Published in The Daily Bruin on Sept 10, 2014:
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.
An Open Letter From California Scholars for Academic Freedom To the Los Angeles City Council
Council Members: Gilbert Cedillo, Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Tom LaBonge, Paul Koretz, Nury Martinez, Felipe Fuentes, Bernard Parks, Curren D. Price, Jr., Herb J. Wesson, Jr., Mike Bonin, Mitchell Englander, Mitch O'Farrell, Jose Huizar, Joe Buscaino
Dear Los Angeles City Council Representatives;
We write on behalf of California Scholars for Academic Freedom, an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred and fifty faculty at universities throughout California (cs4af),* to express strong opposition to Los Angeles City Council Resolution #14-0002-S67. This resolution was presented by Bob Blumenfield and Nury Martinez on May 27, 2014 and has been referred to the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. Resolution #14-0002-S67, hereafter referred to as the Blumenfield Resolution, is available in its entirety online .
The Blumenfield Resolution is an assault on free speech and academic freedom. It comes in response to a student written pledge that candidates for student body elections at UCLA were asked to sign in Spring 2014. Student activists who supported and circulated the pledge were concerned that off-campus groups would lobby student leaders and council members through free trips and other in-kind gifts as a means of buying loyalty and influencing student council votes.
The voluntary pledge asked UCLA student candidates to promise, while in office, not to "accept free or sponsored trips that marginalize communities on the UCLA campus. This includes any outside non-student organization that promotes discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, marital status, financial status or social status, or which engages in any form of systematic prejudiced oppression."
Free trips to Israel funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Hasbara Fellowships were specifically identified in the pledge because, "as many students have experienced this year, AIPAC and ADL have political agendas that marginalize multiple communities on campus" and "Hasbara Fellowships is housed under Aish International, an organization which has helped disseminate Islamophobic materials on campuses and around the country. These materials portray the Muslim community as threats, have incited violence against Muslims, and serve to marginalize Muslim students on campus." Elaboration, justifications, and references were provided within the pledge statement (available online ), and are articulated in a separate document . Of the approximately 30 candidates running for student body offices, 17 voluntarily signed the pledge, and one of the pledge signers was elected UCLA student body president .
Responding to the controversy that inevitably ensues when Israel is criticized, UCLA Chancellor Block sent an email to the campus community in which he criticized the pledge, but also defended it as protected speech as follows :
"Prior to the recent student elections, some student groups asked candidates to sign a pledge promising not to go on such trips. The pledge was not sanctioned, proposed or required by our current student government or the university administration. No one was barred from running for office, participating in the election or serving on the council as a result of not signing the pledge. Some students signed, others did not. Both signatories and non-signatories won offices. The decision to circulate this pledge and the choice to sign it or not fall squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus."
City Representative Bob Blumenfield is a former Chair of the Anti-Defamation League's San Fernando Valley Chapter so it is not surprising that in its third paragraph, the Blumenfield Resolution describes AIPAC and ADL as "reputable non-profit organizations," in sharp contrast to the student pledge document . Following that, the Blumenfield Resolution makes the accusation, without any evidence, that "the [UCLA student] pledge request was part of a larger campaign which has used intimidation as a tactic." To build its case, the Resolution also asserts:
"the pledge request did not concern a policy issue relevant to the University, but rather the legitimacy of the State of Israel — a democratic country that is a U.S. ally."
The above accusation is remarkable for its shortsightedness and hypocrisy. First, it ignores the freedoms guaranteed to students to express opinions about issues whether or not they relate to the University. Political speech, in particular, is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and this protection is the foundation of academic freedom and democracy itself. Second, the accusation is strikingly hypocritical because the Blumenfield Resolution itself has nothing to do with the City of Los Angeles and thus goes beyond the duties of the Los Angeles City Council. Its purpose instead is to support the propaganda efforts of a foreign country. Third, there is nothing in the pledge that questions the legitimacy of Israel, but even if there was, the First Amendment guarantees students that right.
