Last week the Orange County district attorney charged 11 University of California students with criminal conspiracy for having disturbed a presentation by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in 2010.
One year ago yesterday, a group of Muslim students — known as the “Irvine 11” because nine attended UC Irvine — interrupted ambassador Michael Oren’s free public lecture at UCI by standing up and shouting one at a time to drown out his speech. The students were arrested and eventually suspended by the university.
Each student was charged last Friday with two misdemeanors — one for disturbance of a meeting and one for conspiracy to disturb a meeting. If convicted at their arraignment on March 11, each student will potentially face charges of up to six months in jail, fines or probation with community service.
Bay Area-based Jewish Voice for Peace — an organization that promotes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as well as condemns Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory — said the “Irvine 11” was racially targeted by the Orange County DA.
Cecilie Surasky, JVP deputy director, said a group of Jews from the JVP Young Leadership Institute interrupted a speech delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in November in a similar manner. Surasky said the extent of their punishment consisted of removal from the room.
“The consequences? They received international news coverage and were hailed as heroes by many Jewish editorial writers,” Surasky said in a press release. “In stark contrast, these Muslim students who heckled the ambassador in a much smaller venue are being criminally charged and could potentially face prison time.”
JVP organization delivered a formal petition to the DA’s office yesterday with the signatures of 5,000 supporters who had also interrupted a speaker or event to make a political point, but weren’t severely punished. The group will also present a letter from numerous rabbis, condemning the prosecution.
UCSB’s Muslim Student Association member Ahmed Naguib, a fourth-year economics major, said the JVP’s involvement comes as a pleasant surprise to him.
“There’s a lot of support for both sides and I think for them to take that step to go out and say, ‘we acknowledge that’ and say it’s kind of a harsh treatment for something we’ve done for a long time as well, that’s great,” Naguib said. “It’s not goals or values they’re supporting — it’s rights.”
On the other hand, Abraham Gean, president of UCSB’s American Students for Israel, said the issue is not one of discrimination, but rather based on actual e-mail evidence of conspiracy.
“If [the government] in the future finds evidence of conspiracy of any other group — Jewish or not — they may be charged in the same way,” Gean, a fourth-year economics major, said. “If they find it, then it’s the same standard.”
Brendan Newlon, MSA’s graduate student advisor, said he’s surprised the issue hasn’t received wide media attention. Aside from the Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post, Newlon said the topic is otherwise mainly reported by Jewish organizations and news services.
Regardless of the amount of media attention, Gean said the prosecution of the Irvine 11 was easy to predict.
“What happened last week, that they got charged, is not a big surprise,” Gean said. “They broke the law and they were hostile. People came to see Michael Oren speak and he was not allowed. It was a violation of everyone’s rights — the people’s rights to hear him and Michael Oren’s own right to speak.”
MSA external relations director Elliott Bazzano, a UCSB graduate student, said the university’s decision to expel the 11 students following Ambassador Oren’s appearance last year was ill-conceived.
“If there’s no precedent, then I think from an administrative perspective it might not be the wisest move — even if they have the legal right,” Bazzano said. “If there’s no precedent and suddenly you use a Muslim group in this political environment to create an example of, then you may create a disruption that might not be necessary.”