Why Are Student Leaders and Jewish Bruins Under Attack at UCLA?

Tessa Nath

Tessa Nath

Student at UCLA, Class of 2015

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Tessa Nath ~

From the Blog

One of America’s most prominent campuses has become a cesspool of anti-Israel hate, intimidation, and cyberbullying. A student reports from the front lines of the boycott battle.

There will always be that one person who does not like you. There will always be that one person who thinks you can do no right. And while you acknowledge your own faults, that one person sees them as far greater than anyone else’s. Implicit in this is the antagonistic relationship between two people, between two differing belief systems, and two differing ways of thought. Unfortunately, this is the situation we have learned to accept when it comes to the relationship between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups. On campuses across America, this dynamic is no different.

It seems, however, that during the past year at the University of California, Los Angeles, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian tensions have reached a climax—partly because there are no longer just two voices fighting against each other, but multiple voices fighting against one. UCLA has seen the mobilization of self-identified minority communities banding together in order to combat the terrors they believe Israel inflicts on the world, and a concerted effort by pro-Palestinian organization to exploit this to their advantage and silence pro-Israel voices on campus. By going to university, you expect to find yourself, to make friends, and to define beliefs that will guide you for the rest of your life. All of this is happening for me at UCLA, but in a high-pressure situation I could never have anticipated. More than anything else, this was made clear to me during the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) debate over an anti-Israel divestment resolution.

The resolution in question called for divestment from Caterpillar, Cement Roadstone Holdings, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and Cemex, claiming that all these companies committed human rights violations against the Palestinian people. If passed, the resolution would be purely symbolic, since the Regents of the University of California had already declared that they would not divest from any companies that maintain operations in Israel.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a pro-Palestinian organization, authored the resolution, which was sponsored by three council members. SJP has long been active on campuses across America and its ideology is well known. Its website states,

As a solidarity organization, we support the Palestinian call for three basic rights, outlined in 2005: The right not to live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the right to equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. As a group, we focus on supporting these rights instead of advocating for a particular political solution (such as one or two states).

The issue most pro-Israel students had with the resolution was that it did not allow a dialogue on whether or not Israel committed human rights violations; it assumed Israel’s sole culpability without looking at any event in a historical context. Bruins for Israel (BFI), the primary pro-Israel group on campus, was thus the most vocal organization opposing the resolution. BFI is an entirely mainstream and moderate group. As outgoing President Miriam Eshaghian has said, “By framing factual current events in a historical context, we give the campus community the tools to comprehend the turmoil…. We advocate for a negotiated two-state solution: A Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state…. We stand firmly against any form of delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state.” To BFI, the resolution was part of the global anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state, and therefore had to be strenuously opposed. The USAC meeting to vote on the divestment resolution was scheduled for February 25, 2014. For weeks before the deciding USAC meeting, both pro-divestment and anti-divestment groups lobbied individual council members intensely, bombarding them with fact sheets, presentations, explanations of historical context, and, in some cases, friendships that proved to be false and exploitative. By the time the council actually voted on the issue, the meeting had extended into the wee hours of the morning on February 26. It lasted for nearly 12 hours, with nine hours of public comments, despite each speaker being limited to only two minutes per statement. As a student in the audience, I watched with a sense of helplessness as blocks of students went up to the microphone to gush hate, bias, and one-sided claims from all sides of the divestment advocacy spectrum.

The USAC divestment hearing lasted nearly 12 hours. Photo: Tessa Nath

The USAC divestment hearing lasted nearly 12 hours. Photo: Tessa Nath

When it was finally my turn to read my statement to the council, three hours after I had gotten in line, my whole body began to shake with the force of my words and the knowledge that hundreds of eyes in the room—and thousands of ears listening to a live stream—were focused on me. I shook with the power of conviction and the feeling that I must fight to do something, anything, to carve out a place for myself in a university that was threatening to stifle not only my voice, but also my identity and my connection to the Jewish homeland. After sitting through the public comments, the council members deliberated on what they had heard. After two straw votes, former USAC President John Joanino decided to move to a secret ballot—though many believe that secrecy was compromised, since the two straw votes clearly revealed the council members’ opinions. The meeting ended with a 5-7-0 vote: The divestment resolution failed. Reflecting on the USAC meeting, Eshaghian said,

Since the divestment hearing and listening to nine hours of individuals continuously attack Israel and spew slanderous claims, I have felt ashamed to call myself a Bruin. As a result of divestment, not only my mental stability but also my academics have suffered. These attacks on my identity and rights to self-determination have not only affected me emotionally, but have had devastating effects on my academics and have hindered my purpose on this campus—to be a student. It is ridiculous to me that at such a world-renowned university, our education is being put on hold because my identity is being put on trial.

