The ambassador, historian Michael Oren, came to the Orange County campus Monday to address an overflow crowd of more than 600 students, faculty and community members at the UCI Student Center on the subject “U.S.-Israel Relations: A Historical Perspective.”
He was interrupted 10 times by boisterous hecklers and dozens of jeering students before the anti-Israel protesters walked out en masse to stage a demonstration outside.
Security was tight on the campus, where the Muslim Student Union has been extremely active in staging anti-Israel protests, and where multiple clashes and unrest between anti- and pro-Israel demonstrators have occurred at public events.
In 2007, anti-Israel protesters unfurled provocative banners and heckled conservative political analyst Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum during a lecture titled “The Threat to Israel’s Existence.”
With rumors circulating of students’ plans to disrupt Oren’s speech, university officials spoke to Muslim Student Union members before the event in an attempt to ensure civil discourse, according to Shalom Elcott, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation Orange County.
The Muslim student group had issued an e-mail earlier in the day condemning Oren’s presence on campus.
Signs at the entry to the ballroom where Oren was to speak stated that no signs, posters, banners or flyers would be allowed inside.
Oren, a New Jersey native and best-selling author of two authoritative books on the Middle East, was less than two minutes into his talk when the first heckler jumped up and shouted, “Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” followed by thunderous applause and cheers from protesters seated in groups throughout the audience.
Oren continued to talk, only to be interrupted every few minutes by another protester and more cheering and boos. Many audience members also cheered Oren.
By the third interruption, police began escorting individual protesters out of the room. Opponents of Oren’s speech could be seen text messaging one another and using their cell phones to videotape the speech and the audience.
Mark Petracca, the event moderator and chair of the school’s political science department, urged a halt to the interruptions.
“This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave,” a visibly upset Petracca said from the podium, calling for respect and civility. “Shame on you.”
Fed up after several interruptions, Israel supporters called for detractors to leave while protesters responded with jeers. Oren walked off the stage after the fourth interruption, as university officials admonished protesters for their behavior.
Petracca and the school’s chancellor, Michael Drake, said they were embarrassed on behalf of the university.
“We do not value heckling; we do not value those who do not share our values of respect,” Drake said. “The principles that make us a great university have been violated this evening.”
Many Jewish audience members sang songs in support of Israel as they waited for the program to resume.
Oren returned to the stage nearly 20 minutes later, asking for a show of hospitality, which he said typifies Middle East culture. When dozens more protesters stood up and left the room as a group several minutes later, with only a few staying behind, Oren told the remaining audience members he wished that his detractors had stayed because he felt they needed to hear what he had to say.
Shouts and chanting could be heard from the street as Oren resumed his presentation uninterrupted.
“Every time there’s an event they’re opposed to, they disrupt it,” said Pam Chozen, a Laguna Beach resident who said she felt concerned for her personal safety. “No one from the other side would think of disrupting an MSU event.”
Oren described U.S.-Israel ties as “the most multifaceted and multilayered relationship the U.S. has ever had with another country.”
Despite initial disagreements, he said Israel’s government and the Obama administration have come to see eye to eye on several potential obstacles to engagement, including the need to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without preconditions and the danger posed by Iran as it continues to enrich uranium to potential weapons grade.
Oren’s speech was sponsored by a host of university and community organizations. It was made possible by a grant from the Rose Project of Jewish Federation Orange County.
“We wish the campus officials had been swifter to respond to these types of incidents and commend the university police and administration for taking action, making arrests and escorting protagonists out of the room,” said Elcott, the CEO of the federation. “We are confident that the university will follow through and take action against the students and the MSU, so these incidents can be eliminated and civil discourse can reign.”