It was a simple idea. Activists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) recruited student leaders to sign onto a pledge stating they would not go on free trips sponsored by organizations that promote discrimination.
The pledge singled out the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Hasbara Fellowships–pro-Israel groups that have promoted anti-Muslim sentiment and that have courted student government leaders in California. The majority of students running for election for UCLA’s undergraduate student government signed the pledge.
But the “ethics pledge,” as student activists labeled it, has roiled the campus, sparking a controversy that has seen pro-Israel groups, UC president Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block condemn the pledge, saying that it unfairly targets trips to Israel.
Now, Bob Blumenfield, a pro-Israel Los Angeles City Councilman, is leading an effort to have the city go on the record to denounce the ethics pledge for “intimidating” and “bullying” students. Blumenfield’s resolution, introduced in late May, is supported by at least five other council members.
The resolution says that it supports administrative actions meant to combat the “intimidation” the pledge represents, and also calls on the “proper law enforcement agencies” to be apprised when appropriate.
UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter (SJP)–which along with the Armenian Students Association and Jewish Voice for Peace drafted the “ethics pledge”–fired back at the LA City Councilmembers with a statement saying that the resolution is inaccurate and “is engaging in a completely non-transparent effort to intimidate [students] and dismiss their concerns.” (The Armenian group co-drafted the ethics pledge because the ADL and AIPAC have defeated efforts to recognize the Armenian genocide in favor of cultivating Israeli ties with Turkey.) SJP members added that “the statement does not rule out trips to Israel – it only raises concerns about associations with external groups of any political persuasion that promote bigotry or discrimination.”
Israel lobby groups’ practice of taking student leaders on free trips to Israel or to Washington conferences have captured more attention in recent years as divestment votes by student governments spread throughout California. UCLA’s student government voted down a call to divest from U.S. corporations with Israeli military contracts earlier this year, and one of the student government members, Sunny Singh, had been wined and dined in Israel by the ADL. Singh lost his bid to become student government president to Devin Murphy, a candidate who supported the “ethics pledge” but took a free Israel trip before he signed the statement.
In the aftermath of the failed divestment vote, SJP filed a complaint with the UCLA judicial board, saying that Singh’s and fellow student government member Lauren Rodgers’ free trips to Israel constituted a conflict of interest. Last month, the judicial board rejected SJP’s complaint by 4-0 (with two abstentions), though the full court decision has yet to be released.
As the court case progressed, pro-Israel groups weighed in to denounce the ethics pledge and activists’ attempts to make free trips an issue, with the campus Hillel going as far to call SJP’s efforts “a new front of anti-Semitism, one which threatens to spread around the country if we don’t stop it now.”
Bob Blumenfield, the author of the City Council resolution denouncing the ethics pledge, is no stranger to getting state and city representatives to denounce SJP activism. Last year, when Blumenfield was a state assemblyman, he helped organize a letter denouncing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on UC campuses. Blumenfield also sponsored a 2012 California house resolution that denounced BDS and stated that calling Israel an “apartheid state” is anti-Semitic. And one of his latest pro-Israel actions was announcing an effort to bolster cooperation between LA and Eilat, Israel.