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11 students arrested after disrupting Israeli ambassador's speech at UC Irvine

February 9, 2010 |  7:01 pm

Soon after Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren began his speech Monday night at UC Irvine, the first student rose.

“Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” the student in a gray hoodie yelled.

The remainder of his words were drowned out by an uproar of cheering and clapping from students sitting around him before he was led away by university police. It was the first of 10 interruptions throughout the speech, and by the end of the night, 11 UC Irvine and Riverside students were arrested and cited for disturbing a public event.

The students were held in a nearby room until Oren finished his speech and were then released, said university spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon.

They could face misdemeanor charges as well as university disciplinary hearings that could result in suspensions or dismissals, Lawhon said.

After the fourth disruption, Oren took a 20-minute break before he returned.

“I’ve spent most of my life living in and studying the Middle East and one of the great and eternal cultural facets of the Middle East is hospitality...even if you do not agree with them, even if they’re ostensibly your enemy,” Oren remarked, before continuing his speech. “I’m your guest here and I’m asking for the Middle Eastern hospitality for your guest, I’ve come into your house.”

The speech about U.S.-Israeli relations was organized by several organizations and campus departments “to address tough issues in an open kind of way,” said Shalom Elcott, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Before the speech, Elcott said his group was aware of an orchestrated campaign in which he said students were assigned a position and statement to read in order to disrupt the ambassador’s speech. The group notified campus police.

Elcott and others blamed the university’s Muslim Student Union for the disruptions. A statement posted on that group’s website Monday condemned the university for inviting a man who “took part in a culture that has no qualms with terrorizing the innocent, killing civilians, demolishing their homes and illegally occupying their land.”

The union, however, denied responsibility for the protests.

“It was not put on by the MSU, but rather by students acting on their own,” said Hadeer Soliman, union spokeswoman. Only one of the students arrested could be reached, and he declined to comment.

During the speech, both the UC Irvine chancellor and the political science department chair chided the protesting crowd and called the disruptions embarrassing.

“Shame on you,” Chairman Mark Petracca yelled at one point.

But despite the constant interruptions, there was also a strange routine to the disturbances.

A student would stand up and yell his statement followed by both cheers and jeers from the crowd. Then, as if on cue, he would make his way to the aisle where waiting police officers led him out of the room.

“They were very cooperative, they rose, they spoke and they began to leave their seats,” Lawhon said. “Because they had been told what would happen if they did this.”

-- Raja Abdulrahim

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