By Amirah Mizrahi, Antonia House and Emily Ratner
When we disrupted Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s keynote speech at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual general meeting last November in New Orleans, we were met with hisses, boos, verbal harassment and even physical attacks from other members of the audience. But criminal charges were never so much as mentioned. Yet, on September 23rd, ten students who interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine in February 2010 were convicted of two misdemeanors for their participation in that protest. Today, October 11, 2011, is a national day of action to protest those unjust convictions. We think it’s a perfect opportunity to look at the similarities and differences in these two actions.
In both protests, each person who stood up to bring attention to crimes committed by the Israeli government acted non-violently, and cooperated fully with security personnel and the police. So what was the difference? Why were we not arrested, charged and tried while the Irvine 11 were? Logically, the opposite should have been true: our target was bigger – the Prime Minister of Israel; our venue was bigger – the largest Jewish event in North America; and our protest came later – inspired in part by the brave actions of the Irvine 11. But there is one more difference, and it proved to be the crucial one: we are Jews and the Irvine 11 are Muslims.
The Irvine 11 inspired us to openly challenge propaganda that whitewashes military occupation and grave violations of human rights and international law. The Irvine 11 pushed us to name these crimes that are all but silenced in mainstream American media and discourse, and to demand that Israel’s representatives address them. The Irvine 11 reminded us of our moral responsibility to protest the Israeli military aggression that led to the deaths of over 1,400 Gazans during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, the humiliation and human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians on a daily basis, the illegal wall and settlements that separate Palestinians from their families and their livelihoods, and the second-class citizenship of Palestinian-Israelis.
But now, Orange County’s criminal justice system has sent a message that the Israeli ambassador’s right to speak without interruption is more worthy of protection than the right of American citizens to protest the illegal and unconscionable actions of Israel’s government, a government that is given access to countless forums in the United States – from New York Times op-eds, to CNN, to college campuses, to Congress – to perpetuate propaganda that whitewashes its crimes. Even more disturbing, the fact that the Irvine 11 were charged and tried while we were let off without a mark (as were other non-Muslim protesters in Orange County who later interrupted Dick Cheney and George W. Bush) is testament to the influence of Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism and blind support for Israel on contemporary American society and political discourse.
The day the Irvine 11 were convicted was a shameful day for the American legal system. The principle of free expression is fundamental to democracy, and the Irvine 11’s conviction constitutes a chilling attack on all Americans’ right to free speech. Moreover, this clear targeting of a minority group should set off alarm bells for those who abhor racism and strive for the protection of equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. We fear for those whom our justice system would silence in order to protect the powerful.
We join the administration of UC Irvine and the dean of UC Irvine’s law school, along with proponents of free speech and human rights throughout the country, in condemning the targeting of Muslim students by the Orange County District Attorney’s office. We take heart in the bravery of people just like us who are occupying cities across the United States, demanding an end to a system that privileges the voices and values of the powerful over the needs and rights of the many. We stand with the Irvine 11 as they move forward with their appeal, as we stand with all those who refuse to be cowed by state repression in the struggle for social justice. Join us today.