On the night of May 18, a group of about 10 Jewish students gathered at UC Irvine to watch “Beneath the Helmet,” a film about young Israeli soldiers.
Outside, another group of students, as many as 50 by some estimates, gathered to protest the screening, saying the movie glorifies the Israeli army, which the protesters view as occupiers. Shouting, “Long live the intifada!” and slogans against Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the protest eventually brought a response from UCI police.
Two months later, the confrontation continues to draw attention from people around the world who believe long-running tensions at UC Irvine mirror – so far, in a nonviolent fashion – the Middle East.
How it plays out could say a lot about the state of religious tolerance and free speech at UCI and other schools in California.
On movie night, the Jewish students said they felt intimidated and physically trapped by the protesters. They eventually were escorted to their cars by police.
The protesters counter by saying they only expressed opinions and didn’t harass anyone.
Last week, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said it found no indication of criminal wrongdoing that night, ending a review launched at the request of UCI police.
Meanwhile, the school’s separate investigation into whether the confrontation violated UCI policy or a recent University of California statement against anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance remains open.
Though both sides remain frustrated, the incident is the latest in a string of confrontations that has led some to view UCI as a place that’s unwelcoming to Jewish students, and others to view it as a place where Islamophobia is tolerated.
The movie night conflict has been covered by newspapers in Israel. It also has been written about by many pro-Palestinean websites. And with every new post, and every shift in the story, people from around the world reach out to UCI to express an opinion.
“We have gotten hundreds of calls and emails,” said UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon.
If all sides can agree on one thing, it’s this: The movie night incident could be a test case for the University of California’s recent statement condemning anti-Semitism.
In March, the Board of Regents adopted the statement at the request of Jewish organizations who pointed to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents at campuses throughout the UC system.
It was adopted after much debate, several revisions and strong objections from pro-Palestinian groups who complained the statement’s main goal was to stifle opposition to Israeli policies.
Among other things, the regents document says:
“Harassment, threats, assaults, vandalism and destruction of property, as defined by university policy, will not be tolerated within the university community.”
Some Jewish leaders believe the movie night clash met those standards. And they are asking UCI officials to review what school rules and policies might have been broken and whether students should be disciplined.
“We are trying to use this as a springboard to get the university to lay out a plan to implement the regents’ statement,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a UC Santa Cruz lecturer and director of the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit that tracks acts of anti-Semitism nationwide.
“This incident needs to be dealt with.”
“But our focus is not on this incident,” she added. Instead, it’s on “understanding that this incident is part of the pattern and that pattern needs to be addressed in a proactive way.”
Liz Jackson, staff attorney for Palestine Legal, an organization that offers legal advice to pro-Palestinian supporters, says movie night was about free speech, not harassment.
And Jackson argues that the school’s response – to call for a criminal investigation – was an overreach that could stifle expression in the future.
“It should never have been referred to the D.A.,” Jackson said. “The chilling effect of even a referral is severe.”
With the district attorney’s decision to not file criminal charges, the issue is fully in the hands of school officials.
On May 19, the day after movie night, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman issued a campuswide letter saying the university supports freedom of speech but that the incident “crossed the line of civility.”
But it’s unclear what might happen even if the school investigation finds that some students’ speech jumped from expression to harassment. The document adopted by the regents doesn’t spell out specific punishments, or a specific protocol to follow while investigating conflicts.
UC Regent Norman Pattiz, who was involved in crafting the statement, said he also wants to see “how this plays out.”
“We would like this thing get resolved at the campus level,” he said. “(But) if it is in fact behavior that goes beyond protected speech, then something probably ought to be done about it.
“We didn’t craft and unanimously adopt a principles statement to simply make a statement and do nothing about it.”
Lawhon, the UCI spokeswoman, noted that the referral to the D.A.’s Office was routine and emphasized that the school asked the district attorney to review the overall incident and not the actions of individual students.
She did not know when the school might finish its separate investigation.
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