UC Irvine Hillel Forces Cancellation of Pro-Israel Speaker

No place for conservative Jewish students -- or their speakers.

index8On the heels of Brandeis University’s controversial decision to rescind an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, organizers of a week-long pro-Israel event called iFest, which is currently underway at the University of California, Irvine, say they have been forced to cancel a scheduled speech by Nonie Darwish, a prominent pro-Israel speaker. Lead iFest organizer Daniel Narvy, president of the campus group Anteaters for Israel (AFI), who will be joining the Israeli Defense Forces this summer, says Orange County Hillel was primarily responsible for the cancellation and that the incident is another example of Hillel’s marginalization of Narvy due to his conservative and traditional views. 

Nonie Darwish is the founder and president of FormerMuslimsUnited, an advocacy group for Islamic apostates, and Arabs for Israel, an organization that promotes a positive outlook among Arabs toward the Jewish State and advocates for peace in the region. Darwish was born and raised in Egypt during the most tumultuous period of the Arab-Israeli conflict and is the daughter of Col. Mustafa Hafez, former head of Egyptian intelligence in the Sinai and Gaza, who led multiple operations against Israel during the 1950s. Due to his activities, Darwish’s father was killed by the Israeli military in 1956 by a mail bomb when she was 8 years old, which greatly impacted her negative views toward the Jewish State. 

Darwish, understanding firsthand the extreme anti-Semitism fueling the Arab world’s decades-long war of annihilation against Israel — the remnants of which are still seen in much of the Middle East’s disposition toward Israel today — was slated to speak about her journey from anti-Zionist to ardent Zionist and what propelled her to become such a vocal advocate for Israel despite both her father’s death and her anti-Jewish upbringing in Egypt. Darwish believes that being pro-Israel does not mean being anti-Arab and vice versa, and that Israelis and Arabs should strive for mutual respect and inclusiveness. 

IFest is a week-long celebration of Israel portraying the country in a positive light following the UCI Muslim Student Union’s “Anti-Zionism Week,” which concluded May 1st. Anti-Zionism Week promoted themes reminiscent of Iran’s 2005 “A World Without Zionism" conference and the United Nations’ 1975 resolution declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism,” which was part of the Arab-Soviet strategy to delegitimize and expel Israel from the United Nations. In the same vein, the MSU event discussed such topics as “borders and racism” and featured a standing wall displaying panels reading “Zionism=Racism” and declaring the whole of Israel to be “occupied territory.”

A number of university groups and off-campus organizations agreed to co-sponsor or participate in iFest, including CAMERA, Hasbara Fellowships, Stand With Us, ZOA, and the Jewish Federation of Orange County. On-campus participants included chapters of AEPi, AEPhi, Chabad and Hillel. Darwish’s speech was scheduled to take place Tuesday, May 6, as part of a Yom Ha’atzmaut festival, which commemorates Israel Independence Day. 

However, according to Narvy, a meeting was convened last week, which he was not invited to, between representatives from Hillel, representatives from the Jewish Federation and campus police. Police were seeking to resolve security management issues due to a simultaneous campus visit from new University of California President and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Officers believed that both Napolitano and Darwish would attract protesters and careful planning would be required to accommodate both events.

After the meeting, AFI was told that Hillel and the Jewish Federation did not want to sponsor iFest and that 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, Narvy says, AFI was smeared for promoting extremist programming. 

In a response to a request for comment, Hillel leadership stated:

The decision by several Jewish campus organizations and their community partners not to endorse Ms. Darwish's talk resulted from concerns over the time, place and manner of her proposed presentation in light of another event scheduled to take place on campus that day.  Those concerns were shared with AFI, along with the suggestion that Ms. Darwish speak either that same day in a different venue, or on another day.  I received an e-mail from Daniel Narvy that stated, “The AFI board decided that Nonie Darwish will NOT be speaking during iFest because we do not want to have any events that cause a division in our community.”

Jewish campus organizations and their community partners, in partnership with the UCI administration, have worked hard to improve the campus climate for Israel and Jewish students.  We will continue to take actions that serve the long-term best interests of the campus community. 

Narvy, however, says he was told by campus police that they would help accommodate security at both Napolitano’s and Darwish’s speeches. Hillel did not respond to follow-up questions on what the specific concerns were regarding the time, place and manner of Darwish’s presentation or whether Hillel encouraged opposition to Darwish over her alleged Islamophobia and extremism. Neither did Hillel explain to AFI, when pressed, exactly why it did not want Darwish to speak, Narvy reports.

The UCI Hillel chapter and the Orange County Jewish Federation have their own history of controversy with extremists, particularly virulently anti-Israel individuals. In 2010 the UCI Hillel student president was criticized for promoting a campus talk by a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group that has endorsed violence and “armed resistance” against Israel and whose activists have been photographed with assault weapons in the company of Palestinian operatives. 

The OC Jewish Federation has provided funding for a campus group called the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), which organized a secret meeting between students and Hamas leader Aziz Duwaik in 2009. The OTI offers trips to Israel for students to meet with pro-Israel speakers as well as major leaders in the anti-Israel movement, such as Mazin Qumsiyeh, a BDS movement co-founder who likens Israel to Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, and George Rishmawi, a co-founder of the ISM and tour guide for the OTI.

Although disappointed, Narvy is not surprised by the turn of events. He says that throughout his time at UC Irvine, Hillel administrators have blocked his attempts to obtain leadership positions. When Narvy wanted to run for president of AFI, which was taken over by Hillel from 2011-13, Narvy says Hillel deviated from the club’s protocol and that Hillel staff and select students decided on leadership without formally holding elections in which he could run.

Narvy said 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.” 

While Narvy says the tactics and financial strong-arming used to quash the Darwish talk are reprehensible, he is less frustrated by Orange County Hillel than he is with Hillel International and “their liberal political agenda and their deviations from Torah-based Judaism.”  These problems are becoming widespread. At the University of Calgary in Canada, Hillel also blocked Darwish from coming to campus. As Calgary student Samantha Hamilton stated, “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.”

Despite his problems with Hillel, Narvy thinks it is important to note that UC Irvine’s Jewish and pro-Israel community have drastically improved since he has been on campus. He also appreciates the UCI Hillel program director’s work with students and does not believe the director played a role in the decision to block Darwish’s talk. Higher levels of Hillel, however, are another matter. “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,” Narvy said. “Hillel claims to be the Jewish student union on campus; with these type of actions, clearly it is not.”

Nichole Hungerford is associate editor of FrontPage Magazine. 

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