Many of us felt precisely the same way. And in the aftermath of the divestment decision, our feelings were unfortunately confirmed. An eruption of hate targeted council members with extreme cyberbullying from students who disagreed with their stance, which had been made public during the straw votes.

The divestment resolution was by no means an isolated incident. Days before the end of the winter quarter, the Muslim Student Association published an official press statement condemning Islamophobic speech, and asked councilmembers and student groups to sign in solidarity. While the underlying idea of denouncing Islamophobia is a commendable one, the statement included language that was offensive to students who support the Jewish state of Israel, since it made a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

BFI, Hillel at UCLA, and former USAC Internal Vice President Avi Oved did not agree with this distinction and chose not to sign. As a result, they were vilified for their supposed failure to denounce Islamophobia. The individuals who question these Jewish organizations and representatives neglect to take into consideration the gravity of the offending language, which undermines the identity of most Jewish students, which is, in turn, predicated on the connection between Israel and Judaism. While many students hoped that the steadily deteriorating campus climate would return to a tolerable equilibrium after the spring break, this hope proved futile, since USAC elections in the middle of the spring quarter once again turned the campus on its head and polarized its communities. In one instance, Al-Talib, the Muslim newsmagazine at UCLA, published a submission slandering newly-elected Internal Vice President Avinoam Baral as Islamophobic, stemming from his participation in a trip to Israel with Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel campus partnership organization. Since Baral publically denounced Islamophobia during the February divestment meeting—instead of using his allotted time to emphasize the anti-divestment case—the claim that Baral is Islamophobic came off as an attempt to harm his chances in the USAC elections. This had serious consequences for Baral himself. “I felt personally attacked, singled-out and targeted because of my views on political issues such as divestment,” he said. “Because of the divestment issue, I have lost numerous friends, done poorly in my classes, and overall have never felt so unwelcome at this university.”

Backdrop at UCLA commencement. Photo: Ilya Haykinson / flickr

Backdrop at UCLA commencement. Photo: Ilya Haykinson / flickr

While the Al-Talib article was taken down under pressure from the UCLA Student Media administration and replaced with a watered-down version of the original grievances, this instance of slander was not isolated. Baral was attacked in several other media outlets, as were other hopeful candidates and past council members. In addition, several student groups who support BDS and oppose Zionism authored a “Joint Statement on USAC Ethics,” which called for elected officials to refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, or Hasbara Fellowships. The ethics statement received signatures from the entire LET’S ACT and FIRED UP! political slates running for USAC, which have both advocated for divestment and BDS resolutions. It received none from the Bruins United slate, which historically votes against such resolutions. Those who refrained from signing stated that the specific language of the statement singled out pro-Israel organizations, making it clear that the authors of the statement intended to silence some campus communities instead of merely advocating for USAC to remain untethered to outside lobbying organizations. Gabriel Levine, SJP member and founder of the group Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA, as well as one of the co-authors of the joint ethics statement, declined to comment on the issue. However, on May 28, Levine explained on KPCC’s AirTalk public radio program,

The main motivation behind the statement was from the Armenian Student Administration. Armenian students were very concerned that a member of the UCLA council this year had accepted a free trip to the AIPAC conference, a conference that has hosted anti-Armenian speakers repeatedly for the past three years. Muslim students were also concerned that certain council members had gone on trips with organizations that had promoted Islamophobic rhetoric, or also through their actions and materials that they have spread around.

