I’m sure that most of us have seen the video coming out of UCLA. It’s a panel discussion that hosted by Students Supporting Israel at UCLA. The stated mission of the discussion to highlight the history, stories, and experiences of different Middle Eastern communities — indigenous communities: Armenian, Jewish and Kurdish. During the meeting, the students became the target of hate and harassment when SJP attacked them at UCLA.
To understand more about the situation, I reached out to Students Supporting Israel at UCLA as well as SJP at UCLA.
The SJP messaged me (you can see the message below) stating that they were not going to be answering any questions and that they did not have a hand in what happened.
According to an unnamed represented, via their Facebook page, I received the following statement:
“Hello. If these questions pertain to the protest of SSI’s “indigenous Peoples Unite” event, we will not be answering any questions nor giving any interviews because we did not initiate nor have a hand in organising the protest, and none of our Board members were in attendance. All such claims that we orchestrated the protest are false.”
I spoke with Hirmand Daniel Sarafin, President of Students Supporting Israel at UCLA and a second-year Neuroscience Major.
(The call can be heard by clicking below).
What we’ve seen in the videos, and what he describes is short of an invasion of angry students. Students who would rather not sit and enter a civil discourse but make waves to gain YouTube views.
“First of all, the panel was called Indigenous Peoples Unite,” said Hirmand. “It was to bring in three different indigenous people to the Middle East; Jewish, Arminian and Kurdish groups.”
The panel was made up of three people, Hirmand Daniel Sarafin being one of them.
While Darion Ouliguian was speaking, in the middle of his presentation, SJP (Student Justice for Palestine) stormed the room.
“SJP marched inside, one member went up to Darion, who is the Armenian student, went behind him and ripped down the Armenian flag,” said Hirmand.
As soon as the first person ripped down that flag, and then harassed another member of the panel, SJP then stormed the room.
“Thirty people rushed in with signs, megaphones, whistles. They started coming in, throwing cards with their information at people.”
It very quickly got out of hand. There were people screaming, yelling. Others were chanting through the megaphones. Girls began to dance in front of the panel.
“Free, free Palestine,” was the group chant taken up. Another chant,
“Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”
During all of this, a member of Students Supporting Israel group attempted to restore calm. They invited SJP to be part of the panel. These invitations were refused by SJP.
“F*#k white supremacy,” was then taken up by members of the SJP protest.
Then, the campus police arrived.
“While that was going on, we tried to continue the event,” says Hirmand.
“Eventually UCPD came in and tried to stop them,” he says. “They didn’t respond right away.”
Many of the Jewish students didn’t like the fact they were being compared to Nazi’s. The yelling, the screaming. This, I assume, was a victory by SJP.
The Israeli flag was ripped down. When Hirmand tried to put it back up, they tore it down yet again.
“They wouldn’t hand it back for a while,” said Hirmand.
Then, finally, UCPD was finally able to remove SJP from the room, to the hallway.
“The chant was still going on,” he says. “One of the SJP members was banging on the outside of the door, yelling.”
The event did continue. They were able to move forward, ignoring what was happening outside.
“UCPD asked us to hurry the panel,” said Hirmand, “which we did.”
Now, this is where I become more than a bit angry.
Students Supporting Israel at UCLA had permission for their panel. SJP, who denies any involvement in these events, did not have permission to storm SSI’s panel discussion. The UCLA police decided to rush SSI’s panel.
When the panel discussion was over, and everyone was leaving, Hirmand likened the exit to an evacuation.
“We grabbed all we could, and we evacuated,” he says. “Once we were outside we saw there were about twenty UCPD officers, some in riot gear, that had to come help us and escort us out.”
I did tell Hirmand that SJP did deny all involvement in the protest. He did tell me that they, the SSI at UCLA group, as well as members of the audience, did recognise them.
“The head of SJP was the one with the microphone,” said Hirmand.
Also, SJP sent out group messages saying this was going to happen. There was foreknowledge of this and UCLA did nothing to prevent it. Nothing.
I decided to reach out to UCLA. The first response was a blanket response from Steve Ritea, Executive Director, Executive Communications of UCLA:
“UCLA is deeply disappointed that protesters disrupted a May 17th student event that focused on the experiences of Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish indigenous communities. This incident left many students feeling silenced and intimidated, and it dishonoured UCLA’s commitment to the free and robust exchange of ideas. University officials and police arrived on the scene promptly, and the disruption ended without physical injury. Campus officials are carefully reviewing the incident to determine precisely what happened, who among the protestors are affiliated with UCLA, and how to appropriately respond. While we respect the right to lawful protest, such protests cannot prevent speakers from communicating with a willing audience.”
That message left me with more questions than it did answers. I reached out to Ricardo Vazquez, the Associate Director of Media Relations with UCLA. My questions were simple: what would happen when the students were identified? Would they be removed from school? And, what was UCLA going to do to ensure the safety of students who participate in such events in the future? Mr Vazquez simply reiterated the prior statement.
However, that does not answer the other questions. I followed-up by asking, “What is the UCLA policy on student meetings? What is your policy on such meetings/groups being interrupted (in general).” As of this posting, Mr Vazquez has yet to respond.
In the end, I am left with an uneasy feeling. What we saw at UCLA is not new. It is part of a growing trend in the country, a worrisome trend. Each day we are seeing individuals who decry Israel’s right to exist. They say Israel is an occupying force, nothing more.
Here, in the United States, Jews are being attacked more and more. We’ve seen it happen in Los Angeles, New York City, and maybe even in your town. It should worry all of us, Jew, and non-Jew.
In February the ADL said antiemetic incidents in the United States surge 57% in 2017.
“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our community,” says the ADL’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt. “From firebomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacist marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school.”
The increase in such events can be attributed to the simple fact that more people have decided to report such incidents. By reporting such incidents, we are making the world, at large, aware of what is happening to us as a people.
We need to take a collective look at what is happening within the United States. Are we going to allow college campuses, who received federal funding like UCLA, to become safe havens for hate? Or, will we finally draw the line, and demand that nefarious actor, such as the ones that interrupted the SSI at UCLA meeting be punished?
The time has come, I feel, that we begin to petition Congress to make changes to current laws. Hate speech should not be protected as free speech (see my prior article You Can’t Have It Both Ways, published by the Jewish Examiner).
We need to realize that we live in a country of free thought, and free speech. Well, that is, if what you are thinking and saying agrees with groups like Student Justice for Palestine. Otherwise, you are wrong. Even if you are right, you are wrong.
Many of the students who protested the meeting, wanting to show support for Palestine has never been there, have never seen what is occurring. They are simply part of the SJP movement to be seen, to be heard. They are not interested in discussion, or civil discourse. All they want is to scream you down and force you to believe their opinion.
UCLA needs to remove SJP and these “protesters” from their campus. In the end, I doubt UCLA will do anything of the kind.