How One Southern California Jewish Federation Undermines Student Zionism at a State University
by Jerry Gordon (June 2015)
Imagine a well-paid Jewish Federation head bullying Jewish students and faculty on a major California university campus about demonstrating support for Israel, all while currying favor with a myopic university Administration which was funding anti-Israel, and some might say anti-Semitic, campus programs with Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Palestinian student groups. Further, many of the leaders of this student Zionist group are committed Jews from Israeli family backgrounds whose forbearers were expelled from Middle East Muslim countries, others came from Ashkenazi backgrounds. Unbelievably, they all experienced abusive treatment from the Jewish Federation and Federation-employed campus Hillel directors, all while the campus Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters attacked Jewish students and interrupted several noted speakers resulting in at least one instance of prosecution and convictions for disrupting a public event. You’d say that was Orwellian fiction. However, these actions and episodes have been going on for a decade.
The campus in question is the University of California at Irvine, the Jewish student Zionist group is Anteaters for Israel (AFI) and the Federation President involved is Shalom Elcott of the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC). The antagonistic Muslim Student groups are the campus Muslim Student Union, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and Students for Justice in Palestine. Elcott may be pursuing what could be deemed as a ‘stealth J Street’ strategy furthering their meme of “pro-Peace pro-Israel” while consorting with Israel’s enemies. After all it runs in the Elcott family. His brother David M. Elcott is a professor at Wagner College of New York University and a former head of the Interreligious program at the American Jewish Committee in Manhattan. He also happens to be a member of the J Street advisory council. An Americans for Peace and Tolerance video documentary, J Street Challenge highlighted the anti-Israel activities of the Soros-backed organization with pro-Iranian regime board members.
Over the past several years we have chronicled anti-Israel hate mongering by campus Muslim Student groups and interruption of the opposing views of pro-Israel speakers and events at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). In a series of New English Review (NER) articles, interviews and Iconoclast blog posts we revealed the heckler’s veto of former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren in February 8, 2010 by an organized disruption of his speech by campus members of the Muslim Student Union (MSU). That was followed by the arrest, prosecution and conviction of 11 students, 8 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside for disturbing a public event. The legal action brought by the Orange County District Attorney triggered a one year suspension of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate by the Administration only to be reduced to 10 weeks by the retiring Vice Chancellor at UCI. In the interim, Students for Justice in Palestine was formed as a placeholder for the suspended MSU. We also unraveled the story behind the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) affiliate, the Rose Project, which funds the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) that brought students to Israel and the West Bank in 2009 for an alleged chance encounter with a Hamas leader, Aziz Duwaik, former Speaker of the Palestine Legislative Council. See our NER expose article:”Does the Olive Tree Initiative have Credibility?” We questioned both the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) and the UCI Administration dissembling over these incidents and others.
UCI has a comparatively small Jewish student body versus a much larger Muslim one. For most of the 31 weeks of the academic year on the UCI campus, things are relatively quiet. However, during Anti Zionism Week (AZW) and Israel Festival, iFEST, sponsored by Anteaters for Israel (AFI), the decibel levels and protests hate towards Israel rises to a veritable crescendo. The AZW events organized by the MSU have typically involved anti-Israel speakers, and in the past some like Malik Ali, holding forth with anti-Semitic statements at noon events at the flagpole. Despite this, JFOC President Shalom Elcott has suggested in the past, there is no anti-Semitism at UCI. (See Iconoclast post by UCIrvine alumna and former AFI leader Reut Cohen on “Evidence of Islamic Antisemitism at Universty of California at Irvine.”) Last year, an assault by MSU protesters disrupted iFEST with calls for campus police assistance that resulted in a woman student being upbraided by a JFOC board member. This year AFI President Sharon Shaoulian organized a three day event from April 22 to 24th without JFOC funding, but with sponsors including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), StandWithUs, CAMERA on Campus, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and Hasbara. Hillel, with is affiliated with JFOC, provided funding for Shabbat.
