The defacement of the Israeli flag at UC Riverside, along with the heckling of an Israeli solder’s speech at UC Davis, has prompted swift denunciations from university leaders including UC President Mark Yudof and UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White. An investigation is already underway to identify the individual(s) who wrote the word “terrorists” on the flag displayed by the Jewish student group Hillel.  “I cannot imagine the amount of hatred a single person must have to write ‘terrorists’ on a flag.  I am extremely disappointed that my friends, family and I have been targeted this past week, yet I hope that the student body as a whole can mature from this and grow far away from racism, harassment and hate crime,” stated Jacqueline Zelener, a first-year undergraduate student and active member of Hillel, in an interview with the Highlander.

“Such an action is antithetical to all we stand for at UCR. We are a campus that expects among its members a proper respect for others across national, gender, ethnic, faith and political boundaries, among others,” stated Chancellor White in a campus-wide email dated March 7. The incident stands in stark contrast to the recent efforts made to improve ethnic-religious relations, as evidenced by an interfaith comedy show co-sponsored by groups including Hillel, the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP); the collaborations are part of a larger effort towards gaining support for the creation of a Middle Eastern Student Center.

“It was wrong for a vandal or vandals on the UC Riverside campus to deface the Israeli flag…. I applaud Chancellor White for his rapid and vigorous condemnation of this cowardly act. And I join him whole-heartedly in that condemnation. The chancellor was right to assign campus police to investigate,” stated UC President Mark Yudof in an open letter to the UC community.

Some believe that the defacement of the flag might have been prompted by a conference on March 1 that featured Israeli soldiers speaking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. According to reports, several audience members walked out and disrupted the event that was hosted by numerous Jewish organizations including Hillel. In an interview with the Press-Enterprise, Hillel director Adina Hemley noted that the proximity of the controversial conference and the flag’s defacement posed “a bit of a strange coincidence.” This sentiment was shared by Hillel Vice President Devora Moore who told the Highlander, “This act was most likely sparked by an event last week by Highlanders for Israel in which Israeli soldiers came to speak. I am respectful of others views, however, I am not tolerant of hate or vandalism.” Safety concerns have been reignited by the flag’s defacement as some members of the Jewish community feel that the acts might have been anti-Semitic, anti-Zionistic or both. “Although I still feel safe on campus and acknowledge that this is the view of few individuals on campus, it hurts me to say that other members of Hillel have complained that they do not feel safe on campus,” commented Moore.

Addressing any suspicions aimed at Muslim or Palestinian-related groups, SJP President Hadil Bashir and representatives from the Muslim Student Association (MSA) have joined in denouncing the flag’s defacement. Bashir also defended his organization and expressed his indignation regarding the suspicions directed toward SJP’s involvement in the flag’s defacement. “Our organization has never advocated for any member to resort to these acts against anyone at UCR….We are disgusted and offended at the fact that some members from Hillel have immaturely arrived at the conclusion that members of SJP were behind this act,” stated Bashir in a letter to the Highlander.

SJP’s response, however, has garnered mixed reactions from members of the Jewish community. “Aside from these [public condemnations] meaning a lot on a personal level, they also represent something that has never happened before and is a huge step forward,” stated Daniel B. Leserman, third-year physics major, treasurer of Hillel and vice president of Highlanders for Israel. However, the director of UC Riverside’s Hillel chapter expressed a far different response by dismissing the public condemnation as insincere. “Sadly, SJP qualified their condemnation only to the defacement of the flag (the symbol of the only Jewish state in the world; there are 56 Muslim countries), while expressly denying any official involvement in last week’s disruption of Highlanders for Israel’s presentation by members of the Israeli Defense Force,” stated Hillel Director Adina Hemley in an open letter sent to the Highlander. “SJP’s denial would have a lot more credibility if they took credit for actions we have on video [of the Israeli Soldiers Speak Out’ conference].”

Students such as Leserman have expressed optimism due to the combination of the multi-group endeavors and the support that has been shown by SJP and MSA. “This should not be a step back from working together, but it should be a step forward. In regards to the hope for a Middle Eastern Student Center on campus, this shows need for further discussion on how issues like this will be handled, but it by no means makes me lose hope or feel that it’s an impossibility,” said Moore. Zelener also expressed similar thoughts, stating, “I hope that all of the groups supporting the Middle Eastern Student Center see this hate crime as another reminder as to why peaceful dialogue is so important.

Whereas the “Israeli Soldiers Speak Out” conference at UC Riverside prompted minor disruptions from attendees, the same event at UC Davis was met with a far more antagonistic response from students.  One student heckler was escorted out of the room after yelling, “My only purpose today is that this event is shut down. You have turned Palestine into a land of prostitutes, rapists and child molesters.” Yudof criticized the hecklers in his open letter, stating, “I condemn the actions of those who would disrupt this event. Attempting to shout down speakers is not protected speech. It is an action meant to deny others their right to free speech.” The week following the Feb. 27 incident, two faculty members from UCLA and UC Santa Cruz sent an open letter to UC President Mark Yudof to criticize the UC’s failure to “protect Jewish students from a hostile environment and to ensure their rights to free speech.” The faculty letter also denounced a failed resolution brought forward to the UC San Diego Associated Students Council that sought to request a UC boycott of American firms doing business with Israeli Defense Forces.

The incidents have prompted active administrative responses, most notably from the student regents. “We’ve got so much work to do on campus climate,” stated UC Student Regent-designate Jonathan Stein, commenting on news of the flag defacement via Facebook. Stein is an outspoken advocate of improving campus climate and has led efforts to create a special student-only committee for this purpose. “Students from UC Irvine can share their successes with students from UC Davis. Students from UC Merced can share their frustrations with students from UC Santa Cruz. The idea is to share what worked, what didn’t, what challenges remain and what strategies to pursue,” stated a welcome letter to the UNITE committee applications, which are due March 30. “The ultimate goal is to foster a healthier, more welcoming and more positive environment at the UC.”