Orange County, CA District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, is pursuing criminal charges against the so-called “Irvine 11,” the 11 students who planned and executed a major disruption of last year’s speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the UC Irvine Campus. And now some 100 members of the University faculty are publicly calling on Rackauckas to withdraw those charges, something he has no intention of doing. Most people are debating which side is right.
Frankly, I don’t think that’s the best question to ask in such circumstances. And as one who has in the past been a part of the ongoing fray between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine members of the university community, I say that with real concern about events on that particular campus.
A few years back, I had the privilege of working with the university to create a public conversation for hundreds of people from both the campus and the larger Irvine communities. Titled “Why Israel, Why Palestine,” the day-long dialogue included Christian, Muslim and Jewish voices – Some solidly pro-Israel, others firmly pro-Palestine, and yet others who landed somewhere in between.
Rather than asking which side was right about which issues, an approach to conflict in the Middle East which has accomplished little, we invited people to speak about why they cared about Israel, Palestine or both. The results were amazing and the campus found a measure of peace which lasted for quite a while – a measure of peace which litigation doesn’t seem likely to bring.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the desire to litigate the case – I do. The fact is, the students who disrupted Ambassador Oren’s talk were obnoxious, inappropriate and undermined the free speech which is fundamental to both a university campus and a robust democracy. They are also college students and did what impassioned college students do, at least sometimes.
I am not excusing their behavior, and appreciate that both they and the organization with which they were associated were punished by the university. I simply don’t see what good will come of a criminal prosecution at this point. The fact that the county has the right to pursue litigation at this point doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that it is necessarily wrong either, but it does seem wise to ask why people would litigate that which they could also negotiate. Why perpetuate a conflict in which someone must necessarily lose, as is the case in all criminal trials, before exploring options which would actually improve campus life for all members of the community?
There is much work to be done in Irvine, and I don’t believe that it has yet been accomplished. It’s the work of moving beyond the assertion of rights to assuming the obligations which come with having those rights. It’s the work of each side appreciating what they may have done, even if in support of what they deem to be a just cause, which has made others feel unsafe simply by virtue of being who they are or believing what they believe. Sadly and ironically, both Jews and Muslims report having that experience on campus.
Litigation is always tempting because is demands clear boundaries — good guys and bad guys. On the other hand, the conflict in the Middle East is not some 1950’s cowboy movie where the cowboys are good and the Indians are bad. I have a feeling that when proponents of either side relate to the conflict in that way, especially when they enjoy a 6,000 mile distance from the front lines, they will live to regret having done so.
Perhaps the next stage in the drama of the “Irvine 11” really does belong in the courts, but if peace is more important than punishment, that alone will not get the job done. I hope that both sides know that and begin rolling up their sleeves accordingly.