What happened during iFEST on April 23, 2015 revealed why JFOC has undermined Jewish student Zionism at UCI. This year it was triggered by an ambush by MSU and Students for Justice in Palestine (JSP) who came pouring out of the Campus Cultural Center to protest the Jewish student Zionist group, Anteaters for Israel’s (AFI) during their iFEST Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration of Israel’s Independence. The iFEST attendees in opposition to the MSU/SJP protesters created space between the opposing groups with massed Israeli and American flags and Israeli dances. A Frontpage Magazine article by Arnold Ahlert “Pro-Israel Student Group Meets Opposition from Jewish Leadership” revealed what happened when JFOC President Shalom Elcott and aide Lisa Armony, Hillel Executive, intervened:
Witness Gary Fouse, adjunct UCI lecturer, reported that Lisa Armony, Director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and Hillel Executive, was among those attempting to move the flag wavers back. One witness reported that they were “approached and told that it was wrong for anyone holding a flag to be standing facing the MSU/anti-Israel faction.” The witness was told that waving the flags was “antagonizing.” One of the flag wavers, who did not wish to be named, said that students who “seemed to be pressured by someone else” approached him and other flag carriers “and told us that we should not march with the flags since it ‘makes us look bad.’” It was further suggested to him that they move down the street and away from the area.
This witness also saw the far more troubling exchange between a man subsequently identified as Shalom Elcott, JFOC president and CEO, and AFI president Sharon Shaoulian. Elcott was seen “getting in the face of” Shaoulian, a third-year student, and screaming at her. As the witness explained, “I did not hear what this man said, but I saw Sharon break into tears,” he recalled.
Shaoulian confirmed that Elcott “advanced on me in a threatening fashion and began screaming at me and berating me” and was “looking down at me two inches away from my face.” He “blamed me for ‘inciting’ the MSU/SJP to come out to protest,” though the anti-Israel protest happens every year. Elcott allegedly called Shaoulian “derogatory names, a ‘liar’ and a ‘disgrace.”
Kiosk on UCIrvine Ring Road during MSU/SJP Anti-Zionism Week 2015
May 4 to 7, 2015 was the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine at UCI annual Anti-Zionism Week (AZW). During AZW, Anteaters for Israel (AFI) put up a kiosk that offered falafel along with an appeal for aid to earthquake ridden Nepal. Down the Ring Road on the UCI campus, a kiosk was being put up bedecked with both a Palestinian and Israel Flags and a prominent red and white poster with a twitter slogan hashtag# Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies. That was a campaign that arose last summer in the midst of the third Hamas rocket and terror tunnel war against Israel, Operation Defensive Edge. The twitter campaign was the brainchild of two Hunter College students in Manhattan; one a Syrian Muslim woman student, the other a male Israeli student. The slogan went viral and appeared at rallies organized in Tel Aviv by Meretz and other leftist groups in Israel. They were opposed to Israeli PM Netanyahu refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority over establishment of a state. Sharon Shaoulian witnessed Ms. Armony, Rose Project director and Drew Alyeshmerni, Campus initiatives manager setting up the kiosk.
Gary Fouse noted in a Fousesquawk blog post:
Based on my sources, my own observations, and conversations, I believe that this booth was set up by the Jewish Federation of Orange County and OC Hillel… If I am correct on all of the above, it would cast further doubt on the Orange County Jewish Federation’s professed support for Israel.
If the Jewish Federation and Hillel want to join hands and sing Kumbaya with the pro-Palestinian side that is their business. Of more concern to me is their embrace of #Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies. From what I see thus far, the latter organization has a definite tilt to the Palestinian side. The folks who set up that table at UCI last week should also have openly stated who it is they were representing. In my opinion, that was the OC Jewish Federation and OC Hillel.
Couple all of this with the performance of the leaders of these two organizations at the recent I-Fest event at UCI when it was disrupted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. In my opinion, both organizations are actively working against the students at Anteaters for Israel.
