By Omar Zahzah and Rahim Kurwa
Earlier this year, UCLA students asked student government members not to take lobbying trips hosted by bigoted and discriminatory groups. In a strange intervention into campus politics, this summer Los Angeles City Council member Bob Blumenfield proposed a resolution denouncing this pledge. At a time when we are flooded with other problems, it is curious that Blumenfield has asked the City Council to spend its energy meddling in what appears to be a settled issue.
Why would a city councilmember get involved in a campus debate about lobbying trips? Perhaps because several lobby groups that advocate for the Israeli government offer free lobbying trips to students, and those groups – such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League – have records that many communities consider bigoted. Since these groups use lobbying trips to build support for Israeli policies, scrutiny of their behavior might undermine their effectiveness and raise concerns for Blumenfield, a supporter of Israeli policies and former board member of the Anti-Defamation League.
But these trips don’t just cause problems when their providers have offensive and discriminatory political positions. They also raise serious questions about the health of campus democracy. Take the examples of conflict of interest and campaign finance:
Last year, two student government leaders received free trips to Israel that included a week of free meals, meetings with pro-Israel politicians and military figures, nightlife experiences, beach trips and shopping. The trips, which many consider to be propaganda disguised as education, are worth roughly $7,000, about half a year’s tuition for in-state students and certainly unaffordable for most. Upon return, one student was encouraged to apply what he learned through his campus position. All councilmembers received a letter from the trip provider asking them to vote against divestment, but it likely had a stronger effect on one of the councilmembers who had been given the financial benefits provided earlier. These revelations damaged public confidence in USAC’s integrity, because many students believe that financial gifts from political lobbies have a corrupting influence on politicians and might sway how they vote on issues.
More recently, The Daily Californian published an email from former USAC councilmember Avi Oved, revealing that anti-Palestinian activist and Islamophobe Adam Milstein helped fund the Bruins United slate through Hillel at UCLA in campus elections. Although the emails showed that Avi Oved and Avinoam Baral were involved in 2013, we do not know whether Milstein funded the most recent elections in spring 2014, whether he will continue to fund elections or who else in the slate was involved. What is clear, however, is the political goal of this relationship. The emails published by The Daily Californian show Milstein and others worrying that because the movement to divest from companies that violate Palestinian rights was gaining broad support, the only way to stop a resolution was by using off-campus funding to ensure that anti-divestment candidates were elected to office. It should also be noted that in addition to influencing student elections, Milstein paid for lobbying trips for students at UCLA and across California.
Much like the destructive effect of political lobbies on national politics, this injection of money into campus politics is hampering the progressive movement and having a corrosive effect on the entire student democratic process. Milstein’s donations were directed to the campus’ relatively conservative party, giving it a financial advantage relative to others. The students that lost those elections represented a wide range of progressive organizations and social justice causes.
As efforts by off-campus groups to influence student politics grow, we must be more vigilant of threats to the integrity of our political process. In that light, Blumenfield’s proposed resolution appears even more inappropriate, because it will chill free speech and intimidate students who otherwise would feel free to critique and question the practices of their elected officials. Although Blumenfield’s proposals are unenforceable, unconstitutional and apparently unpopular with UCLA’s own administrators, it is not clear whether the City Council will respect the students, faculty and civil rights groups that have called for the resolution to be dropped.
Students must be allowed to consider the pressing political questions of our time without interference from lobbying groups or local politicians. Although they might seem petty at times, campus political debates have an important role in social change. UC student activists have been ahead of the nation on questions ranging from apartheid in South Africa to marriage equality, sexual assault prevention and prison divestment. Imagine if off-campus lobbies had stopped those movements too.
For more on this issue, please see this post on lobbying trips, this information about campaign finance issues, and this post about conflict of interest issues.