Are Jewish Students Safe on California Campuses?
On Feb. 13th, Al-Awda (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition) held its Fifth Al-Awda West Coast Regional Conference in the La Mesa Community Center in San Diego. Undercover investigative journalist Lee Kaplan attended the meeting and wrote an article that raises several issues that should be very troubling for anyone concerned about the safety of Jewish students on California campuses.
Al-Awda is an organization that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, opposes Israel’s right to exist; supports groups on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezb’allah; organizes numerous rallies, demonstrations, and events to demonize Israel and her supporters; and actively encourages boycott, divestment, and sanctions in order to isolate and economically strangle the Jewish state. (Two of Al-Awda’s three co-founders are leaders of major anti-Israel boycott campaigns: Mazin Qumsiyeh co-founded the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign, and Jess Ghannam co-founded the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel). Al-Awda’s annual international conventions and regional conferences feature virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic speakers and films, as well as workshops which teach how to mount successful boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel.
Unfortunately, Al-Awda has also made significant inroads on college and university campuses in North America by partnering with dozens of Muslim and pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel student groups. The first four of Al-Awda’s seven annual international conventions were held on university campuses (University of Toronto, Hunter College, University of California Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University), and all of its conventions and regional conferences have been sponsored by numerous student groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA). In California, SJP and MSA groups from more than ten California public colleges and universities — including UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, San Francisco State University, San Diego State University, CSU Fullerton, and CSU San Bernadino — have collaborated with Al Awda in hosting events.
The Al-Awda regional conference in February is a case in point of how much influence Al-Awda wields over California university campuses. A major emphasis of the conference was the promotion at California universities and colleges of a campaign to divest university holdings from Israel. The featured speakers came from diverse University of California and California State University campuses, and included Dr. Jess Ghannam, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences at UC San Francisco and Adjunct Professor of Ethnic Studies at SFSU; students from SDSU and Cal State Northridge; and Dr. Jamal Nassar, Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Cal State San Bernadino.
The first to speak, Dr. Ghannam gloried in the success of efforts to delegitimize Israel. He singled out for praise the members of the UC Irvine MSU for their “heroic efforts” disrupting an invited lecture at UCI by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, and he added: “Now, every single Israeli military official and politician will be afraid to speak publicly. It’s huge!” At a special workshop promoting divestment on California public university campuses, one SJP student from SDSU explained how the UC Divestment program has developed a campus-wide network in California, tailored to each campus community. She also reported on an SJP campaign to take control of the student government at SDSU by filling ten senate seats and the senate body presidency with SJP members, who would then be able to promote their divestment campaign. The meeting concluded with Dr. Jamal Nassar, Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Cal State San Bernadino, who promised that Al-Awda could host a conference at Cal State San Bernadino anytime, because Arabs have special connections within his campus administration.
Al-Awda is not the only off-campus organization dedicated to the elimination of the Jewish state that has insinuated itself into our universities and colleges. The influence of Al-Awda is compounded by the presence of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), or Muslim Student Union (MSU), with chapters at nearly six hundred colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, including on nine of the ten UC campuses and on most Cal State campuses. According to a 2008 report on the Muslim Student Association prepared by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the MSA was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based organization dedicated to instituting Sharia law and a Muslim empire throughout the world, in part by means of violent jihad (holy war). The tenets of the Muslim Brotherhood are the ideological source for all Sunni-based Islamic terrorist groups.
According to the IPT report, the MSA sees itself as part of the global Islamic movement and promotes the Islamist ideology derived from the Muslim Brotherhood, including support for jihad. IPT’s 2008 report states that up until 2007, the MSA-National website hosted a list of Islamic organizations, some of which have been identified by the U.S. State Department as supporting and funding terrorism. Additionally, their list of speakers on college campuses has included those who justify suicide bombers and jihad and/or have acted in support of Hamas. Furthermore, former leaders of the MSA formed the Islamic Society of North America, which was an unindicted co-conspirator of the Holy Land Foundation convicted in federal court of supporting terrorism through the funding of Hamas. Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley who is considered a role model to students of the Berkeley MSA chapter and serves as faculty at COMPASS (MSA-National’s management training program), was a representative of KindHearts, an organization whose primary purpose was to provide financial support for Hamas and whose assets were frozen by the federal government after a two-year Senate investigation. In addition, at a 2004 antiwar rally in San Francisco, Bazian called for an “intifada” in America.