The JFOC lashes out at FrontpageMagazine and Carolyn Glick of the Jerusalem Post
On May 5, 2015, Carolyn Glick commented about the altercation at AFI’s UCI iFEST in a Jerusalem Post (JP) column, “Siding with the Victims of Aggression”:
Last month, the heads of the Jewish Federation in Orange County reportedly interfered with student celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut at University of California at Irvine on behalf of Muslim anti-Israel protesters who sought to ruin the festivities. According to a report of the events at the online FrontpageMagazine, the pro-Israel students separated participants in their event from Muslim student protesters by placing a line of students waving Israeli and American flags between them.
The move was angrily opposed by Federation Director Lisa Armony and Federation President Shalom Elcott. They reportedly insisted that the Israeli flags be taken down because they were “antagonizing” the anti-Israel protesters.
The accusation against JFOC of the FPM exposé and Glick’s JP column comment led to the response by Armony in a JP blog post, “Turning against fellow pro-Israel advocates“ of May 14th:
The accusation that we interfered with a Yom Ha’atzmaut [Independence Day] celebration at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) on behalf of anti-Israel protesters is based solely on a recent piece from the online FrontpageMagazine. The blogger relied primarily on unnamed sources and unsubstantiated assertions to paint a misleading picture of the festival, JFFS, and Elcott’s and my activities.
We reject the claims in the article that we told people to stop waving Israeli flags at anti-Israel protesters, claiming that we accept anti-Jewish discrimination on campus and “stand with the (anti-Israel) aggressor against the (Jewish) victim.”
FrontpageMagazine on May 15, 2015 published an editorial castigating Shalom Elcott and Armony for obfuscating what occurred at the AFI event witnessed by others, “An Attack on Front Page from the Jewish Federation of Orange County.” That was crystallized by the May 4th FPM article suggesting that their interference at the iFEST event and shameful attack on AFI President Shaoulian were an affront to decency and unwarranted. FPM considers JFOC’s defense of its actions calumnious. The FPM editorial concluded:
Without a doubt the JFOC has much to answer for. The JFOC can be assured Frontpage will continue our no-holds-barred coverage of its brazen attacks on Jewish students and pro-Israel activists without apology.
JFOC Elcott’s interference with Hillel and Jewish student Zionist activities on the UCI campus amounts to bullying reflected in denial of free speech rights of Shaoulian and fellow AFI members. It amounts to a heckler’s veto equivalent to what occurred in 2010 during former Israeli US Ambassador Oren’s speech at UCI when MSU members shut down his talk. The Elcott and Armony actions at iFEST and subsequent slander of both Glick and FPM do not serve the interests of the Jewish student community at UCI. Ms. Armony’s Jerusalem Post blog post upbraiding Glick and FPM was emblematic of what Dr. Johnson once said about patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel. Witness JFOC claiming the mantle of a “responsible” adult leadership on all pro-Israel activities at UCI implying less than adult behavior by Zionist group AFI. That is truly topsy turvy chutzpah. The screaming attack by Elcott against Shaoulian demeaning her is not “adult behavior.” It is indicative of manifestly deep rooted animus against critics of his leadership at JFOC. Those include concerned Jewish community supporters of the Jewish Student Zionism of AFI. The JFOC attacks against Nonie Darwish slanderously accusing her of being an “Islamophobe” prevented her from speaking at an AFI-sponsored event in 2014. These actions are indicative of an out of control leadership at JFOC.
What the AFI Student Zionist leaders have to say about JFOC and Hillel at UCI
The consistency of the animosity by JFOC President towards AFI is reflected in the comments of the AFI Zionist group leaders in both published remarks and interviews culminating in one we did with current President, Sharon Shaoulian.
