The Jewish students at the University of California-Irvine and our supporters took a strong stand this month, showing our campus community that we will not be intimidated or allow our vocal support for Israel to be stifled.
Last month, a pro-Israel event sponsored by the UC Irvine student organization, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), with support from Hillel, was targeted by anti-Israel protestors on the UCI campus.
A dozen students had gathered in a classroom to watch the Jerusalem U film, “Beneath the Helmet.” The program was meant to inform young people how their contemporaries in Israel prepare physically, mentally and emotionally for the awesome task of protecting their country. A screaming mob disrupted the screening, tried to force their way into the room and chased one student into hiding after she had been caught outside when the protestors arrived. Our students and staff had to be protected by campus police.
How ironic that at a sight intended for learning, anti-Israel students tried to shut learning down. Through bullying masquerading as social justice, they sought to make a statement that engagement with Israel will be met with harassment and intimidation.
The incident made news. It scared some people. And it made people question whether pro-Israel students can safely hold events on their own campus.
Three weeks later, the campus and broader communities made a statement of a different kind. More than 400 students, alumni and Jewish community members gathered for a rescreening of “Beneath the Helmet” at the UCI Student Center, on an evening that will be remembered as truly special.
IDF Cmdr. Eden Adler, featured in the film, attended the event and shared his personal story with the audience. We were joined by colleagues and friends from many other organizations who partnered with us on this event, including Chabad of UCI, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships and the Secure Community Network of Jewish Federations of North America.
While the first screening was met with hostility, the rescreening, nearly 40 times bigger, was peaceful and celebratory.
Our messages that night were clear. The community and the university will not allow our students’ right to engage with Israel on campus to be curtailed. Freedom of speech and assembly, and the rights to inquire and learn, are fundamental values of UCI that belong not to only some students, but to everyone. Most important, our students stated forthrightly that despite the egregious incident of May 18, they feel safe at UCI. They implored audience members to send their children and grandchildren to UCI in order to grow and strengthen the community of students connected to Israel.
Lisa Armony is executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County and director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.