UC campuses roiled over claims of anti-Israel bias

Allegations of anti-Israel sentiments rock UC campuses

The politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict keep seeping into campus life at the University of California.

In 2010, a group of Muslim student protesters disrupted a UC Irvine speech by the Israeli ambassador and later faced school discipline and criminal prosecution that their defenders considered overly harsh.

Last year, the UCLA student government debated whether representatives who took free trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups should face sanctions.

Over the past year, several UC student governments have voted, after bruising debates, to urge the UC system to sell off stocks in companies that do business with Israel’s military.

And provocative posters and graffiti linked to the Mideast debate have shown up on some campuses, offending Muslim and Jewish students.

Now UCLA is coping with the aftermath of an incident in which several student government leaders questioned a student’s eligibility for a campus judicial panel because she is Jewish. Those leaders later apologized and the Jewish student was unanimously approved for the position. However, some pain lingers from the situation along with questions of when legitimate protests can seem like bias, students and faculty say.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the incoming executive director of the UCLA campus Hillel organization, said he did not ascribe anti-Semitic motives to the student government officials who initially questioned whether a Jewish student could impartially review all judicial cases. The matter was more an extension of the anti-Israel stance of some campus groups, he said.

The protests against Israel at UC and campuses nationwide “have descended into a misunderstanding about where the line is between politics and hatred,” according to Lerner.

In that recent UCLA matter, four members of the undergraduate government last month initially questioned whether being Jewish might be a conflict of interest for Rachel Beyda in issues that might came before the campus judicial panel to which she was nominated. That judicial panel, which reviews ethics issues last year heard -- but later rejected -- complaints from pro-Palestinian activists who contended that two student leaders broke rules by taking free trips to Israel.

In the Feb. 10 hearing over Beyda’s nomination, the student council at first divided, 4-4, on confirming her. A faculty advisor intervened and informed the students that the debate over Beyda broke rules by discussing her religion and that all students might be perceived as having some kind of conflict of interest. The council then voted, 9-0, to confirm Beyda.

A video of the debate was widely viewed online, triggering protests from some Jewish organizations. The four student government council members involved published an apology in the Daily Bruin campus newspaper, saying: “Our intentions were never to attack, insult or de-legitimize the identity of an individual or people. It is our responsibility as elected officials to maintain a position of fairness, exercise justness, and represent the Bruin community to the best of our abilities, and we are truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise.”

On Friday, Beyda, who is pre-law student, declined to be interviewed. “As a member of the Judicial Board, I do not feel it is appropriate for me to comment on the actions of UCLA’s elected student government,” she said in an email.

Avinoam Baral, who is president of the undergraduate student council and is Jewish, recently told the Jewish Journal newspaper in Los Angeles that it was difficult last month to listen to other government leaders discuss Beyda’s appointment in ways he said were biased against her “because of her Jewish identity and her affiliation with the community. As a Jewish student, this for me echoed a centuries-long sort of connotation of Jews being unable to be truly loyal.”

On Friday, Baral said that matter had been so thoroughly discussed on campus that “at this point, we’re all looking to move forward as a community.”

Two weeks after the Beyda vote, posters appeared around the UCLA campus and in Westwood that vilified the Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus group that is active in protests against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, as a violent terrorist organization.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement condemning those posters and the objections to the Jewish student serving on the judicial board.

“No student should feel threatened that they would be unable to participate in a university activity because of their religion. And no student should be compared to a terrorist for holding a political opinion,” Block said.

“These disturbing episodes are very different, but they both are rooted in stereotypes and assumptions. Political debate can stir passionate disagreements," he said. "The views of others may make us uncomfortable. That may be unavoidable. But to assume that every member of a group can’t be impartial or is motivated by hatred is intellectually and morally unacceptable.”

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine strongly deny anti-Semitic motives. Their website says the group “prides itself on its opposition to all forms of racism and bigotry” and said it is concerned about rising “Islamophobia.” The group’s leaders could not be reached for comment on the judicial review board confirmation.

Janina Montero, UCLA’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said in an interview Friday that students were learning “difficult and painful” lessons about how to coexist “in a multiethnic, multicultural society and learning very directly what kind of sensitivities there are and what respect for people means in practice.”

UCLA, she said, is encouraging students to appreciate diversity and study each others’ histories and traditions.

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