A former AFI leader:
I got a lot of character assassination from Shalom Elcott. After I graduated I went to work for Stand With Us (SWU) I was told that, in a meeting, Elcott called me an extremist and the Federation decided not to work with me and SWU. I was pushed out of the community, but my work with the ZOA left me a bit of a player. I knew I was leaving the area and had really given up on changing the minds of Federation people by then. I had spent most of college slightly removed from Hillel and trying to keep Anteaters for Israel away from Hillel control, since I could tell they were unwilling to deal with the real problems facing the campus. I had been painted as a troublemaker even during my presidency by some community members. At the beginning of our attempt to raise awareness of what was happening on campus, before OTI, most community organizations wanted to be part of the fight. However, ADL was the first to turn against students in my senior year. Things went downhill from there and when Hillel didn’t reprimand ADL for downplaying problems on campus, I saw the writing on the wall.
Reut Cohen, AFI Secretary from 2005 to 2008
Reut Cohen is Israeli born from a Mizrahi/Sephardic background from Iraq whose relatives had suffered depredations in the 1941 Farhud in Baghdad and in Damascus, Syria in the 1990’s. (See Ms. Cohen’s Iconoclast post on her family’s history or mistreatment and expulsion from Muslim lands.) During her three years at UCI she assumed a spokesperson leadership position for AFI bringing as speakers Daniel Pipes and Nonie Darwish only to have their appearances interrupted and heckled by MSU activists. In our NER interview with Cohen she remarked:
Both prior to being involved with AFI, during my involvement and after I had graduated, I experienced or heard of others experiencing multiple situations on campus that I would deem anti-Semitic. Personal experiences include, but are not limited to: being followed around campus by Muslim Student Union male members; having a camera shoved into my face by a member of the MSU; hearing multiple speakers pray for and call for the demise of the State of Israel; hearing Israelis being referred to as “Zio-Nazis”; being accosted on my way to class during annual anti-Israel weeks; and capturing an incident on camera in which MSU members expressed solidarity with jihad overseas.
Simply put … if the Federation loses control, they lose money. In the Federation’s case, it appeared that they had a vested interest in appeasing the UCI administration. In one instance, I quoted the vice chancellor at the time saying that “one person’s hate speech” is another’s education. I was berated by Federation officials. My mother even got a phone call from the dean of students, which scared her into thinking something had happened to me. That episode, which happened early on, really made it abundantly clear that there were a lot of vested interests and people who expected you to jump at their say so.
I had my reputation ruined. That wasn’t a good feeling, but I am deeply aware that my grandparents experienced far worse than I did. The least I could do was stand up for the one country they found refuge in.
I don’t think many Jews have much of a Jewish identity. I think for many Jews, being Jewish is sometimes an embarrassment. And Israel becomes an inconvenience.
In my case, my identity is too strong to bend to intimidation tactics. The State of Israel absolutely has to exist. Responding to “Israel will soon be wiped off the map” with “we want peace” (which were actually popular signs created by Hillel students during my time), is a ridiculous reaction to contempt for the Jewish people.
Daniel Narvy, AFI President from 2013 to 2014, now in training with the IDF in Israel
In a Times of Israel blog post, Narvy commented on his experience as an AFI leader at UCI:
Irvine, for Jewish students, spring quarter is shaped by two events: anti-Israel week which we call “Hate Week,” and iFEST, a weeklong celebration of Israel. My freshman year, I remember sitting at a booth during iFEST, watching Artists 4 Israel paint a mural on campus. The mural turned out great, the only problem was, students were not engaged, and the event went unnoticed. Fast forward one week, during “Hate Week,” the anti-Israel wall, a structure slandering and delegitimizing Israel’s existence was constantly surrounded by students. Their event was popular, it was effective, their lies and distortions were going unchallenged. This was the moment I realized the strategy to defend Israel on my campus needed to be changed.
I have seen what tactics work, what tactics prove less effective. One big difference I noticed between defenders and delegitimizes of Israel was the level of passion our opponents brought. iFEST was the biggest event of the year for the Jewish students, but the excitement wasn’t there. On the other hand, members of the Muslim Student Union, the sponsor of most anti-Israel activity on campus ended their week with a sense of accomplishment.
