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Battleground California

How UCLA became the epicenter of the campus battle for Israel, and why it matters

by Jared Sichel

May 28, 2014 | 4:42 pm

<em>Members of UCLA’s student government listen to supporters and opponents of a divestment resolution targeting Israel in a session that stretched into the early-morning hours of Feb. 27. Photo courtesy of StandWithUs</em>

Members of UCLA’s student government listen to supporters and opponents of a divestment resolution targeting Israel in a session that stretched into the early-morning hours of Feb. 27. Photo courtesy of StandWithUs

If only Lauren Rogers had known what she was getting herself into when she signed up to go to Israel.

During UCLA’s winter break in December 2013, the rising senior and outgoing financial supports commissioner for UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association (USAC) took an all-expenses-paid trip called “Project Interchange,” organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which allows California undergraduates to travel throughout Israel to learn about the country’s society, culture and political structure and to meet with key players on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

Five months later, on May 15, Rogers — a Christian — found herself sitting in a classroom in UCLA’s Royce Hall facing cross-examination from Dana Saifan — a member of UCLA’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — who was grilling her as part of a hearing before UCLA’s student judicial board about allegations that Rogers’ trip had violated USAC rules against student officers creating a perceived conflict of interest.

SJP alleged that the free AJC trip to Israel may have influenced Rogers’ no vote in February on a SJP-sponsored resolution calling upon UCLA’s administration to divest from a number of companies that do business with the Jewish state. 

The resolution failed 7-5 in the early-morning hours of Feb. 27, after a contentious all-night debate that, for the sake of ensuring the safety of student officers, culminated in a secret ballot. 

Further demonstrating the conflict’s escalation at UCLA, the May 15 judicial board hearing, too, was not a brief affair. It lasted nearly five hours on a Thursday evening, even though it was late in the semester and schoolwork and exams loomed for all involved — litigants and judges alike. Rogers was also not the only accused — USAC outgoing student representative Sunny Singh was also a defendant. Singh had traveled on a free trip to Israel in 2013,  which was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 

Both Rogers and Singh were believed to be among those who voted against SJP’s divestment resolution, and Singh had been the main challenger to SJP’s preferred candidate for president, Devin Murphy, in the school’s May 9 student government elections.

At the hearing, Saifan pressed both Singh and Rogers on forms they filled out in advance of their trips, and asked them to describe follow-up communication initiated by each of the organizations. At one point, Saifan asked Singh why he had not submitted into evidence his entire ADL application. Singh said it was on an old computer that was no longer in his possession.

Both students said they were taken by surprise by the conflict-of-interest complaints, and each had to spend dozens of hours preparing their defense, which, for Rogers, included finding pro bono legal support.

“I had to sit down and form our arguments,” an audibly frustrated Rogers said in a May 23 interview with the Journal, just two days after receiving notice that the judicial board ruled in the two defendants’ favor by a vote of 4-0, with two abstentions. “[It] took away from my academics a lot; it took away from my ability to serve.”

Singh said SJP has made Israel the primary concern on campus in 2014, above all other matters. And that is a thorn in his side.

“It took center stage,” Singh said. “There were other things that I would have preferred to talk about, things that really matter and are relevant to the entire student body,” such as helping soon-to-be graduates find jobs and increasing access to mental health services.

Singh estimates that from the time he received notice of a preliminary hearing regarding his travel to Israel until the final hearing, his preparation — which included compiling evidence, gathering and contacting witnesses, and reviewing USAC’s constitution, bylaws and code of conduct — took him a minimum of 30 hours. 

He characterized the weeks-long process as “strenuous,” “time consuming” and “disturbing.”

Additionally, Singh’s name was embroiled in controversy in the midst of his presidential campaign, given that the complaint was filed just two weeks before students went to polls. One week later, the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, ran a story covering SJP’s complaint.

Then, on May 6, just three days before voting day, SJP again made Israel front-and-center on campus by circulating a pledge, along with four other student groups —Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Muslim Student Association, the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association — that called upon all 30 candidates for student offices to pledge they would not participate in sponsored trips to Israel offered by ADL, Hasbara Fellowships or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Of the 30 candidates, 18 signed. Singh and Rogers both did not.

Three days later, Singh lost his bid for president by 31 votes to Murphy, with 30.3 percent of the school’s 29,000 undergraduates casting ballots. He doesn’t put all the blame for his loss on the judicial board complaint and the ethics statement pledge, but he said they may have played a role.

