Crime & Justice

Jewish community shows support for Muslim student protestors

The Student Union on the UC Irvine campus.
The Student Union on the UC Irvine campus.
Wesasaurus Rex/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

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Members of the Jewish community on Wednesday gave the Orange County District Attorney a petition signed by more than 5,000 people. The signatures came in support of Muslim students facing charges for a protest at University of California, Irvine.

Eleven Muslim students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside face misdemeanor charges for disrupting a campus speech a year ago by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

A hundred UCI professors want the charges dropped. So does Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based group that's often at odds with Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

Rachel Roberts was among the group’s members delivering the petition to the District Attorney’s office in Santa Ana. She says the criminal charges go too far.

"They left as soon as they were asked to leave. They were escorted out by police and campus security," Roberts says. "And they didn’t intend to rush the stage. They didn’t intend to take over the space. They simply stood up to make a statement in a way that they had no other way of making. And then they left."

But Susan Schroeder with the DA’s office says the students were much more disruptive than that.

She says they shouted “murder is not free speech” and “you are a war criminal” and other insults until the ambassador couldn’t speak.

"Everybody who was at that meeting who were protesting in a lawful way, they were not arrested," Schroeder says. "UCI campus police arrested those who pre-planned a disruption of the meeting where hundreds of people who gathered there to listen to the speaker and the speaker could not finish his speech and could not engage in the question and answer."

Schroeder says if the students had handed out leaflets or asked pointed questions at the end, they would have been fine. But, she says, they crossed the line.

Schroeder also says the charges against the Muslim students are not politically, religiously or racially motivated.

"If you change the names of who the players are, it wouldn’t have made a difference. If it had been a Martin Luther King who came to speak to UCI and it was a band of Ku Klux Klan members who conspired together days ahead to stop him from speaking, we would have done the same thing," Schroeder says. "It doesn’t matter who the defendants are. It doesn’t matter who’s speaking. It doesn’t matter who came to listen. It’s against the law to disturb a lawful meeting."

Schroeder points out that UCI campus police brought the case to the DA’s Office, not vice versa.

Roberts says a few months ago, Jewish Voice for Peace did what the Muslim students did. She says they disrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Orleans, but no one was arrested.

"We did exactly what the Irvine kids did. We criticized Israeli policy," Roberts says. "We did it as part of like a popcorn action with one person disrupting, then another person disrupting to emphasize our outrage and we were escorted out. And then nothing happened."

Roberts says she wouldn’t call it unusual for Jews to support Muslims.

"But I would say that it’s harder, I think, for Jews to speak up for Muslims because the conflict in the Middle East has ramifications over here. And people tend to think – I think both Jewish people and Muslim people tend to presume that people on the other side are their enemies. And that’s something that really shouldn’t continue into the future," Roberts explains.

"I know that when my great grandparents came here, I wish that there had been people from outside of our faith community who could have stood up for their rights. You know, when people disparage them for being immigrants, when people made up cockamamie conspiracy theories about Jews trying to take over the world, in the same way that they do about Muslims now," Roberts says. "I wish that somebody had been there for them."

Roberts says that’s why she’s standing up for her Muslim comrades.

Did they cross the line? The DA says they did. Now, a judge will settle it.