As I sat waiting to testify at Sunny Singh’s hearing before the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) undergraduate student judicial board on May 15, it occurred to me that on college campuses today, students seem to want to hear only from people with whom they agree. And I wondered: Should we be worried?
Evidence of this disturbing trend abounds: Headlines in recent weeks talked about students protesting against commencement speakers — not just disagreeing with them but demanding that they be barred from speaking. Commentators have correctly noted that closing off debate is emblematic of closing minds — not the healthiest environment for a college campus. At UCLA, however, it wasn’t activists protesting commencement speakers being given a place on the stage, but anti-Israel students seeking to shut down and discredit fellow classmates with whom they disagree.
It started when Singh, a bright young history and economics major, accepted and participated in an educational trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) last summer. ADL’s Campus Leaders Mission exposes students from all over the U. S. to many facets of Israeli life. Singh’s trip included meetings with a broad spectrum of influential people, including a leading consultant to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a group of Palestinian students, an Ethiopian community leader, Israeli government officials and academics, Arab-Israeli partners in a high-tech startup, a popular Muslim-Israeli television anchor and the chair of Israel’s premier LGBT organization.There were discussions about geopolitics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict was not the emphasis of the trip, nor was the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campus movement.
ADL’s goal is to spark critical thinking, offer diverse perspectives and arm students with firsthand knowledge of the complexity of issues in Israel and the Middle East. Although students are encouraged to use what they have learned on the trip when they return, they are not expected to take any particular position on any issue. For the students, the singular benefit is education, and the trips are part of ADL’s overarching mission to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds. Whether through anti-bias and anti-bullying programs in classrooms, drafting model hate-crimes legislation or training law enforcement on hate groups and extremism in the world, ADL fights all discrimination and hatred, including racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Months after the trip, Singh, then a proud member of UCLA’s student council, was called upon to take a purely symbolic vote on a resolution to divest from companies doing business in the West Bank. This divestment resolution ultimately failed, as have a number of similar BDS resolutions on campuses around the country. (Indeed, the broader BDS movement, a coordinated anti-Israel movement that is alarming in tone, has been unsuccessful by any rational measure.) But that’s not even the story here. Students have every right to talk about and even vote on foreign policy issues over which they have no actual jurisdiction. It is a time-honored part of the undergraduate experience. Open debate and exposure to differing points of view is part of this tradition – and the BDS resolution, argued by UCLA students for over 12 hours, was no exception.
The real story starts after the resolution failed. A group of anti-Israel students simply couldn’t accept that the debate was over. They mounted a vicious campaign to discredit Singh and attack his motives online and in person.
The campaign — although despicable and hate-filled — went largely unnoticed. However, both Singh and Lauren Rogers, another student council member who had gone on a similar trip to Israel sponsored by another American Jewish organization, were harassed to the point of missing classes and fearing for their safety.
Even as the smear campaign dragged on, Singh decided to run for student body president. On the very same day he filed his candidacy, months after the vote on the BDS resolution, the anti-Israel students filed a series of petitions with the Judicial Board of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association seeking to discredit Singh and claiming he and Rogers committed “ethics violations” simply for voting on the BDS resolution months earlier.
When the Judicial Board scheduled the “ethics violations” petition hearing for a date after the presidential election, the anti-Israel group took their smear campaign up a notch. They asked all student government candidates to sign a pledge promising to refuse to participate in educational trips sponsored by any of three specified American Jewish organizations, including ADL. The group characterized both Singh and ADL as divisive and discriminatory, without offering the slightest bit of evidence to support either accusation.
In the end, Singh lost the election by just a handful of votes. Ironically, the candidate who narrowly won the election participated in a similar trip to Israel sponsored by another American Jewish organization just a year earlier. He was spared a smear campaign, presumably because he supported the BDS campaign after participating in the trip.
Following the election, the Judicial Board held its hearing on the ethics violations charges. I was there as Singh’s witness and to testify to the fact that ADL required no quid pro quo from students participating in the Campus Leaders’ Mission.
It was at once inspiring and chilling to watch the almost five-hour process. On the one hand, the tone was civil and the students were articulate. Although the students charged with ethics violations were not allowed to bring attorneys, they could engage fellow students to represent them, and their representatives made a brilliant impression, obviously having spent a great deal of time researching and preparing the case. The board also demonstrated high levels of intelligence and maturity. Needless to say, no evidence was presented to support the ethics violation claim.
But the experience was also chilling. Two students were dragged through the mud, made to “defend” their integrity and required to spend countless hours responding to frivolous petitions filed against them, simply because they accepted opportunities to spend time abroad learning about the Middle East on trips sponsored by American Jewish nonprofit organizations.
The day after the hearing, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and UC President Janet Napolitano added their voices to the campus community discussion, denouncing the smear campaign and the singling out of American Jewish organizations.
I was relieved, though not surprised, to hear the final decision of the Judicial Board on May 21. The student board found no ethical violation and rejected the petition to disqualify the months-old votes of Singh and Rogers on the BDS resolution. Although Sunny lost the presidency, at least this insult to his integrity – and ADL’s – was vindicated.
To return to the question at hand: Do we need to be worried about the trend of students who not only shut down speech but resort to smear campaigns against any person or organization with whom they disagree? I believe so. These tactics are compromising civil discourse and freedom of thought, which are both central to higher education.
Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League.