“I’m not really sure,” Singh said. “Because the margin is so small, I think that the ethics statement [and] the controversy were all factors in why I lost.”

Since its formation at UC Berkeley in 2001, SJP has earned a reputation for attention-grabbing demonstrations across American and Canadian campuses. If attracting attention is one of its aims, then SJP may be able to count its campaign this year at UCLA as one of its most successful, one that may mark a pivot in its tactics, to a greater focus on political and legal actions.

“Israel Apartheid Week,” mock checkpoints, “die-ins,” mock burials — that was then.

Judicial board hearings, resolutions, coalition building, ethics pledges — this is now.

Interviews with key players in both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel campus movements in California and nationwide suggest a distinct shift in SJP’s strategy of how it raises awareness among college students, professors and administrators regarding what it considers to be Israel’s “illegal” occupation and oppression of the Palestinians.

The new strategy has been tested over recent months throughout the University of California system in anticipation of bringing it to the rest of the nation; SJP has been moving away from public protests and turning toward diplomacy — striking alliances with other minority student groups, building wide support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) resolutions, and helping to elect students sympathetic to their cause to campus government. This is precisely what they did at UCLA in the 2013-14 academic year — using the tools of student government and the forum of the college campus to raise the profile of BDS and challenge the legitimacy of some elected officers who indicate any support for Israel.

When losing is winning

Taher Herzallah is encouraged.

The campus coordinator for SJP spoke with the Journal by phone from Orange County about the resounding 4-0 defeat SJP had just endured at the hands of UCLA’s judicial board.

There is no central governing board of SJP that directs strategy for its many campus branches. Nevertheless leaders at each chapter regularly communicate with one another and with Herzallah about successful and unsuccessful tactics, thereby providing the group’s chapters in California and around the nation crucial feedback and information that help SJP leaders design their plans. 

Had the board’s May 21 ruling at UCLA favored SJP, it could have ensured that all aspiring student leaders at the university would need to choose between running for office and taking sponsored Israel trips, which could have been a major blow to the pro-Israel campus movement at UCLA and across the country.

But the defeat doesn’t worry Herzallah.

“In our world, whatever step we take to bring about justice is a step forward, whether or not the outcome is necessarily the desired outcome,” he told the Journal.

Herzallah is one of the “Irvine 11”—11 students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside who disrupted and cut short a 2010 speech at Irvine by then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. The students were removed from the room and were ultimately charged and convicted in 2011 of misdemeanors. One of the students, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, took a plea deal.

Their disruption of the ambassador’s speech was just the most famous of the many public displays that SJP used to hold regularly on Southern California campuses. These days, the displays are not nearly as common as they used to be in California, perhaps because SJP’s chapters in the Golden State moved on to the equally public, but far less obviously disruptive battle for votes.

At San Diego State University (SDSU), SJP co-chair Nadir Bouchmouch knew that the divestment resolution brought to vote on April 23 was a long shot. As predicted, SDSU’s student government resoundingly rejected it, with 16 members voting against and only three in favor.

 “We went into it with that knowledge,” Bouchmouch told the Journal in April, saying they were “trying to shock it [the student government] into something about issues that don’t just pertain to Palestinian students, but to students of color in general.” 

SJP’s aim is to keep Israel in the conversation and its supporters on the defensive. At UCLA, SJP’s sponsorship of a speech on campus by BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti in January, the divestment resolution in February and everything since — all of it receives significant media attention — on campus, in these pages, and sometimes in local and national media, as well, which means Israel has become a constant topic on the minds of UCLA’s students.

Judea Pearl is an international award-winning professor of artificial intelligence at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named for his late journalist son, who was murdered in 2002 by Muslim terrorists in Pakistan; Pearl is also a Jewish Journal columnist.  

He characterized the UCLA judicial board’s ruling against SJP as a “pyrrhic victory” for supporters of Israel.

“In the big picture, they have won the PR machine,” Pearl said in a May 22 interview. “Their aim is to associate the word ‘Israel’ with something controversial, something ugly—and they have succeeded.”

Pearl said that since January, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had unprecedented prominence at UCLA, which plays into SJP’s strategy, notwithstanding any successes groups like Bruins for Israel and StandWithUs have achieved in slowing its momentum, including eliciting public statements from UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and UC President Janet Napolitano, both of whom lightly criticized targeting sponsored trips to Israel.