Following, the rejection by the JFOC and Hillel cancellation of funding for an appearance by Nonie Darwish at UCI in May 2014, Narvy replied in a Frontpage Magazine article about the incident:
AFI was told that Hillel and the Jewish Federation did not want to sponsor iFEST and those funds for a Shabbat dinner would be withdrawn if Darwish’s speech would be a part of iFEST activities. Narvy also alleges that Hillel cast Darwish as a divisive speaker, an Islamophobe and an extremist and urged Hillel board members and on-campus organizations in the Jewish community to oppose the talk and withdraw affiliation.
“The clubs who were told about Nonie as a speaker told us they would join Hillel’s boycott and withdraw from any participation in a week-long celebration of Israel if Nonie was invited to speak on campus,” Narvy said. In the process, AFI was smeared for promoting extremist programming.
Hillel expressed concerns about the direction he would lead clubs as a politically conservative and traditional Jewish student. “Hillel has [its own] political and religious agenda and, as we have seen, Hillel will censor and in this case sanction people who deviate from Hillel’s narrow-minded political agenda.
Hillel no longer represents the Zionist students on campus. It intimidates the students who do not agree with not saying anything or doing anything in the face of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
It is extremely unfortunate that, rather than enabling and empowering the Jewish students on campus who want to make a difference, Hillel’s stance is to fight against them and attempt to control their decisions. Hillel claims to be the Jewish student union on campus; with these types of actions, clearly it is not.
Interview with Sharon Shaoulian President of Anteaters for Israel, University of California at Irvine
Jerry Gordon: Sharon, I’d like to start this dialogue by asking you what your Jewish background is.
Sharon Shaoulian: My parents are immigrants from Iran who came to Israel. They grew up in Israel most of their lives and our home is a very conservative, traditional Jewish home. We celebrate the holidays. We have Shabbat every week. We attend Shul.
Gordon: How long has Anteaters for Israel been in existence at the University of California at Irvine?
Shaoulian: To the best of my knowledge, a decade.
Gordon: When did you join AFI and become president?
Shaoulian: I joined AFI in 2012 when I was a freshman, and I became president last year in August 2014.
Gordon: The University of California at Irvine has been the focus of a number of events that has brought national attention. I wonder if you could give us a brief rundown on some of the more significant controversies that have occurred on campus.
Shaoulian: In my opinion the campus was a lot more problematic before I entered as a Freshman. We had the Irvine 11 students from the Muslim Student Union (MSU) who interrupted former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren’s speech which resulted in a trial and the MSU being suspended becoming a big deal on the campus. The MSU brought Malik Ali, numerous times during, Anti-Israel Apartheid Week (now renamed Anti-Zionism Week) which was very climatic on the campus. I would say in the three years that I’ve been here the campus is fairly quiet, even with the MSU. I don’t think they are remotely as bad as people think that they are at UCI. Generally, they only act out during one week during iFEST (Israel Festival) and then one week during, anti-Israel Apartheid week. But generally, for the other 31 weeks of the academic year I would say the campus is very quiet.
Gordon: What is the relationship of groups in the community in support of activities like AFI at UCI. in particular, Hillel on campus, and the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC or the Federation)?
Shaoulian: Hillel has a student run board at UCI and we get along very well, because these students are generally close friends. However, because Hillel and the Rose Project of the OCJF are so closely tied together, and because now they share an executive director, one of the heads of Rose Project is an acting director of Hillel; the organizations are now pretty much one and the same. So, a lot of the time the Federation will force the hands of the Student Board of Hillel and make decisions that adversely affect the students of AFI. The Federation hasn’t really supported AFI this year or last year. I know that in previous years, to be fair, the Federation has wholeheartedly supported AFI. However, that has not really been the case in the last two years.
Gordon: The Rose Project you mentioned a few minutes ago, is that an affiliate of the Jewish Federation for Orange County?