Although Levine champions his cause as one that protects Muslim and Armenian people, the negative effects caused by pro-Israel organizations on these communities are tangential at best. Some Armenian students claim that the Anti-Defamation League denies the Armenian genocide. However, the ADL’s stance is better described as wary of endangering Turkish Jews, as the Armenian genocide issue is a violent and controversial one in Turkey. Students also claim that Hasbara Fellowships perpetuate anti-Muslim sentiments, since it is connected to Aish International, which Muslim students define as Islamophobic based on various projects it funds. Since none of the targeted trips actively deny the Armenian genocide or promote Islamophobia—preferring instead to focus on educating students about Israel—many see the ethics statement as simply an attack on pro-Israel and Jewish groups. In response to the joint ethics statement, BFI authored its own statement calling for “accountability and a respectful, positive campus climate.” The statement asks for,

1. The 2014-2015 UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) to denounce all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism perpetuated at the divestment hearing and work toward ensuring civility and respect in future discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 2. The 2014-2015 UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) to denounce the biased “ethics” statement and draft a new statement that works toward building understanding between communities rather than destroying the campus climate. 3. The UCLA Administration to take tangible steps to prioritize a positive campus climate and inclusive academic discourse for all.

The statement has received 2,239 signatures by the time this article was written. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block also publically voiced his disapproval of the original ethics statement, writing in a campus-wide email on May 16,

Just because speech is constitutionally protected doesn’t mean that it is wise, fair or productive. I am troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others. I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion. I condemn any remarks on social media or elsewhere that are disrespectful or hurtful.

The same day, UC President Janet Napolitano released a statement voicing her opinion. She wrote,

I share Chancellor Block’s concerns about students at UCLA who target any student seeking to participate in student government who has a relationship with, or wants to travel to, Israel on trips sponsored by certain groups. At the University of California, freedom of speech is a highly valued principle. Yet, other principles are also highly valued, including the principles of civility, respect, and inclusion, and should also govern our campuses. The actions of these students at UCLA violate these principles. I encourage members of the university community, at both UCLA and at the other nine campuses at this great educational institution, to come together, in open dialogue, to discuss the great issues of our day, learn from each other, and work to move our society forward. Harmful, hurtful speech by some hurts us all. We must work to “heed the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said. That is what the University of California really stands for.

Although the statements from Block and Napolitano come from a place of authority and objective distance from the warring student groups, many students are publically showing their disagreement. The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s main news source, finds itself the unsuspecting site of a war waged by op-ed submissions. Most notably, UCLA History Professor and Department Chair David Myers writes,

I reiterate my view that a pledge needlessly exacerbates an already inflamed situation. I think that there are better ways to get a sense of things in Israel and Palestine than on AIPAC or Hasbara Fellowships trips, but I don’t want to ban them—or, for that matter, any other trip offered to a student by a legally registered organization in the US to another country. This is not only a matter of free speech; it is also a case of blurring the boundaries of student government and international diplomacy. If one is truly concerned about promoting a balanced and sound view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have a suggestion. Rather than outlaw trips by the targeted Jewish organizations, why not promote trips by the Olive Tree Initiative, the organization that is devoted to educating students about both Israel and Palestine through extensive exposure to the politics and culture of the two countries? I find that a much better and more sensible approach, one that encourages the requisite mix of empathy and criticism of the two sides in the Middle East and points us back to the sane center back at home.

As exemplified by Myers, the joint ethics statement is uniting people and groups with a wide range of political perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since many can agree on calling the statement biased and purposefully singling out certain pro-Israel groups. Outgoing BFI President Eshaghian commented,

It is definitely difficult to be a pro-Israel, Jewish student at UCLA right now. In the recent months, I have felt personally attacked by members of the UCLA community. Our campus climate has only grown more hostile. However, I find myself lucky to be able to call the pro-Israel and Jewish communities home at UCLA. I am lucky to have so much support from students with diverse backgrounds.

Naturally, there are those in favor of the statement who do not see it this way. Newly-elected USAC President Devin Murphy released a statement saying,

The Undergraduate Student Association Office of the President finds the Chancellor’s statement to be counterintuitive and a limitation on the free speech exercised by a number of student organizations on our campus, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, Muslim Student Association, Samahang Pilipino, Armenian Students’ Association, MEChA de UCLA, and Afrikan Student Union.