UCLA graduate student and SJP member Rahim Kurwa agrees with Pearl’s criticisms. “I don’t think that people feel let down,” he told the Journal. “The average person has heard of what’s going on.”

Herzallah also sees the recent course of events as SJP successes: He spoke proudly of getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the minds of the adults in the upper echelons of the UC. 

“It’s definitely a success in the way that this issue has been brought now to everyone on campus, including the chancellor and the president of the UC system, and everybody who’s potentially thinking of running in the future,” Herzallah said, adding a message for future candidates: “You’d better be someone who’s impartial.”

Making friends

Estee Chandler, the Los Angeles organizer of JVP, a leftist group, said JVP and SJP share a common goal — peace.

“Both organizations probably are looking for a resolution to the conflict which affords Israeli Jews and Palestinians self-determination and equality; justice and security,” Chandler said. “Both organizations seek an end to the Israeli occupation.” That’s precisely why JVP and SJP worked in concert to circulate the Israel travel pledge, along with three other groups.

“When you see the commonalities between people speaking out for Palestinian rights with the dreamers with other organizations of people who feel marginalized, it’s no wonder that they have such a broad coalition,” Chandler said, referring to the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association, which also joined SJP’s push for the pledge.

When the Journal emailed the UCLA Armenian Students’ Association asking for comment on its involvement in the effort, a spokesman responded that, “Armenian concerns about the Anti-Defamation League’s problematic stance on the Armenian Genocide and AIPAC’s involvement with Azerbaijan/Ambassador Suleymanov” prompted the group to sign on. 

Describing SJP’s success in coalition building, Rahim Kurwa, an SJP member, explained that appealing to “human rights” and attracting students who care about “social justice” and other “progressive” values gives SJP a leg up in finding allies.

“Everybody on campus believes in human rights, and everybody believes that Palestinians are human,” Kurwa said. “It’s very easy to see members of the campus from all kinds of backgrounds come out in support of what we are working on.”

In general, SJP’s Herzallah said, the students are looking to ally with groups “that have experienced similar historical oppression” to the Palestinians. He mentioned African-American, Native American and Chicano groups as just a few. 

The rising cost of supporting Israel

For William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor who has analyzed many of SJP’s recent tactics across the country on his popular legal blog, “Legal Insurrection,” the group’s recent actions at UCLA go deeper than raising the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are a warning call to pro-Israel students who want to run for office — it will cost you.

“What they tried to do was create a chilling effect for pro-Israel students becoming involved in student government,” Jacobson said. By dissuading certain sponsored trips to Israel and targeting Singh and Rogers, Jacobson thinks that SJP is trying to filter out from student government UCLA’s most pro-Israel students.

“The impact of this sort of attempt to disqualify those two students, as well as the other sort of resolutions that are brought up, is that you are forcing people who are pro-Israel on campus to have to put themselves out there,” he said. “[They] have to subject themselves to nasty emails and nasty tweets.”

It raises the cost of being pro-Israel, because you have to be put into a very confrontational sort of situation.”

Overall, though, Jacobson’s take differs from that of UCLA professor Pearl — Jacobson argues that SJP’s loss in student court could prove a major step backward for the group. If the judicial board had sided with SJP, Jacobson said, the pledge push used at UCLA likely would have spread to other campuses.

“That still may happen, but I think the likelihood of that happening may have been damaged because of the result,” Jacobson said.

“When you lose so often, people stop taking you seriously, and I think they are approaching that point,” Jacobson said.

Brett Cohen, national campus program director for StandWithUs — a pro-Israel group that works vigorously on campuses to improve Israel’s image and combat SJP — agrees with Jacobson.

“Just watching the way SJP has ravaged their reputation, I think what they are doing is a huge favor for us,” Cohen said, “because every single time this happens, the pro-Israel community on campus wakes up.”

A mixed record

If Jacobson and Cohen are right — that SJP’s new tactics will tarnish their image among college students — there still may be a ways to go until that evidence is clear.

On May 22, Cohen spoke by phone with the Journal from the campus of DePaul University in Chicago, where, one day later, the student body passed a referendum calling on the administration to divest from a number of companies that do business with Israel. The measure passed, with 1,575 students supporting divestment and 1,333 voting against it. 

Since 2010, an estimated 24 schools have voted on resolutions on Israel divestment, and that’s not counting Earlham College in Indiana, whose dining service removed Sabra hummus from its coffee shop in 2012 after a request made by some students and faculty.