Gordon: And what other activities has the Rose Project supported on campus at UCI?
Shaoulian: To the best of my knowledge, they have supported OTI.
Gordon: What is OTI?
Shaoulian: OTI is the Olive Tree initiative on the campus. On other campuses such as UCLA, OTI is said to be more pro-Israel. Here, the group is comprised primarily by students who hate Israel, while the group has said it promotes a view that it is fair and tolerant, in reality they’re very anti-Israel. I know that the Rose Project of the OCJF have funded programs for students to go on OTI trips to Israel and the West Bank. In 2009 OTI students went to the West Bank and met with a Hamas leader. So now the Rose Project of the OCJF says that they don’t support OTI anymore, but I’m not sure that is the case.
Gordon: You had a recent, exchange with the head of the Orange County Jewish Federation. I wonder if you could talk about that and the context in which that exchange occurred?
Shaoulian: Yes, it happened on April the 23rd, which was a big festival day for AFI during iFEST. Because the Federation threatened AFI through another student, not to associate with the Zionist Organization of America, my board and I decided that it would be prudent not to ask for a Rose Project grant and stand more independently on our own. So it was kind of baffling to us to see Federation CEO Shalom Elcott and one other Rose Project employee, Lisa Armony and Drew Alyeshmerni at iFEST that day. It was very surprising for us to see them on campus. They weren’t speaking to any of our students. They were largely ignoring our student board that sponsored iFEST; initially they didn’t really bother us.
When the Muslim Student Union protest started at noon, Hillel and AFI and AEPi and AEPhi students were working together. We were busy running the festival. When the protest occurred, a student approached me and asked me what is going on with the protestors. I explained what the protest was and that they do this every year. The person then asked me, “What do you think we should do?”
And I said, “You know, last year they tried to rush through our event and they assaulted a couple of students, so I think that this year we should, stand our ground and, be braver. It is our event. I think we should stay in our place.”
We were walking towards Shalom Elcott so he heard me pretty much the entire time, and that’s when he started advancing on me. I’m five feet tall, and so he got very close to my face, just centimeters away from my face, peering down, screaming at me in front of everybody. He called me a liar repeatedly, “You’re a liar. You’re a liar. They’re not going to come rush through the event. You’re inciting all of these people.” He told me that I was a disgrace, that the protesters were here because of me, that I caused all of this uproar, and that I should be ashamed of myself.
When he paused, while berating me, I told him, “You know, sir, what you are talking about? They [meaning MSU protesters] are here every single year. They’re not here because of me. They’re here because we’re trying to be pro-Israel on this campus and they won’t stand for that.”
Elcott continued to yell and to make a scene. I flat out told him, “You, sir, you and Rose Project, you didn’t give us any funding for this event. You expressly told your son, Jordan, not to be a part of iFEST. So, with all due respect, why are you even here? You know, if you didn’t want to have a stake in this event, why are you even here at our event?”
He didn’t say anything. He obviously had nothing to say. That’s when I told him. “You know what? You should be ashamed that you’re screaming at me that you’re yelling at me.” He started recording me. While this was going on, community members were defending me and trying to get him to back away from me. I think a lot of people were nervous about his proximity to me and the level that he was screaming at me. Eventually we were pulled apart. That is when Lisa Armony caught what he did and tried to defend the action to my own parents.
A host of students told me that later on they saw Elcott going around to students and community members – he was going around telling people that he will do the event better next year. If students choose to tie themselves to the Federation and to the Rose Project the event will be better, that we did a terrible job this year and he’s going to do a better job next year. Then Rose Project Executive Lisa Armony was heard going around to students. A handful of students who came up to me said that she was spreading around that the iFEST event is not successful, that other Hillels on other campuses do much better Israel festivals. That it looks like the UCI students aren’t supporting the event, even though, there were of students present from all types of Israel organizations, Jewish organizations and non-Jewish organizations. So the two of them, JFOC CEO Shalom Elcott and Hillel executive director and Rose Director Lisa Armony were pretty much trying to slander the event to whoever they could in addition to screaming at me.
