Michael Oren
Michael OrenIsrael news photo: Flash 90

Eleven California students are facing criminal charges for harassing Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren last year. The eleven shouted insults at Oren during a scheduled address and prevented him from speaking for 20 minutes.

Among other things, the hecklers called Oren a “war criminal” and shouted, “How many Palestinians did you kill?” Oren was shouted down at least ten times by the protesters, who were eventually removed from the hall.

The Orange County district attorney's office has announced that, in a rare move, the hecklers will be charged with misdemeanor crimes – one count each of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting.

Officials at the University of California, Irvine, where the February 2010 incident took place, punished the disruptive students by temporarily closing down the Muslim Student Union which had coordinated the harassment in advance. The group remains on probation.

Attorneys for the students say their actions constitute regular protest activity, and that the charges violate their right to free speech.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas disagrees. “This is a much different kind of thing” than a normal protest, he said. “It's not just a group of a few student demonstrators. This is an organized plan to stop the Israeli minister from speaking and to stop anybody from hearing what he has to say. It's a real violation.”

The Council for American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, had campaigned against the filing of criminal charges, coordinating a letter from civic and religious organizations in Southern California to the District Attorney. CAIR officials said that UC-Irvine had already “taken plenty of action,” and that the criminal charges are unnecessary.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center applauded the decision to bring charges. “Zionist and pro-Israel speakers are often subjected to this kind of treatment... We commend the DA for at least opening the books on this and for promoting an understanding of how all free speech has a right to be heard, even that of Israel and of Jewish students,” the group said.