The Blumenfield Resolution charges that the University does not go far enough to inhibit speech critical of Israel and further conflates and distorts the voluntary student pledge with "bullying," "intimidation," and "harassment" in this passage:
"comments by the UCLA and UC President indicate appropriate concern. they do not address serious underlying concerns related to bullying tactics intended to intimidate students with differing viewpoints and to protect students from harassment and personal, vengeful attacks;"
The Blumenfield Resolution then surmises from the above statement that, "additional action must be taken... to ensure that students are protected from bullying and harassment." Through these distortions the syllogism is completed with the final resolution that:
"the City of Los Angeles hereby includes in its 2013-2014 State Legislative Program support for administrative action by the University of California Board of Regents and President of the University of California to develop policies and institute practices that will be implemented at every University of California campus so that intimidation or harassment of any student not be tolerated and where appropriate referred to the proper law enforcement agencies."
In short, the Blumenfield Resolution first mis-identifies the voluntary student pledge with "bullying," "intimidation," and "harassment." It then finds that the UC administration has taken insufficient steps to address those concerns, and then resolves that Los Angeles City Council will seek stronger measures so that this "intimidation or harassment" is not tolerated.
The Blumenfield Resolution is a transparent attempt to bypass constitutional protections of free speech in order to inhibit criticisms of Israeli policies and human rights violations. California Scholars for Academic Freedom urges all Los Angeles City Council members in the strongest possible terms to vote against this misguided resolution.
 L.A. City Council Resolution Resolution #14-0002-S67
 Joint Statement On USAC Ethics
 The Israel Lobby's Use of Free Trips to Sway Student Government
 Stances on Israel roil UCLA campus, Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2014
 UCLA Chancellor Block's email http://www.standwithus.com/news/article.asp?id=3208
*CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of nearly 200 academics who teach in 20 California institutions. The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities. Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.
Click read more for all faculty signatures:
In this article, we review the lobbying trips provided by two organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, and show how they operate and are used against the grassroots student movement for divestment. We show how the trips work using documents that are largely publicly available, as well as documents obtained through the UCLA Judicial Board case on conflicts of interest arising from these trips.
Groups lobbying on behalf of the Israeli government locate and recruit students who they believe may be future student government leaders to go on pro-Israel trips. They provide propaganda dressed up as educational trips as part of an effort to counter rising public support for Palestinian freedom and the divestment movement. These trips are widely offered to student government leaders across California. It must also be noted at the outset that these organizations do not reflect the diversity of the Jewish experience on campus or in the United States. Their anti-Palestinian rights agenda is increasingly unpopular, and the lengths to which these groups are going to counter a grassroots student movement is prime evidence of that fact. If the debate could be won by the anti-divestment side without such lavish trips and efforts, surely there would be no need for such efforts.
The trips to Israel offered by these lobbying groups are unique, in that one is hard-pressed to find any other non-student groups that offer effectively free trips to student groups, at least none by groups with as explicit a political position as the ADL and AJC on the very issue they claim to be educating participants on. The trips are lavish, estimated to cost $7,000 - roughly half a year's tuition at the University of California. They include experiences that the average student cannot afford - fancy hotel stays, car services, full meals, all rolled in with seminars filled with state propaganda (as you can see in the itineraries provided below). What results is a set of students who are well versed in the pro-Israel case, who may feel obligated to their benefactors, and who are exposed to a rich set of contacts and networks that they can turn to after graduation. These trips fit into the strategy described in the following video, shot in 2010, in which AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler describes how to turn back the wave of student divestment activism. He refers to the 2010 divestment vote at UC Berkeley:
In this post, we are revealing the documents and evidence that show how anti-divestment organizations use free trips and benefits as a way to influence student government. We will provide context for this issue, then review the evidence for the ADL and AJC trips, allowing the documents to speak for themselves.
The Anti-Defamation League's Campus Leaders' Mission to Israel:
1. The ADL is opposed to divestment on college campuses, including at the UC:
In addition to its positions in support of the Israeli government's denial of Palestinian rights, the ADL has a long and clear record of campaigning against student divestment efforts at the University of California. They have pushed the UC Regents to oppose divestment, participated in campaigns to stop student votes on divestment, and have worked to silence SJPs through the infamous Campus Climate Reports (chaired in part by ADL Education Head Rick Barton).
2. ADL describes the student trips as part of a pro-Israel strategy on campuses (see description listed under "on campus support").
3. The ADL lays out clear expectations for student leaders who go on the trips, stating that it expects students to "apply what they learned" through their student leadership positions (see bottom of first page).
