The University of California, Los Angeles student government’s judicial board held a hearing Thursday night after the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine formally complained that two undergraduate student government members should have been disqualified from voting on an Israel divestment resolution because they had once taken a trip to Israel sponsored by pro-Israel organizations.
It's the latest move being described by pro-Israel groups as an effort to sideline pro-Israel voices on campus using procedural moves.
The intense hearing which went on for hours and was compared by the campus newspaper editor to the television drama “Law and Order” pitted pro-Palestinian student activists against the two former student government members.
In taking the students to the undergraduate student government judicial board, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is trying to challenge a February vote which rejected a resolution it sponsored calling on the University of California and UCLA to divest from certain companies that do business with Israel.
According to the UCLA student newspaper the Daily Bruin, the hearing was closed to the public “because of safety concerns.”
SJP has accused the two former undergraduate student council members of violating the student government’s conflict of interest policy, because they did not disclose that they had traveled to Israel on sponsored tours before their vote.
The February divestment vote was by secret ballot, but the two had expressed opposition to the resolution in the discussions prior to the vote.
The Daily Bruin reported that at the hearing, members of Students for Justice in Palestine argued that student council members must avoid even an appearance of having divided loyalties when voting.
“It is the appearance (of a conflict of interest that) is sufficient to undermine the integrity of government because it is impossible to prove what a councilmember subjectively intended with their (ties to outside organizations,)” SJP member Laila Riazi said according to the campus newspaper.
The hearing followed an “ethics” statement circulated by Students for Justice in Palestine asking that candidates running for Undergraduate Students Association Council earlier this month sign and thus pledge while in office not to go on trips either partially or fully sponsored by three pro-Israel groups – two of them overtly Jewish organizations - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee and the Hasbara Fellowships. No church or mosque-linked groups were targeted by the pledge request. Most of the candidates who ran signed the pledge including a candidate later elected president for next year’s student government.
Marking a shift in the university’s public position, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has now stepped into the controversy, sending a campus-wide email Friday in which he criticized the pro-Palestinian students’ moves.
The Daily Bruin published excerpts of Block’s email, in which he said that students had a right to circulate the pledge, but at the same time, he suggested the pro-Palestinian students were trying to intimidate their ideological foes.
“I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion,” Block wrote. “Political speech that stigmatizes or casts aspersions on individuals or particular groups does not promote healthy debate but debases it by trying to intimidate individuals and groups.”
Last week, the UCLA office of media relations told TheBlaze via email that the student government functions independently, suggesting it was not taking a position in the debate.
“UCLA encourages all involved in this particular process to deliberate in an honest, respectful and inclusive manner,” the office of media relations said before the chancellor issued his email.
One of the groups behind the pledge slammed the university chancellor for his new stance.
“A large segment of the student body will now feel they are subject to reproach by our university’s administration for standing for what is right and just,” the Armenian Students’ Association said in a statement.
The student group Bruins for Israel on Wednesday circulated its own statement - to which more than 1,600 students, faculty and alumni had signed as of Sunday morning - calling the pledge to not travel with certain pro-Israel groups “offensive and unethical.”
“This hypocritical statement exclusively attacks the organized Jewish and pro-Israel communities at UCLA and insinuates that any association with Israel is dishonorable,” the pro-Israel student group stated.
“In the past, lies about the Jewish people have led directly to mass violence and oppression against us,” Bruins for Israel wrote. “The systematic promotion of egregious lies about the one Jewish state in the world cannot be divorced from this historical context.”
A UCLA student active in the pro-Israel campus community told TheBlaze that Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association – both promoting the pledge against travel to Israel – “are official student groups registered through UCLA, and as such do receive funding from the university - technically from the student government, which allocates money from student fees for student groups.”
That could potentially expose the groups to some legal issues according to a prominent Washington attorney who has litigated a multitude of religious civil liberties cases.
Attorney Nathan Lewin who is not involved in the UCLA debate told TheBlaze, “Since the groups probably receive some subsidy from the government funds allotted to UCLA, it could be argued that they take on the university's constitutional limitations. There may be some judicial decisions that impose constitutional limitations on such student organizations.”
“I think, for example, that UCLA may not fund a student organization that promotes and practices racial and religious discrimination and excludes everyone except white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” Lewin said, adding, “If a student group began urging candidates for student government to take a pledge that they will oppose interracial marriage (or even gay marriage) you can be sure that a lawsuit would be filed immediately to at least terminate any university financial support for such a group.”
Pro-Palestinian student groups in 2012 were accused of exploiting the Jewish Sabbath and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to pass an anti-Israel resolution at the University of California Student Association when many Jewish students would have been celebrating the holiday with their families.
The vote was not publicized ahead of time and the exact location of the board meeting – which took place in Berkeley - was not posted on the Student Association’s website, catching the Jewish community by surprise.
Several national pro-Israel organizations attended a University of California Board of Regents meeting last week during which they voiced concern about the Israel travel pledge and the judicial board's hearing on the two students.
In the UCLA student government vote against divestment in February, the tally was 7-5, which suggests that if the two students’ votes are disqualified by the judicial board, the vote against divestment could be reassessed.
The five student judges have two weeks to hand down their decision, though the Los Angeles Jewish Journal reported that they are expected to do so within days.