In the run-up to student government elections at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2013, Avi Oved, a pro-Israel advocate on campus, sent off an e-mail thanking right-wing philanthropist Adam Milstein for a campaign donation.
Over a year later, the e-mail was leaked, setting off a renewed controversy over how Israel/Palestine politics play out on the student government stage–and shining a spotlight on Milstein, an Israeli-American whose big pockets have benefited an alphabet soup of Zionist groups around the country and in Israel.
The e-mail is a window into how pro-Israel groups around the country see campus politics as a major front in the battle over Israel in the U.S.—so much so that they’re willing to spend some money on bolstering pro-Israel student candidates. Israel has become a hot-button issue particularly in California, where a handful of university student governments have passed resolutions calling on the University of California system to divest stock held in corporations doing business with the Israeli military.
On Saturday, reporter Chloe Hunt, who writes for The Daily Californian (the student newspaper at UC Berkeley), broke the story of how Oved profusely thanked Milstein in an e-mail for what the student government candidate said was a “generous donation.” The message to Milstein was sent a month before Oved, a member of the Bruins United slate, was elected to UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC).
“Thank you so much for your generous donation,” Oved, who has been active in Hillel and Bruins for Israel, wrote to Milstein. “Avinoam [another UCLA student government candidate who ran in 2013 and was elected in 2014] and I, and the rest of the Bruins United slate, are prepared to make sure that UCLA will maintain its allegiance to Israel and the Jewish community.” He went on to pledge to fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on campus.
The publication of the e-mail has led the University of California Student Association (UCSA) to look further into the matter, since Oved has been nominated to a be a student representative on the UC Board of Regents, who are set to vote this month on whether Oved will serve as a non-voting member. The UCSA, which recommends candidates to the regents, could decide this week whether to investigate the matter further.
Under student election regulations, Oved is not required to disclose how he receives campaign donations. But the controversy has centered around Oved’s transparency around the donation. In addition, students are suggesting that there may be a conflict of interest since Oved could play a role in debates over divestment at the UC Regents, and are angry over outside money being injected into student politics.
For Milstein’s part, he denies giving money directly to Oved. “I did not give money to Avi. I did not give money to Bruins for Israel. I did not give money to Bruins United,” Milstein told me in an interview. “No student is required to tell about thank you letters or anything else. He’s not going to be bullied and intimidated by the Students for Justice in Palestine for this information that is not required.” Milstein also suggested that the e-mail published by the Daily Californian was “contaminated,” or not real.
But in a statement Oved made to the University of California Student Association, a body composed of student representatives across the UC system, he did not deny writing the e-mail, or deny that Milstein gave his campaign cash. Instead, he criticized the “hurtful and deeply unfair allegations” against him, and insisted he had complied with election codes requiring him to disclose how campaign contributions are spent. Those codes do not mandate that a student to disclose where money for campaigns come from.
On a UCSA conference call organized earlier this week to air comments on the Oved controversy–a call Oved refused to take part in–students suggested that the money Milstein gave to Oved went through UCLA’s Hillel. When I asked Milstein about this, he told me, “When I make a donation to the UCLA foundation or what have you, I don’t know what they’re doing with the money. You have to check with them.” When I called UCLA Hillel’s Rabbi Aaron Lerner to check, he said “we’re not going to have any comment on it” and hung up.
Adam Milstein, the man who Oved thanked for the donation, is not a particularly well-known Israel advocate in the U.S. He’s certainly not as notorious as his friend Sheldon Adelson, the right-wing, pro-Israel casino magnate who has become the number-one donor to the Republican Party. But Milstein, who works for a real estate investment firm, has become an important player in the right-wing pro-Israel world. He sits on the national council of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, and on the boards of a number of groups, like StandWithUs and Hasbara Fellowships, that he has given money to.
The alleged donation to Oved is not Milstein’s first foray into campus politics in the UC system. The Milstein foundation, which has over $1 million in revenue according to a 2012 tax form, fully funds the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange program for California students to go on free trips to Israel. The free trips to Israel became a heated topic of debate at UCLA last year, with the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter circulating an ethics pledge to student candidates, who pledged they would not take trips organized by groups that engage in bigotry.
Milstein has quickly become a lightning rod for criticism because of his outspoken, often anti-Muslim political views and his funding of controversial groups who share his ideology. Since 2009, Milstein’s foundation has given StandWithUs, a right-wing pro-Israel group, about $738,000. He has also given, since 2009 over $260,000 to Hasbara Fellowships, which promotes anti-Muslim films and speakers; $40,000 to Christians United for Israel in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years; $10,000 in those same fiscal years to the virulently anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center; and in 2012 $5,000 to the Central Fund of Israel, a U.S.-based non-profit that funds illegal West Bank settlements and other projects, including, the organization says, in Israel proper. (Milstein told me he wasn’t sure what the Central Fund of Israel was, and that he does not give money to settlements, which he opposes.)
But it is Milstein’s tweets that have many students at UC upset. Here’s some of them collected by SJP at UCLA:
On the UCSA conference call, many students called for an investigation into the donation to Oved from Milstein, though some did voice support for Oved. “Not only is this an issue of funding transparency as you can see, but also this funding is coming from Adam Milstein, and Adam Milstein, through his public commentary himself and through his foundation, blatantly and publically supports organizations that are racist and Islamophobic,” said Maheen Ahmed, the vice president of Muslim Student Association-West.
Milstein defended his politics to me, saying that he’s not anti-Muslim but that “the problem is that right now it’s radical Islam that controls the Muslim world. They’re dictating the policies, they’re dictating the law, and I wish that the majority of the Muslims would stand up to this.”
Still, when I asked about a tweet deriding the notion that Islam is a religion of peace, Milstein struck an apologetic tone. “I hear you. Maybe I was not sensitive in the past. Twitter for me is a new thing, I just started a couple of months ago…I can agree with you that I wasn’t completely sensitive in the past in my tweets.”