4. The ADL Trip has an extensive itinerary, embedded below, and students are encouraged to blog about their trips.
The American Jewish Committee's Project Interchange:
1. The AJC, like the ADL, has continuously taken a position against divestment at the UC, supporting petition drives, letter campaigns, and so on. These positions effectively endorse the Israeli government's ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law.
2. The AJC clearly directs its trips towards Student Leaders, focusing heavily on California. They clearly are trying to recruit student government figures, as seen in their description and application. Also see the trip itinerary embedded after the application.
3. AJC even more clearly describes its Project Interchange trips as part of the campaign against BDS. See how a recent email by AJC director David Harris which describes the trip as a key part of the anti-BDS campaign:
4. In fact, the California Student Leaders trips are funded by the right-wing Milstein Family Foundation. MFF also gives money both to mainstream Jewish organizations such as Hillel as well as right wing and often racist political groups such as StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, and Christians United For Israel. Troublingly, the Milstein Family Foundation also donates to the conservative Center for Middle East Development at UCLA (see a full list in the PDF embedded below).
5. Following the trip, the AJC establishes ongoing relationships with participants. In the case at UCLA, they offered free admission to expensive dinners, point people to contact, and further reading materials (embedded below).
6. At UCLA, after the trip, the AJC sent a letter to their participant along with the rest of the student government asking them to vote against divestment:
Press Release: Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA Charges Council Members Singh and Rogers with Conflict of Interest
May 18th, 2014
In a five-hour hearing held on May 15th, 2014, representatives for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) argued that two members of the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) had a conflict of interest when they voted on the question of divestment from US companies that profit from the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights. SJP premised its arguments on the fact that both council members enjoyed in-kind benefits including travel, accommodation, meals, and professional networking opportunities provided by pro-Israel lobbying groups. The council members, Sunny Singh and Lauren Rogers, took free trips to Israel under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), respectively, while they held elected offices in the undergraduate student government. SJP alleged to the Judicial Board that the financial value of the trips (estimated to be between $5,000 and $7,000) created a perceived loyalty or obligation to the organizations, which are on record as openly opposing divestment resolutions on college campuses and working with campus groups to defeat them.
During the trial, SJP provided evidence that the ADL expected participants to “apply what they learned” on the trips through their student leadership positions, and provided a copy of an email message sent by the AJC to Rogers asking her to vote against the divestment resolution. SJP argued that a reasonable observer looking at these facts would believe that the council members' votes may have been influenced by these expectations and communications, and that this "reasonable observer" threshold was sufficient to trigger the conflict of interest clauses in the student government's bylaws. SJP also clarified that council members should be free to associate with whomever they please, and even to take trips, but that when these associations come with financial or in-kind benefits, extra scrutiny must be applied—especially when explicitly voting on a related issue. SJP asserts that the conflict of interest clause is in place precisely because these matters should not be left to the sole judgement of the council members. After all, that is what the concept of checks and balances is all about.
SJP rejects Singh and Rogers’ arguments that the case is a political smear campaign. Both defendants argued that the fact that Singh applied for the trip prior to being elected invalidated the claim, that a prior discussion of conflicts of interest in the student government effectively cleared them to participate in future votes, and that the perception of a conflict of interest showed a lack of faith in the council members' ethical judgment.
Members of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) were present as witnesses for the respondents. Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director, testified that her organization's Campus Leaders Mission to Israel never mentioned BDS or divestment and that the organization did not favor student government members in its selection process. Robert Peckar, outgoing executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Project Interchange, also argued that Rogers' position in student government was not the primary reason she was accepted to the California Student Leaders delegation, but acknowledged that the trip had significant financial value. Such claims fly in the face of the fact that these organizations publicly oppose divestment and specifically recruit student leaders.
Although some interpret the bylaws as designed to prevent USAC officers from taking actions that could produce a financial benefit for them in the future, SJP asked the court to consider the possibility that a council member’s vote might be based on a benefit they have already received. SJP stressed that if the actions taken by Singh and Rogers were declared acceptable, then other organizations would also be free to provide financial and/or in-kind gifts to council members prior to their votes on important public issues.
As of this writing, there is no clear timeline for the issuance of a verdict and full opinion, however Judicial Board rules stipulate that no later than two weeks after the verdict, the board will issue a full opinion on the matter.
For more information, see reporting by The Daily Bruin: http://dailybruin.com/2014/05/16/judicial-board-hears-arguments-on-potential-usac-conflict/