The Forward published an interesting story yesterday about UCLA Hillel accepting money from an outside donor who wanted the money to support a student government candidate opposing resolutions to boycott or divest from Israel. UCLA Hillel then passed the money on to Avi Oved, who won a seat as the internal vice president for UCLA's student government and has since been appointed the UC Student Regent (the student rep to the UC Board of Regents).
Oved reportedly wrote to the donor, Adam Milstein: “It is amazing to see how connected and united the Jewish community can be when our ideologies and voices are at stake."
The Forward focuses on how Hillels across the country have distanced themselves from the UCLA Hillel and publicly condemned the organization's involvement.
The controversy isn't over the amount of money—apparently $1,000—but that outside money is financing student government elections and that the UCLA Hillel acted as a bagman. And this is where an interesting legal question arises.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service also prohibits tax-exempt charities like Hillel from contributing to partisan political campaigns. But Ellen Aprill, a specialist in tax law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, told the Forward that “as far as I can tell, student government is private, like a club set up by the university, and not a public office.” She cautioned that the question was a murky one, given UC’s status as a state-sponsored public university.
In interviews with the Forward, spokesmen at several Hillels nevertheless assumed it was illegal for their centers to donate to or endorse student government candidates. Legality aside, nine separate campus Hillel branches also made clear that for them, the idea of wading into partisan campus politics on one side would contradict Hillel’s role as a campus unifier.
Even if UCLA's Undergraduate Students Association Council is a private student group—I'm not sure, but let's assume it is—the UC Board of Regents is not. After all, the eighteen voting Regents other than the Student Regent are appointed by the governor of California to run a state institution, not to pass student body resolutions. And if I recall correctly from my days reporting on the Board of Regents for the Daily Bruin, the Student Regents consistently have served on their school's student government body. This is not a requirement, but it certainly makes the case for one's nomination stronger. Of course, that connection is probably too attenuated to cause UCLA Hillel tax problems.
But, for me, the real concern is not Hillel's involvement, or that the money was earmarked for a candidate with a particular political outlook. The issue is that outside money is being earmarked at all. (Do we need another example of how money shapes the democratic process?) And the disclosure that student government candidates are not required to disclose campaign donations makes it all the more problematic.