Middle East Matters: Irvine 11: Criminals or Muslim civil rights heroes?

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Some of the so-called Irvine 11 students who are accused of illegally disrupting a speech by U.S. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, last year, join hands with their attorney, Dan Stormer, third from left, before the start of closing arguments Monday, Sept. 19, 2011, at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, Calif.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

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Tensions in the Middle East have once again led to overreactions by several groups, this time on a large college campus and in an Orange County courtroom. Last year Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at the University of California at Irvine was disrupted by Muslim student activists who took turns shouting abuse at the ambassador and were immediately arrested after being escorted from the auditorium.

The campus chapter of the Muslim Student Union, the prime mover behind the orchestrated attack, was suspended for a quarter and required to perform community service. Eleven activists — dubbed the ‘Irvine 11’ — were put on trial, and 10 of them were convicted this week of two misdemeanor counts of disturbing a meeting and conspiring to disturb a meeting.

As much as I may disagree with the students’ message and methods, I can’t support the convictions.

Several Muslim leaders have heaped undeserved praise on the Irvine 11, whom they call “true American heroes.” The most offensive statement was made by CAIR official Hussam Ayloush: “When history books are written, the ‘Irvine 11’ will stand alongside other great American civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks​, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.”

Really?

First the Little Rock Nine and now the Irvine 11? It’s hard to believe that any serious person would equate yelling at an Israeli official with integrating schools and buses or braving fire hoses and dogs. Instead of praising the students, the organized Muslim community could have opposed the trial while criticizing both the disruption of a speaker and the deception by the MSU, which initially denied any role in organizing the protest.

There’s plenty of blame to go around here. I have lectured on the Middle East several times at UC Irvine, which is known in Jewish circles as one of the most hostile campuses to Israel in the country (an annual Israeli Apartheid Week is held on campus every spring).

The local Jewish Federation certainly knew this when it invited Oren to speak. Moreover, the ambassador was very familiar with campus dynamics in the U.S. and should have known what to expect: He was born in New York, reared in New Jersey, received his doctorate from Princeton, and has taught at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown.

Am I saying that he shouldn’t have been invited to speak in Irvine? Of course not. However, I would have expected someone with Oren’s background and training not to be so intimidated by the rantings of a few malcontents.

I’ve seen the video of the event several times, and the ambassador left the stage after each outburst while a campus official reminded those present to be more civil. He’ll pardon my saying so, but you could tell by Oren’s reaction that he’s not a native-born Israeli.

I’ve seen several Israeli officials verbally attacked at events, and they all held their ground and continued to speak. Compared to truly hostile anti-Israel events that have taken place on campuses throughout the country, this was much ado about relatively little.

Which is not to excuse in the slightest the boorish behavior of the students. They had ample opportunity to ask hostile questions during the Q & A session following the ambassador’s speech, but chose instead to use their free speech rights to attempt to prevent someone from speaking. As several constitutional scholars – including liberal ones – have pointed out, this obnoxious behavior is not protected by free speech laws.

The lion’s share of the blame here rests with the local district attorney’s office, which chose to launch a year-long investigation, including a grand jury, before taking the students to trial. The district attorney himself insisted on being in the courtroom to hear the verdict.

Given the level of crime in Southern California, it was probably not the best use of public money. During the week of the students’ conviction, the district attorney decided to charge two police officers in Fullerton with brutally beating a homeless man to death. Would the D.A. have brought charges against Jewish students who shouted at a Palestinian official? I doubt it.

In my mind, the Irvine 11 are not civil rights heroes and they’re not criminals. They’re immature students who have just learned a very costly civics lesson. While their actions were unacceptable and rude, they did not rise to the level of criminal behavior. Their convictions, if upheld on appeal, may limit their future employment and/or educational opportunities outside of the organized Muslim community.

If all college students were prosecuted for stupid, even illegal, things that they did in public, our jails would have waiting lists. You don’t have to be a Muslim or an Israel hater to see that this was a needless prosecution of young people behaving boorishly.

Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at deverareligione@yahoo.com.

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