Controversial California University Refers Complaints About Muslim Campus Group to FBI
by Nathan Guttman
October 14, 2009
In a move seen as a landmark by Jewish activists on the right, a leading public university has referred a complaint about one of its student organizations to federal authorities, seeking an investigation of allegations of support for a terrorist group.
The University of California, Irvine, asked the FBI to investigate claims that funds raised at an event organized by the university's Muslim Student Union were used to help Hamas, which is on America's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In recent years, the campus has become a scene of heated debates between Jewish and Muslim students battling over issues relating to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Jewish students have complained that the strong MSU created a hostile environment on campus that caused pro-Israel students to feel uncomfortable.
"UC Irvine's response was different than in the past," said Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America. "It shows that they are as concerned as we are."
The event under investigation involves attempts by British Member of Parliament George Galloway to raise funds for his Viva Palestina project, a program aimed at sending convoys of supplies and equipment to Gaza despite the Israeli blockade.
Speaking at the campus on May 21 to an audience of nearly 1,000 students, Galloway spoke of his first Viva Palestina project, which had taken truckloads of supplies to Gaza through Egypt in February. He called for supporters to back his next mission, which would be made up of volunteers from the United States. This mission left for Gaza in July. "The sight of 500 American-flagged vehicles bringing life to Palestine rather than death to Palestine," Galloway told the enthusiastic crowd, "will transform the landscape not just in Palestine, not just in the Arab world, but can begin to shape public opinion here in the United States itself."
While providing humanitarian support to Gaza is legal and is carried out regularly by international and American aid agencies, giving material aid directly to representatives of the Hamas government could be a violation of the law, since Hamas is on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. American charities and individuals were prosecuted in the past for providing funds to Hamas.
A recent report, compiled by the Investigative Project on Terrorism and submitted by the ZOA to the Department of Justice, argued that Viva Palestina knowingly provided cash and equipment directly to the Hamas government in Gaza. The report contains excerpts from a broadcast on Al Jazeera showing Galloway handing a cash donation to a Hamas minister and saying, "I personally am about to break the sanctions on the elected government of Palestine."
A spokeswoman for the university, Cathy Lawhon, said that after it received the complaint from the ZOA, the matter was referred to the FBI.
Federal authorities have yet to issue any statement regarding the complaint, and it is not clear if an investigation has begun.
The MSU did not respond to the Forward's requests for comment.
Marty Migdall, a Jewish retiree from Newport Beach, Calif., was among those attending the Viva Palestina event. Migdall, who was among the founders of a local community task force set up in order to confront what they saw as cases of antisemitism at UC Irvine, noticed that despite the MSU's statement that the event would not be used to raise money, fundraising was in fact taking place.
A video recording of the event, posted on YouTube, shows an organizer dressed in a black "Free Palestine" T-shirt urging participants to contribute money, while volunteers carry donation boxes throughout the hall. Galloway himself also stressed the importance of raising funds for his mission in his speech from the podium.
"I knew they weren't supposed to raise funds," Migdall said. He argued that a representative of UC Irvine who was on site and filed an after-event report did not try to stop the fundraising activity and did not mention it in his report. "These things are happening under the nose of the chief judicial officer. Campus authorities should take action," Migdall said.
Lawhon said, in response to allegations regarding conduct of university employees and of the student organization, "These matters are being reviewed internally, and any disciplinary action deemed appropriate would be taken at the conclusion of that investigation."
Yet there is no sign of easing tensions between Jewish and Muslim students on campus.
Neelie Genya Milstein, a UC Irvine student scheduled to graduate this year, said that friction peaks usually once a year, when the MSU holds its annual events denouncing Israel. During these events, Milstein said, she and her friends have felt intimidated and angered after seeing Israeli flags torn and banners accusing Israel of genocide. "It's unfortunate that there is no comment from the campus administration," Milstein said. "No one is telling these students that there are other ways of raising awareness for their cause."
UC Irvine was subject to an extensive examination in 2007 by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, and was cleared of any allegations of discrimination or of failing to respond to students' complaints.
Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]