The groups mentioned partook in the writing and dissemination of the joint ethics statement. Although it is the president’s job to lead by example and maintain a council table that is united rather than divided by slate politics, Murphy has chosen to alienate a portion of his constituency with his statement, which constitutes his first official act in office.

Ironically, Murphy’s own presidency is tainted by the extent to which UCLA has become a battleground waged with statements, op-ed submissions, and hate speech. Many believe that Murphy was, in part, elected because of a conflict of interest case brought by SJP against former USAC presidential candidate Sunny Singh, who sat on the council as General Representative 2 during the 2013-14 academic year; and Lauren Rogers, who was Financial Supports Commissioner at the same time.

SJP claimed that Singh and Rogers should not have been allowed to vote on the divestment meeting on February 25, since their participation in free educational trips to Israel constituted a conflict of interest. Murphy, who attended the same Project Interchange trip as Rogers, was not under scrutiny, since SJP claimed that his trip came before his presidential term, while Rogers and Singh attended trips after their elections. SJP’s strategic attack was certainly effective. Election season was rife with back and forth speculation on the nature of Singh’s qualifications, and The Daily Bruin even cited the conflict of interest case as a reason why they would not endorse Singh for USAC president. In the end, Murphy won the USAC presidential race by 31 votes. While justice ultimately prevailed, it was delayed for too long: The Judicial Board cleared Rogers and Singh of any conflict of interest on May 21, with a 4-0-2 vote and the conclusion that Singh and Rogers’ votes on the divestment issue were “valid and legitimate.” “I was surprised that it reached that point. I had done nothing wrong and felt like I was being questioned simply because I had a differing opinion,” Singh said afterwards. “The trial was stressful—not because I thought the Judicial Board would rule against Rogers and me, but because this would overshadow and invalidate the incredible work that my office had done throughout this year.”

Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings on UCLA’s Westwood campus. Photo: Alton / Wikimedia

Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings on UCLA’s Westwood campus. Photo: Alton / Wikimedia

When asked about the impact of the trial, Rogers was more critical. “For the past three months, there have been constant hateful, vindictive, and frightening attacks almost on a daily basis on those who disagreed or were perceived to disagree with the divestment resolution,” she said.

The Judicial Board trial was the pinnacle of attacks as it specifically targeted me and my fellow co-council member Sunny Singh. The ongoing attacks on social media, the ethics pledge, and the Judicial Board complaint clearly demonstrate part of the campaign of hate by SJP and others against anybody they disagree with…. Despite the fact that Sunny and I have been cleared unanimously by the Judicial Board, I am still truly scared to walk around my own campus. The campus climate of fear created by SJP and their allies is still very present and should not be tolerated.

On May 27, Ian Cocroft and Katie Takakjian, Roger and Singh’s respective counsels in the Judicial Board case, published a statement in The Daily Bruin expressing their dissatisfaction with the case in general. “Free speech rights,” they wrote, “do not permit the use of harassment to intimidate students into surrendering their freedom of association and the educational prerogative they have as elected officials and as students.”

With that, we arrive at the current state of affairs at UCLA. We are making local, national, and international news—something that is usually a cause for celebration. But in this case, it is a cause for self-evaluation and peacemaking between campus communities. The current situation is, quite simply, intolerable. UCLA has turned into a microcosm of world politics, with all sides speaking past each other in an attempt to be heard, confusing and exasperating unaffiliated onlookers.

For myself and other Jewish and pro-Israel students, the atmosphere is poisonous. We feel attacked, ostracized, and threatened. Our identities are being rejected and our right to express our beliefs endangered. Our academic performance is being harmed unjustly; and our supporters are now targets of hate campaigns, baseless accusations, and unfair political and social retaliation. Yet, we cannot give up hope that the situation can be changed, or that it can teach us something important. It can be an isolating experience wading through all of the social and mass media reports about the terrors at UCLA right now. But ultimately, they remind us of the need for competent, strong, and open-minded voices that can temper hate and bring us back to a place of tolerant coexistence.

Banner Photo: Marc Levin / flickr