Zionist group urges donors to avoid UC Irvine

After months of growing tension between Jewish and Muslim students at the University of California, Irvine, the Zionist Organization of America is asking potential students to apply elsewhere and donors to stop sending contributions.

The New York-based organization lambasted Chancellor Michael Drake in a statement Tuesday for not condemning anti-Semitic speech on campus and enabling a years-long history of "bigotry, discrimination and the violation of civil rights" by the school's Muslim Student Union.

"We're not asking the university to infringe on anyone's free speech rights, but our contention all along is that the chancellor has his own free speech rights, and for whatever reason, he's refusing to exercise them," said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA's Center for Law and Justice. "He can come out and condemn the speech as hurtful and anti-Semitic."

Drake and the school had no comment on the statement, spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said.

Hadeer Soliman, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Student Union, did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.

Tension around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has spilled onto campus at several other universities lately as well.

Pro-Palestinian students have disrupted speeches by prominent Israeli speakers at Oxford University, in England, at the University of Chicago and at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A talk by a group called J Street, which backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also stirred a backlash at the University of Pennsylvania last month.

But tension has simmered between Jewish and Muslim student groups for years at UC Irvine, about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and discourse between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students has been particularly vitriolic.

Emotions reached a fever pitch earlier this month when 11 students were arrested by campus police for repeatedly interrupting a talk by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

The Muslim Student Union had issued an e-mail condemning Oren's appearance but said it did not organize the protest.

Three of the arrested students were from the University of California, Riverside campus, and it was unclear if the others were MSU members, Lawhon said.

In a Monday editorial in the campus newspaper, Soliman defended the arrested students' right to protest and called Oren the "official representative of a state that engages in war crimes and crimes against humanity."

"If the university chooses to selectively enforce its policies in order to punish these students, it is undoubtedly sending a political message and chilling all students' First Amendment rights," she wrote.

The Muslim Student Union drew national attention in 2004 when more than two dozen students wore green stoles to their graduation. They said the stoles symbolized their faith, but others said the clothing represented allegiance to the militant group Hamas and was meant to intimidate Jewish students.

In 2005, the Zionist Organization of America complained to federal civil rights investigators about alleged anti-Semitic speeches by speakers invited to campus and said the university was discriminating against Jewish students by failing to take action.

The investigation concluded in 2007 that while some Muslim student activities could be offensive to Jewish students, the speeches and marches were based on opposition to Israeli policies, not the national origin of Jewish students.

ZOA has appealed that finding and another complaint is pending, said Tuchman, head of the ZOA's law center.

Last year, the ZOA also filed a complaint with the university that the Muslim Student Union was conducting fundraising for a group called Viva Palestina at a campus event and alleged that the money was supporting terrorist activities.

Lawhon, the school spokeswoman, said UC Irvine is still investigating whether MSU violated school policy by conducting fundraising on campus and has forwarded ZOA's concerns to the FBI.

Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman, did not return a call for comment.

The students arrested earlier this month face disciplinary action that could range from a warning to expulsion, Lawhon said.

The Orange County district attorney's office will decide whether to press criminal charges when it receives arrest reports from the university police, said Susan Schroeder, district attorney spokeswoman.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council of American-Islamic Relations have both condemned the arrests.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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