Facing a polite but skeptical Jewish audience, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake walked a tightrope Wednesday as he tried to explain that campus events seen by some as anti-Semitic are actually expressions of constitutionally protected free speech.
Drake met with more than 600 members of the county's Jewish community who expressed concern about what they perceived as anti-Semitic activity on campus, much of it involving Muslim students. The town hall meeting -- organized by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee -- was held at the Shir Ha Ma'alot synagogue in Irvine.
UCI has become a flashpoint in the national Israeli-Arab debate that has created hard feelings between Muslims and Jews. This month, Muslim students on campus sponsored a presentation, "Israel: Apartheid Resurrected," protesting that country's policies toward Palestinians.
It was the latest in a series of events that have sparked tension between the groups on campus, with some Jewish students complaining that the exhibit relayed a message of anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews.
On Wednesday, Drake heard complaints that Jewish students were afraid to be on campus and was challenged repeatedly to draw a line between free speech and hate speech. But he said it was an impractical and impossible assignment.
"Free speech means simply that: free speech," he told one questioner.
To another, he said: "Speech is protected. It can be hateful. It can be wrong. It can be vile." Unlike speech, he added, violent acts are not protected.
The chancellor repeatedly said he found anti-Semitism abhorrent, calling it "the utterance of fools." But he also said the right of free speech allows Muslim students to sponsor speakers with whom he disagrees.
UCI campus Rabbi Yonah Bookstein said Jewish students are harassed for expressing support for Israel and for being unabashedly Jewish. "It doesn't work the other way," he said. "You don't find Muslim students harassed by Jewish students. There's a climate of fear at UCI for Jews."
Drake assured the audience that UCI was a safe campus for all students and a place where tolerance is practiced. Not everyone was convinced.
"I can't decide if he doesn't get it or if he's in denial," community member Richard Meyers said. "He keeps saying that he abhors hate speech, but he's unwilling to take a position on the issue of what to do about anti-Semitic activity."
Before the meeting started, Drake said he hoped to make it clear that the difference between free speech and hate speech "is nebulous."
"We support tolerance and the free exchange of ideas," he said.
Earlier, UCI students and professors formed a Human Circle of Tolerance, had sung "All You Need is Love" and released 20 doves. The students included Jews, Muslims and Christians.
"There have been some strong statements made by students and speakers on campus that can be interpreted as anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim," said chemical engineering professor Martha Mecartney, who attended the event. "The voice clips of the statements get played over and over and people get the impression that the views represent the campus."
In reality, she said, UCI is a tolerant place for diverse religious beliefs.
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.