Both the MSA and the SJP have repeatedly promoted anti-Israel events that at times become openly anti-Semitic, voice support for suicide bombers, transgress their universities’ policies, and even violate California and U.S. law. At UC Irvine, for example, the MSA has been involved in acts of physical aggression, harassment, and intimidation of Jewish students; has produced posters equating the Star of David with the swastika; and hosts speakers who compare Jews to Nazis and praise terrorism. Two such speakers are Imam Mohammad al Asi and Amir Abdel Malik Ali. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, their speeches at UCI have espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11, repeatedly crossed the line from criticism of Israeli policy to voicing “loathing for all Jews as a people,” and glorified violence against civilians, as in Malik Ali’s statement that “victory or martyrdom are the only two viable options acceptable in the battle against the ‘Zionist apartheid state.'” The UCI administration has asked the FBI to investigate the MSU for breaking U.S. law by deliberately fundraising for a terrorist organization, Hamas, and lying about it to the UCI administration.
Members of the UC Berkeley SJP have also harassed and committed acts of physical aggression against Jewish students and disrupted Jewish student events. SJP advocates economic sanctions against Israel, and its chapters were responsible for divestment motions at Hampshire College and the University of Rochester, as well as the most recent, widely publicized attempt at UC Berkeley.
It is indisputable that the MSA and SJP have strong ties to organizations that call for the elimination of the Jewish state and promote the murder of Jews, and that many of the activities of these groups specifically harass and intimidate Jewish students. It is not inconceivable that these groups’ anti-Semitic discourse and hostility could escalate into incidents of physical violence. Nevertheless, California administrators have been unwilling to respond to, or even acknowledge, the threats that Jewish students face on their campuses.
At the University of California, for example, all ten UC Chancellors recently signed a statement condemning “all acts of racism, intolerance and incivility,” and affirming that “[r]egardless of what free speech rights they purport to express … we have a responsibility to speak out against activities that promote intolerance or undermine civil dialogue.” Nevertheless, not one UC Chancellor has condemned the MSA/MSU or SJP groups on his or her campus for the hateful, anti-Semitic programs they mount, or the hostile and intimidating environment they create for Jewish students.
Moreover, last month at a special three-hour UC Regents meeting devoted to addressing recent acts of intolerance and bigotry on UC campuses — including a noose found at UCSD, swastikas at UC Davis, and the disruption of Ambassador’s Oren’s talk at UCI — the Regents’ discussion focused almost entirely on African-American students and other under-represented minorities. Whereas the Regents expressed intense sympathy for the emotional distress that nooses might cause African-American students, no comparable solicitude was shown for the sense of well-being of Jewish students. Indeed, Jewish students and their concerns were virtually ignored at the meeting, and the longstanding and intolerable harassment and intimidation of Jewish students by members of the Muslim and pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel student groups were not mentioned even once.
The federal government, too, has chosen to turn its back on Jewish students. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education has refused to afford Jewish students the same protections against harassment and intimidation as it grants to every African-American, Latino, and Arab student. According to Kenneth Marcus, former director of the OCR: “Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali indicated that the Obama administration would not pursue cases of harassment against Jewish students.”
What California university administrators, governing boards, and the federal government are unwilling to acknowledge is this: The MSA/MSU and SJP chapters on many California campuses are unlike other official student groups. Their affiliations with organizations that support terror and seek to wage Islamic jihad make them a threat to every member of the campus community, but especially to Jewish students. The refusal of university and government officials to afford protections to Jewish students on California campuses is absolutely unconscionable and should be protested loudly and clearly by parents, donors, and taxpayers across the state and across the nation.
Leila Beckwith is Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles; Tammi Rossman Benjamin is a Lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz.