The Bishop of Los Angeles and other clergy have condemned the conviction of 11 Muslim students who repeatedly heckled a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. The students were convicted on misdemeanor charges in Orange County Superior Court.
Eight of the students attend the University of California-Irvine, where Oren spoke in February 2010. Three are students at UC-Riverside.
A message sent via email earlier in the day by the UC-Irvine Muslim Student Association condemned the school for offering a forum to the ambassador.
“We condemn and oppose the presence of Michael Oren, the ambassador of Israel to the United States, on our campus today,” the message said, according to a report by the Orange County Register. “We resent that the law school and the political science department on our campus have agreed to cosponsor a public figure who represents a state that continues to break international and humanitarian law and is condemned by more U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined.”
“Obviously in light of the Irvine 11 verdicts there is an immediate need for improved listening to one another across faith traditions and reaching a new place of mutual respect,” the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno said in a statement issued Sept. 23. “Today I am calling upon fellow Orange County bishops, rabbis, and Islamic leaders to come together immediately in renewed solidarity to address the issues and injustices raised in relation to these verdicts.”
Bruno added: “Our Episcopal congregations will also increase participation in the Shura Council’s Open Mosque Day on October 16 to demonstrate our understanding that Islam is at its core a religion of peace within our shared Abrahamic tradition, and deserving of equal protection under First Amendment freedoms.”
The Rev. Wilfredo Benitez, rector of St. Anselm of Canterbury Church in Garden Grove, California, also condemned the misdemeanor convictions.
“This attack against Muslim students and the Muslim community is an attack on democracy,” he said in a report by Episcopal News Service. “It’s an attack on all of those who believe in the U.S. Constitution and in freedom of speech.”
During Oren’s speech at the University of California-Irvine in September 2010, the students interrupted him every few minutes, shouting, “Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech” and other accusations against Israel.
Despite repeated and impassioned pleas for civility by Mark P. Petracca, associate professor of political science, pleaded with the students repeatedly to allow the ambassador to deliver his speech without disruption. Petracca warned the students that hecklers would be arrested.
Oren took a 20-minute break after the fourth disruption. Chancellor Michael Drake, chancellor of the university, also pleaded with the students to listen courteously. The students continued heckling Oren. Other audience members cheered them, booed them and shouted at them to leave.
Oren eventually completed his speech. A question-and-answer period planned for the event did not occur.
A 48-minute video of the speech and its aftermath is available on YouTube.