Of those 24 schools, student votes for divestment have passed cleanly at 10, with UC Santa Cruz's student government passing one on the night of May 27. An additional two schools’ student governments (University of South Florida and Loyola University Chicago) have favored divestment, but their votes either were overturned by veto or invalidated. That leaves SJP with a .500 batting average when it comes to divestment resolutions, which is not bad, especially because the organization seems to view garnering attention to be nearly as important as scoring actual political victories.

This year, though, SJP divestment votes passed at only six of the 18 schools where it was voted upon. Is the mood toward SJP souring? Or is the new tactic of playing politics going to evolve over time, with early losses no indication of future results?

For Herzallah and SJP, the answer makes no difference, at least in the short term.

“Some have passed, some have not, but the campaign continues,” Herzallah said.

Fighting back

Miriam Eshagian knows not to discount the determination and intelligence of SJP’s leaders at UCLA. But she also knows that the group’s many actions this year have prompted a reaction — it has rallied UCLA’s many pro-Israel students around a common cause. 

“I think we are dealing with a very strong chapter at UCLA,” said Eshagian, president of Bruins for Israel, UCLA’s pro-Israel group. She added that Bruins for Israel wants to encourage more UCLA students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to visit the country, in the hope that a trip there will unravel the perception SJP tries to create of Israel as an apartheid state.

Even so, Eshagian said there’s a lot of difficult bridge building for pro-Israel groups to do.

“They’ve created very strong alliances with groups like the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association,” she said. “It’s hard for us to create a relationship with them, because they are already so biased.”

UCLA Hillel executive director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller believes SJP may have hurt its cause in 2014, revealing to the student body what he said is the group’s anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic intentions.

“They’ve overplayed their hand,” Seidler-Feller said, citing SJP’s sponsorship of Barghouti as revealing BDS’ purported “moderation and reasonableness” as a “cover” for its true aim — destroying Israel.

The new unity across much of the Jewish political spectrum at UCLA might also be seen in the condemnation issued by UCLA’s J Street U, the campus arm of the left-leaning “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby that has had a shaky relationship with some more-established pro-Israel organizations. 

“We reject the implication that students are not able to think critically on sponsored trips,” J Street said in its statement.

Then, on May 22, UCLA undergrad Abraham “Avi” Oved was nominated as the 2015-16 student representative on the UC Board of Regents. Oved is active in UCLA’s pro-Israel movement and follows the previous year’s appointment of Sadia Saifuddin, a UC Berkeley student and outspoken BDS advocate. Ovid’s nomination could suggest that UC leaders wanted a pro-Israel voice on the board, although in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, UC regent George Kieffer denied any relationship between the two students’ stances on Israel.

From West to East?

The very public and very visible actions SJP has gained a reputation for have by no means vanished at East Coast schools. In April, SJP at New York University in Manhattan slid mock-eviction notices under the doors of a heavily Jewish dorm, which began with the statement: “We regret to inform you that your suite is scheduled for demolition in three days.” They concluded with the words, “This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.”

A few weeks later, on May 15, SJP at NYU marked the secular anniversary of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day — Palestinians refer to it as “Nakba Day” or “Day of Destruction” — by staging a “die-in,” with students dressed in red playing dead in the courtyard in front of NYU’s business school. 

In February, at Vassar College in upstate New York, a session for an earth sciences class was picketed by SJP members in response to a planned class trip to Israel with 28 students. Nine members passed out leaflets to students walking into the class, citing various allegations of Israeli human rights violations. 

The purpose of the trip? 

To study water conservation and distribution in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

From Los Angeles to San Diego and Irvine to Davis, the move toward diplomacy and away from the “street theater” that is still active on the East Coast is already entrenched in California. Of the 10 campuses that fall under the UC system, all but two — San Francisco and Merced — have voted on divestment, with six of them endorsing the move. And while “die-ins” and “apartheid weeks” may not be gone in the Golden State, the shift in tactics here will, according to Herzallah, spread across America’s campuses. 

“A lot of other schools nationwide are looking at this model here in Southern California and sort of following in the footsteps,” Herzallah said, adding that SJP is starting its work on California State University campuses.

“UCLA has definitely grown in the past couple years and has really become a model,” he said. “This is really just the beginning of something much bigger. A lot hasn’t been done yet.”

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