The student leaders visit the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. They meet Israeli military officials. And for good measure, they spend a few hours in the West Bank city of Ramallah before going back to Jerusalem.
Those are some of the details contained in documents released by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that open a window into how Israel lobby groups court student leaders. The itineraries of the trips offer an unvarnished look at the thousands of dollars spent to cultivate the next generation of pro-Israel advocates. The documents were published after a student judicial board at the school voted to reject SJP’s argument that those who went on such trips, and then voted on a divestment resolution, were in violation of a conflict of interest clause in the student government’s bylaws.
In recent years, taking student leaders on free trips to Israel has become a staple of how groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee work to shape campus opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These Israel lobby groups accept applications from student government members and other student leaders and wine and dine them, whisking them off to meet with mostly Israeli elites to educate them about Israel. Many of the student leaders come back to the U.S. and end up voting on resolutions calling for divestment from companies linked to the Israeli occupation.
The ADL frames their trips as giving students the chance to “hear and learn from diverse political and religious perspectives: Palestinian and Israeli, left and right wing, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish.” But the itinerary for their August 2013 trip for student leaders does not list any jaunts to the Palestinian West Bank, and minimal time is spent with Palestinian citizens of the state. The vast majority of the trip is devoted to meetings with Israeli Jews–some of them members of the Israeli security establishment. The AJC’s trip is similar, though student leaders do spend a few hours in Ramallah where they meet with Palestine Liberation Organization officials.
The AJC’s trips are completely funded by the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. The Milsteins are an Israeli-American couple whose focus is on boosting Israeli political activity in the U.S. Their foundation pours money into largely right-wing pro-Israel groups, and they also fund UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development.
To Rahim Kurwa, a member of UCLA’s SJP chapter, the trips “seem extremely unethical and it very much looks like trying to make the student government look like the way the national government operates.”
The UCLA student judicial board disagreed. By a 4-0-2 vote, the student justices ruled that Sunny Singh and Lauren Rodgers–two student government members who went on trips–did not improperly benefit from their position as UCLA office holders. The judicial board also ruled that Singh and Rodgers did not show “divided loyalty” to the ADL and AJC, and that the trips they went on were not lobbying efforts on divestment resolutions because the voting on the issue did not exist when they took the trips. But as SJP points out, the AJC did actively lobby against divestment at UCLA, sending an e-mail to student government members–Rodgers included–calling for them to “soundly reject this resolution, and instead work together with your fellow UCLA students and UC Regents to invest in projects that will advance prospects of peace.”
Despite the ruling, free trips to Israel have become a major issue on the UCLA campus and at UC schools. Separate from the complaint to the judicial board, SJP, the Armenian Students Association and Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA drafted an ethics pledge they circulated to students running for election that called on them to refrain from taking such trips, since they were organized by groups that promote Islamophobia and who have lobbied against recognition of the Armenian genocide. (The ethics pledge also included refraining from going on American Israel Public Affairs Committee-sponsored trips.) The effort was a success. The majority of students running for student government signed the pledge. The incoming president, who had gone on a pro-Israel trip before running, agreed to the pledge.
The pledge ignited anger among pro-Israel organizations, who accused SJP and their allies of singling out trips to Israel and of seeking to foreclose educational opportunities to students. UC officials like President Janet Napolitano (the former head of the Department of Homeland Security) and Chancellor Gene Block condemned the pledges as well. And earlier this month, a number of Los Angeles City Council members signed on to a resolution authored by Bob Blumenfield, a former chair of the Valley Advisory Board of the Anti-Defamation League, that condemned the pledge in strong terms.