Gordon: A few years ago there was another controversy at UCI and it had to do with a boycott divestment, and sanctions international campaign. Was there a university vote on the question of whether they would participate in that or not and what was the result?
Shaoulian: Yes, when I was a freshman, in November the student government, at UCI, passed it. There was no transparency. Usually legislation is supposed to be posted on the website a number of days or weeks in advance so that students can come and voice their opinions on it. There was no such transparency with this piece of legislation, so the leaders of Hillel and AFI at the time did not know that this was being voted on. So one night, to everyone’s surprise, it was passed 16 to 0. The UCI Chancellor Drake and the administration immediately released a response saying that the University is not going to divest, that the administration doesn’t support this, because the University has many ties to Israeli universities, and would never divest. I was part of a group of students that went through a lengthy appeals process, both with the judicial board and with the legislative council, trying to get it overturned, but unfortunately, we lost that as well.
Gordon: Could you identify for us the groups on campus that are in opposition during what is called Israel Apartheid Week or at iFEST?
Shaoulian: Yes. They are the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine.
Gordon: We have seen Students for Justice in Palestine engage in eviction notices posted on Jewish dorm rooms on other campuses in the US. What has been the experience with SJP at UCI?
Shaoulian: In my experience, their tactics are to intimidate, to scare students to silence their voice. The way that they do that is in a very subtle manner. They’ve learned their lesson from previous years. It is in ways that cannot be easily reported or dealt with by the campus police. For example when we advertise for an event at the Cross-Cultural Center they will either protest the event or they’ll go and chalk hateful, anti-Israel, or anti-Jewish, slander all over the building so as to intimidate students and bring us down. They might stand outside of the event and make so much noise that it’s almost impossible to hear the speaker. They do things that seemingly are in line with freedom of speech or protected speech.
Gordon: What is the Jewish student body like at UCI?
Shaoulian: I know that the number of Jewish students is very low compared to the number of Muslim students. I’m disappointed to say this but it’s true that the Jewish students that we do have are largely apathetic. They need to be coaxed to come out to an event that has real content. They don’t want to call themselves Zionists. They are largely assimilated. They only come out to things that benefit them in some way. I would say with the exception of certain exceptional students from different boards, the majority of the students in Jewish organizations are not supportive or super pro-Israel or being super pro-anything on the campus. When the anti-Israel Apartheid Awareness Week occurs most of the Jewish students don’t exhibit a strong response. They just hunker down, lower their head and get through the week. I didn’t know that when I came here. That was extremely disappointing to find out.
Gordon: Do you have any support from faculty at UCI?
Shaoulian: I know that we have a very nice Jewish studies department, but honestly, like AFI, we don’t work with them too much on campus. We tend to work with outside organizations a lot.
Gordon: Do you think the atmosphere at UCI is indicative of what we can expect on many campuses across this country?
Shaoulian: I would say maybe we’re even a little better. We don’t have a J Street that works against us. We don’t have the extremely left wing at Hillel. We don’t have to worry about that. However, we have other problems. We have a very large SJP and MSU. Moreover, we do have a local Federation that is very difficult to work with. I wouldn’t say we’re a lot better. I wouldn’t say we’re a lot worse. Just an average campus.
Gordon: Last year a speaker was invited to your campus, Nonie Darwish. What was that incident about?
