When a UCLA student first declared “holy war” against Milan Chatterjee, then-president of the school’s Graduate Students Association and the favored target of anti-Israel campus groups, few could have predicted that it would be waged with the help of an unlikely ally: the UCLA administration. The harassment of Chatterjee got so bad, in fact, that he is now transferring schools.
It all started when Chatterjee was approached by a representative from the student organization Diversity Caucus, which sought special funding for an upcoming town hall event. Chatterjee granted the request, but with the caveat that the caucus would not adopt a platform supportive of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Some members of his cabinet were concerned that by sponsoring the event, “we may be implicitly endorsing the BDS movement, which has happened many times before at UCLA,” he told The Tower. “So we provided the stipulation to the organization, saying look, we’d love to fund your events, we’d love to have pro-BDS and anti-BDS groups there, we just cannot sponsor a pro-BDS platform or an anti-BDS platform.”
The representative accepted the funding condition and the event took place on November 5 with the participation of various groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine. Two weeks later, Chatterjee received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal, a group of attorneys who work on behalf of pro-Palestinian activists, alleging that he had engaged in First Amendment violations.
“This is when the harassment started,” Chatterjee said. Even though the allegations put forth against him were contested by a number of legal groups and scholars, they gained steam online after Palestine Legal and ACLU circulated a letter accusing Chatterjee of suppressing students’ right to free speech, they argued.
However, as Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law and one of the nation’s top constitutional law scholars, told Chatterjee in his own letter:
GSA may choose that it is not going to fund on any speech or events on the topic of abortion, or gun control, or whether there is life on Mars. But once GSA chooses to fund speech and events on a topic, it cannot fund one viewpoint and not others.
My understanding is that GSA has chosen not to fund any organizations or events concerning “Boycott, Sanction, Divest” in Israel. This is a permissible subject-matter restriction and, by definition, it is viewpoint neutral.
This didn’t deter Chatterjee’s detractors.
“Pro-BDS blogs such as Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada wrote some really inflammatory articles about me,” he recalled. “Then the BDS activists started going to different councils on campus, criticizing me and again falsely accusing me of violating First Amendment rights. They circulated a petition condemning me. They kept coming to our GSA meetings and were very disruptive, and kept shouting and criticizing me at the meetings.”
By this point, BDS campaigners began trying to impeach Chatterjee from his post as GSA president. “Three times they tried to get me removed,” he said. While their efforts were unsuccessful, a GSA forum voted in April to formally censure Chatterjee for violating its constitution and code of conduct.
“They kept writing inflammatory articles about me during this period,” Chatterjee recalled. “They colluded with all these pro-BDS writers in the student newspaper, drawing cartoons of me.” At this point, Chatterjee said, a BDS campaigner who had once voted against a resolution condemning anti-Semitism showed up at a meeting Chatterjee was attending and announced, “I am declaring a holy war against Milan Chatterjee.”
“That caused me concern,” Chatterjee said. “I had to get campus security to come to a couple of meetings.”
Chatterjee felt as though he was moving around campus with a target on his back. And then the UCLA Discrimination Prevention Office’s investigation began.
Pro-BDS groups filed a complaint with the DPO against Chatterjee, charging that he violated UC policy by failing to be viewpoint-neutral. The ensuing 25-page report, completed by the DPO on June 29, determined that Chatterjee “violated University policy requiring viewpoint neutrality in the allocation of mandatory student fees.” It was subsequently condemned by seven national pro-Israel organizations.
Notably, despite being clearly marked as confidential, the report was openly posted online by SJP, which was entitled to a copy as the complainant. “I filed a complaint in [Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] Jerry Kang’s office that SJP has unlawfully leaked this report, in violation of [the] policy,” Chatterjee said. But Kang’s office refused to take any action against SJP. “Then Jerry Kang published a blog post about this confidential report, and in that blog post he urged people to read it,” Chatterjee continued. Kang’s post links to an article published by the Daily Bruin, which redirects to the report published by SJP.
Kang’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The DPO report “is an attempt by them to scapegoat me for their own negligence and shortcomings,” Chatterjee said. He noted that the administration knew about the funding stipulation from the very beginning, but took no action. “There were two administrators who knew about this stipulation. They had no problem, no concern about it,” he said. It was only when SJP turned it into a “political issue” that the administration took notice, he added.
“The UCLA administration has been very dishonest and unfair,” Chatterjee said. “When UCLA started to attack me, I had not choice but to leave.” He conveyed these concerns in a letter he sent last month to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, informing him of his decision to complete the final year of his legal education at New York University due to a “hostile and unsafe campus environment.”
“Since November 2015, I have been relentlessly attacked, bullied and harassed by BDS-affiliated organizations and students,” he wrote in the letter. “I believed that these administrators would be especially sensitive given the public outcry caused by similar BDS-led efforts against [other] UCLA students….I could not have been more mistaken. Your administrators were non-responsive and unhelpful.”
“The fact is that the UCLA campus has become a hostile and unsafe environment for students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who choose not to support the BDS movement, let alone support the State of Israel,” he wrote.
Chatterjee said that he isn’t holding his breath for a reply. At this point, all he wants is for the DPO to either rescind its report, or to issue a statement that he did not violate any policies.
“I am the fifth student who was harassed” by pro-BDS groups at UCLA, Chatterjee said. “UCLA has become a very dangerous place for people who are Jewish, who are pro-Israel, to become student leaders. They have a target on their back. If they do something that even remotely adheres to their cultural religious beliefs, they get skewered by BDS.”
Last year, UCLA undergraduate student Rachel Beyda was temporarily barred from serving on the student judicial board after student council members questioned whether her faith and activism in the Jewish community would prevent her from “being able to maintain an unbiased view.” And former UCLA student and UC student regent Avi Oved faced lots of political pressure due to his pro-Israel stances.
When asked whether he received any support from fellow students, Chatterjee said that many people have approached him in private, but did not broadcast their views publicly. “Unfortunately a lot of people who support me are scared of BDS, they are intimidated by BDS attacking them in the media, on campus. They don’t publicly support me, but privately I’ve gotten a lot of support,” he said.
An Indian-American Hindu, Chatterjee added that he was never particularly involved in Israeli-Palestinian campus politics. He had friends from both the Jewish and Muslim communities, but was more involved in activism within his own and remained neutral on BDS.
But that changed “once I saw firsthand how BDS activists harass people, how they try to tear them down in the media, destroy their reputation, destroy their careers,” he said. “I mean one BDS activist even said, ‘we are going to destroy Milan Chatterjee’s career,’ which I was astounded by. I realized that this was a very dangerous group of people. And they have a lot of influence. They are working in collusion with the UCLA administration,” he added.
“I really sympathize with the Jewish students who are constant targets of BDS activists who want to tear them down,” he continued. “And I think the Jewish community and American society really needs to do something to stop it.”
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