Intifada that students asked Talesh to stop Reservists on Duty from harassing them, but Talesh said there was nothing he could do.
But advocates for the students say that the accumulation of racist speech and harassing behavior created an environment of intimidation that was grounds for the school to intervene.
“Here, there was overwhelming evidence that foreign military agents engaged in sustained harassment of Palestinian students, and other students of color perceived to be allies of Palestinian students,” Palestine Legal’s Jackson wrote to Chancellor Gillman.
Jackson alleges that the school violated its obligations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as its own policies, by standing by passively: “Administrators cannot act with deliberate indifference to a hostile climate of severe or pervasive harassment targeting students based on their race or national origin.”
On the night of 10 May, Reservists on Duty held their panel discussion.
SJP members came to the event with the intent to ask challenging questions.
During the event, a woman who had been filming the students during the preceding days lunged at one of the students with her fists up, according to Carnie and Alazzah. She was restrained by an administrator and then the SJP students broke out into a chant before they were asked to leave.
Part of this altercation can be seen in the video above.
The next day, 11 May, Jackson’s letter states, the same woman who had nearly attacked a student, returned to Anteater Plaza and shoved a sign out of the hands of a student protester, hitting the student in the face with the sign.
According to Jackson, these two physical assaults were also grounds for intervention, yet administrators took no action.
Alazzah was informed on 16 May that his group was under investigation for allegedly disrupting the question-and-answer portion of the discussion with Reservists on Duty.
The university confirmed to the The Electronic Intifada that members of its staff were present during some of the week’s incidents. A spokesperson wrote that administrators are “reviewing reports of that week from all interested parties and will take action, as appropriate.”
A year of pressure
The investigation is taking place after a year of heavy pressure from Israel advocacy groups, including the Amcha Initiative, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, Hillel, StandWithUs and the Israeli consulate, to crack down on Palestine activism on campus.
On 30 May this year, Hillel of Orange County wrote to Chancellor Gillman.
Emphasizing that SJP and an earlier incarnation of the Palestine solidarity group have been investigated three times since 2010, the letter strongly suggests that the university’s disciplinary process had yet to be effective.
Last year, UC Irvine investigated SJP after students from several groups protested a film screening sponsored by pro-Israel organizations.
That investigation cleared SJP members of accusations they had harassed and intimidated participants, but found that it was “more likely than not” that the student protest outside the venue had generated enough noise to disrupt the viewing of a film about Israeli soldiers.
The students were given a warning and required to host an educational program. Israel advocacy groups expressed unhappiness that the penalty was not more severe.
Hillel also invoked a UC Irvine policy document titled “Higher Ground.”
Published in October 2016, after the university cleared SJP, “Higher Ground” attempts to integrate the UC Regents’ “principles against intolerance,” which were approved in March 2016.
The UC Regents is the governing body for the entire University of California system. The regents produced the “principles against intolerance” in response to heavy pressure from pro-Israel groups, which wanted the regents to adopt the controversial US State Department definition of anti-Semitism. That definition conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.
The UC Regents rejected that definition and removed a sentence equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
The “principles,” which are unenforceable themselves, did however specify a prohibition against “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” – a weaker formulation than Israel advocacy groups wanted.
But pro-Israel groups have since sought to use this formulation as a basis for going after Palestine activism.
UC Irvine’s “Higher Ground” document appears to be a direct capitulation to this agenda.
In an 18 July 2016 email to Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim group Amcha Initiative, UC Irvine’s associate chancellor Michael Arias, wrote: “Following up on your suggestions, Chancellor Gillman plans to ask [UC Irvine’s] Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion to undertake a review of existing policies to confirm they are consistent” with the “principles against intolerance.”
Arias promised Rossman-Benjamin the university would “revise as necessary” any of its policies.
The following month, Gillman asked Douglas M. Haynes, a university vice provost, to conduct the assessment.
In October, Haynes produced “Higher Ground,” which critics say reproduces the misperception that anti-Zionist activities exclude Jewish students.
According to Palestine Legal’s Jackson, the document “conflates anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, discards the UC’s commitment to free speech and excludes the interests of Palestinians and other vulnerable communities.”
After “Higher Ground” was published, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights and StandWithUs, two Israel lobby groups that have spearheaded efforts to silence Palestine activism, wrote to Haynes to applaud the report.
They also sent Haynes a “white paper” supposedly meant to help UC Irvine understand and recognize “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”
Their paper claims that anti-Semitism today is mostly expressed in “coded” ways, but points the administration back to the State Department’s definition as a guide. That controversial definition, which Israel lobby groups have urged institutions and governments around the world to adopt, claims that “demonizing” Israel, holding Israel to a “double standard” and “delegitimizing” Israel are forms of anti-Semitism.
It also alleges that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist” are anti-Semitic. This would potentially categorize advocacy for a one-state solution founded on equal rights in a democratic non-sectarian state that grants full citizenship to Israelis and Palestinians as a form of anti-Semitism.
Last month, Haynes spoke at a conference hosted by the Academic Engagement Network, a group founded to counter support for Palestinian rights on college campuses.
On 6 June, Haynes responded to Jackson’s letter to Gillman. Haynes asserted that the administration’s priorities align with the “principles against intolerance.” Haynes’ letter also makes allusions to balancing students’ First Amendment rights while maintaining “safety and security” and enforcing “civil discourse.”
According to Haynes, the university is still “reviewing the May 10th incident,” presumably a reference to the Reservists on Duty panel.
Hold them accountable
Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson believes UC Irvine does indeed have a discrimination problem, but it is students advocating for Palestinian rights who have been the targets.
According to Jackson, the harassment students faced from the Israeli soldiers “is just the latest example of UC Irvine’s discrimination problem.”
Jackson accuses the administration of “ignoring harassment complaints by Palestinian and other students of color, and meanwhile singling out these same students for discriminatory treatment because of their viewpoint in favor of Palestinian rights.”
Some of those students have filed a complaint asking the university to investigate the pervasive harassment they say they face based on race and national origin.
“We must hold UC Irvine accountable for this discrimination,” said Jackson.