Shaoulian: I think it was my idea at iFEST to bring a speaker at the flagpole that was non-Jewish to talk about why she supports Israel, because it would be more powerful. So the former AFI president Daniel Narvey and I decided we would bring Nonie Darwish. So we contacted her. She said, “Yes.” At the time we had applied for a Rose Project grant from the Federation and to their credit, they had given us funding in years past, aside from this year. We had informed them in the past who would speak at iFEST in the grant applications. Last year, as soon as they found out that it was Nonie Darwish that was coming to speak, they told us, “We are going to withdraw our funding from you if you bring her during that week.” They said, “Do not bring her during iFEST. If you bring her during iFEST we cannot support you.” And they told us that they would withdraw the funding and that no Hillel student will be able to participate in the festival. Hillel wouldn’t be a part of it. In addition, when we asked them why they would do that, Lisa Armony told us that, “Just like when MSU brings a Jewish speaker to slander Israel and it hurts us, it would be the same if Nonie came and she would hurt them.” So she told us, “We’re not going to stoop to their level by bringing her.” That’s what she told us.
Gordon: So it was a false moral relativism action on their part?
Gordon: Before we conclude, do you want to say anything regarding what you consider to be the future at UCI for AFI, because, after all, you’re going to be graduating next year? What do you think your legacy is going to be for the next entering class of Jewish students at UCI?
Shaoulian: Before me there were a few students, who were like me. Last year’s president, Daniel Narvey, and I were very similar. There were a few students before him that were like us. Without being arrogant, I would say that students like us are rare. I don’t see a lot of them left on this campus. But I’m doing my best. This year is very important that we took a stand to take back our terminology that Zionism is not a dirty word. I feel like part of what I try to do is to be honest and bold. If MSU wants to come and protest during iFEST that’s fine. However, we’re going to continue doing iFEST and we’re going to continue being pro-Israel on campus. If MSU considers the Cross-Cultural Center as their territory, well, guess what? It’s a public space and as much as we’re intimidated or afraid to go in there, we’re going to be there. I try to let Jewish students know that it’s not an easy campus. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had chosen another campus. College years are very formative ones and students need to stand up for themselves and not allow anybody else to dictate to them who they are.
Gordon: Sharon, I want to thank you for this rather enlightening discussion about activities at UCI. I wish you the very best for your post-grad activities and aspirations. My comment is that you are a true daughter of Israel and we would like to have more examples like you on campuses, not only at UCI, but throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Shaoulian: Thank you.
Gordon: Thank you very much.
This expose of what has gone on at over the past decade with JFOC and Hillel undermining the Jewish student Zionists of AFI is reflected in these comments of Gary Fouse, adjunct faculty member at UCI.
Fouse wrote in an email exchange:
As a Gentile who cares deeply about the issue of Antisemitism, I have been frustrated by having to deal with certain factions of the Jewish community who don’t seem to be concerned about such a life and death issue. The first time I met Elcott during one of the anti-Israel events in 2007 or 2008, he told me that there was no anti-Semitism at UCI. I was astounded.
Since then I have seen how the Fed and Hillel have tried to thwart every effort we have made to alert the community to the problems at UCI during these hate weeks. I can only conclude that:
1. They have a conflict of interest in that they don’t want any bad news about UCI to get out lest Jewish students decide to go elsewhere. Thus, they lose their reason for being.
2. They want to maintain control. To that I say – who gave them authority over Jewish students at UCI?
3. The Federation behaves like J-Street which really doesn’t support Israel.
AFI leaders at UCI like Cohen, Narvy and Shaoulian are not the first pro-Zionist students to be set upon by leaders from outside Jewish communal organizations seeking to impose their views. As illustrated in the UCI AFI case, students should exercise their autonomy on campus to express their pro-Israel beliefs. Jewish Federations in America provide a broad range of useful community services. But in the UCI – AFI case clearly JFOC intervening, monitoring and attempting to control students has been unwarranted and divisive. Universities are supposed to be an open forum for exchange of ideas and views. However, increasingly, political correctness and false moral relativism have trumped meaningful debate. This despite guarantees of both free and protected speech under our First Amendment. Thus, interference by outside Jewish organizations in students’ expression of support for Israel goes against the Judeo-Christian values that are the core of our foundational documents in America. What we have written is a cautionary tale. One that prods the pro-Israel grassroots community and organizations to develop a better plan that fosters, not hinders, campus Zionism.
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