Following months of contentious debate, the chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles has condemned efforts by pro-Palestinian groups to bar student council candidates from participating in trips to Israel sponsored by pro-Israel groups.
The target of the chancellor's criticism was a student-drafted joint statement of ethics, which asked student council candidates, if elected, to refrain from participating in trips to Israel organized by AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and Aish International's Hasbara Fellowships.
The statement was supported by a diverse group of pro-Palestinian student organizations at UCLA, including Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Muslim Student Association, Afrikan Student Union, Armenian Students’ Association and Samahang Pilipino.
"I am troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others," Chancellor Gene Block said, in an email to students, faculty, and staff.
"I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion. "If we shut out perspectives, if we silence voices, if we allow innuendo to substitute for reasoned exchange of ideas, if we listen only to those who already share our assumptions, truth gets lost, our intellectual climate is impoverished and our community is diminished," he said.
Candidates representing Bruins United, the majority party on the student body, did not sign the pledge. Those representing the other two parties did sign, including the student who went on to be elected student body president.
A majority of those who were elected did not sign the pledge, though some have stated they will refrain from travel to Israel on sponsored trips.
"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," said University of California President and former US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
The situation at UCLA is being closely followed by influential members of the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities, as the joint statement represents a new tactic that could be employed by Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions supporters at other UC campuses and universities throughout the United States and Canada.
Reaction to Block's statement has been strong on both sides.
"I thought it was great.” said UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council Internal Vice President Avi Oved. "Anything to do with Israel has been tainted on campus, so this really helps create a better image of the pro-Israel community," he said
In discussing the tense climate on campus this year, Oved said that he and fellow pro-Israel students on campus had been victims of what they consider to be hate speech, as well as threatening messages and phone calls.
Bruins for Israel President Miriam Eshagian was equally supportive of Block's message. "I think it is important for the campus to take what he said to heart and … understand the implications statements like these have," she said.
Supporters of the students' statement expressed disappointment with Block's email.
"Block is misrepresenting the issue," said UCLA graduate student and Students for Justice in Palestine member Rahim Kurwa. "There are plenty of trips and conferences by Jewish groups and pro-Israel groups that no one thinks are promoting bigotry. He failed to mention the concerns that promoted this issue to begin with - that the organizations listed have engaged in bigotry against communities represented on campus."
Kurwa reasoned that elected student leaders, as representatives of the entire student body, should not associate with groups that supporters of the joint statement believe have sought to marginalize members of the pro-Palestinian and Muslim communities.
UCLA student Gabriel Levine, a board member of UCLA's chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, and a participant in the drafting of the students' statement, also felt that that Block failed to address the issues.
"We are glad Chancellor Block recognized that our statement is within the realm of free speech, but he didn't address our concerns about the promotion of Islamophobia, conflicts of interest or complicity in Armenian genocide denial," he said. He added that he had also felt victimized on campus during the past few months.
In the wake of a petition filed by Students for Justice in Palestine, the UCLA undergraduate student government's judicial board heard arguments last Thursday on whether two elected student representatives, who had gone to Israel on sponsored trips, had violated the student government ethical code on conflicts of interest when they voted on divestment.
Another student, Council President-elect Devin Murphy, participated in an American Jewish Committee-sponsored trip to Israel prior to being elected. He was not included in the judicial proceedings. Murphy signed the joint statement and was supported in the election by Students for Justice in Palestine, among others.
Representatives of the Jewish advocacy groups that sponsor trips to Israel vehemently reject the accusations that have been leveled at them by the joint statement and its supporters.
"These are educational trips for students; there is no political agenda," said AJC LA President Dean Schramm. "Participants are exposed to the richness and complexity of region and meet with Israeli leaders, including Arab-Israelis. They also go to the West Bank and meet with Palestinian Authority leaders."
ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind addressed the accusations in a statement on the ADL website.
"We are confident that any reasonable fact-finder will conclude that there was no 'quid pro quo,' and that participating in such trips in no way constitutes a conflict of interest as defined by the student bylaws," she said.
Schramm characterized claims that his group is Islamophobic as "ludicrous." Yael Steinberg, Hasbara Fellowships' West Coast Regional Advisor said, "The assumption that someone who is pro-Israel must be Islamophobic is offensive."
The campaign to divest from Israeli companies and companies that do business with the Israel began in 2001 at UC Berkeley. Since 2012, symbolic resolutions have been passed at UC Irvine, UC Berkeley and UC Riverside. They were rejected at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, Stanford University and San Diego State University.
The specific targets of the campaigns in California have mostly been U.S. companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and General Electric.
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