The administration at the University of California, Los Angeles is taking no sides regarding recent moves by its campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine to try to exclude students who have taken trips to Israel sponsored by certain Jewish-affiliated groups from voting in the undergraduate student government.
Jewish organizations this week decried the effort to thwart travel to Israel on trips organized by pro-Israel groups – while giving a pass to pro-Palestinian, mosque- or church-sponsored travel – as “McCarthyism” and “repugnant.”
In an emailed statement from UCLA spokesman Tod Tamberg, the university essentially said it was leaving the matter to be resolved by students.
“UCLA encourages a climate of respectful engagement among students, faculty and staff, even in situations that are very difficult, painful and complex,” the statement said. “Student government functions independently, its proceedings proscribed by a constitution that makes available to students and student groups a process to review issues of alleged conflicts of interest. UCLA encourages all involved in this particular process to deliberate in an honest, respectful and inclusive manner."
Candidates running to serve as officers in the undergraduate student government were asked to voluntarily sign an “ethics” statement under which they would pledge not to go on trips to Israel that were fully or partially sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Hasbara Fellowships, all groups with a pro-Israel stance, UCLA student newspaper the Daily Bruin reported last week.
The "Joint Statement on Undergraduate Students Association Council Ethics" was drafted by the pro-Palestinian groups Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Armenian Students’ Association, the Bruin reported. The Muslim Students Association also expressed support for the initiative.
Cornell University law professor William Jacobson, who has been following the controversy closely on his blog, Legal Insurrection, said that while students have a right to run their own government council, the university needs to consider if some of the recent moves within the student government run contrary to the University of California’s own anti-discrimination policies.
“I agree as a general matter that student government should run its own affairs. The university though needs to consider whether those student government affairs are being run in a way that is contrary to university policy,” Jacobson told TheBlaze in a phone interview Wednesday. “To the extent student government singles out one group and applies different standards, then that should be a concern to the university. In this case it appears that pro-Israel students are having a different standard applied to them."
“At this stage of the proceeding, I think the primary role for the administration is to reiterate the principle that all students are to be treated fairly and equally,” Jacobson said. “Certainly if the student government did something that discriminated against people based upon some protected category, the university would not remain silent.”
While the majority of student government candidates signed the pledge against certain Israel travel, none running on the Bruins United slate agreed to sign the pledge, some of whom had themselves been on the trips the pro-Palestinian group had targeted.
After Friday’s vote tally, the Bruins United slate secured a plurality of the 13 elected positions for next year’s undergraduate student government.
UCLA student Avinoam Baral, who traveled to Israel with one of the blackballed groups and refused to sign the pledge, won the position of internal vice president on the student government, the campus newspaper reported.
Students for Justice in Palestine last month also submitted a complaint to the Undergraduate Students Association Council Judicial Board, challenging the legitimacy of two student government council members who voted on a resolution calling on UCLA and the University of California to divest from certain companies that do business with Israel.
While the votes that shot down the anti-Israel initiative were done in secret, the two council members now being targeted had voiced opposition to the resolution. The pro-Palestinian group asserted that the two students had a conflict of interest on the divestment issue because they had been on trips to Israel sponsored by pro-Israel groups.
The Judicial Board is currently reviewing Students for Justice in Palestine’s complaint and will hold a hearing about the two students on Thursday.
The American Jewish Committee said it is “outraged by the strong-arm, hypocritical, anti-Israel tactics several student groups used during the just-completed UCLA student council elections.”
“McCarthyism has returned, only this time it's directed against Israel and takes place in a university setting,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement this week. “Cherished values of open-mindedness and inquiry on campus are being trashed by groups obsessed with a sinister political agenda. What a sad day for the American university!”
“Strikingly, there were no attempted restrictions on similar activities -- trips, conferences -- by other organizations. Presumably it is fine to sponsor trips abroad as long as they align with the ideology of those [pro-Palestinian] groups,” Harris added.
The Anti-Defamation League, a group dedicated to combating anti-Semitism that was targeted by the student government pledge, said it is “outraged by accusations by UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine that student leaders who took part on sponsored trips to Israel are somehow tainted and should not be able to vote on issues related to Israel.”
ADL’s Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind said in a statement, “These accusations are repugnant, misguided and appear to be based on one-sided anti-Israel bias.”
“Singling out Jewish groups smacks of anti-Israel bias and interferes with students’ cherished freedom of association,” Susskind said.
“This effort is just another strategy to delegitimize Israel and reflects how far the anti-Israel movement is willing to go in order to stifle voices that support the Jewish state. The tactic exposes the promoters' hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty,” Susskind said, adding that trying to thwart educational travel is “antithetical to the spirit of academia and undermines the free exchange of ideas that are core to a university education.”
The blog Legal Insurrection offered another piece of information on the debate, reporting Tuesday that the student elected to serve as student government president next year - who was backed by Students for Justice in Palestine - had himself gone on a trip to Israel last year sponsored by a pro-Israel group. Despite his travel to Israel, the president-elect supports the university divesting from Israel, and there does not appear to be any move by Students for Justice in Palestine to have him disqualified through a judicial hearing.
Jacobson stated, "It will be interesting to see if Students for Justice in Palestine will file a complaint against the President-elect and seek to have him disqualified, or if he gets a pass because he agrees with them."