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Documents open window into how Israel lobby courts student government members

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UCLA student government member Sunny Singh, at left, sitting on an Israeli tank during an ADL trip. (Photo: Anti-Defamation League)

UCLA student government member Sunny Singh, at left, sitting on an Israeli tank during an ADL trip. (Photo: Anti-Defamation League)

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.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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8 Responses

  1. Feathers
    Feathers on June 16, 2014, 1:34 pm

    related but not precisely on topic: One major stumbling block in the Presbyterian effort to Divest is retired pastor Rev. William Hartel, who has pledged to do all he can to block Divestment. For many years Hartel has led Christian tour groups to Israel and considers himself an advocate for Israel in the process of “seeking peace” between Israel and Palestine.

    • lysias
      lysias on June 16, 2014, 2:28 pm

      Given the long history of American Presbyterians running schools in the Middle East, Harter has no excuse for not knowing better.

  2. Feathers
    Feathers on June 16, 2014, 1:43 pm

    Many foreign policy pundits including and especially neocons readily and eagerly cite Machiavelli’s The Prince to provide cover for amoral, ends-justify-the-means tactics.

    But that may be a misreading of Niccolo’s overall perspective. In the last few minutes of this discussion of The Prince, Michael Ignatieff explains that Machiavelli was a democrat through and through, and he believed that power gained by wealth, or the spreading around of largesse/bribes, was not authentic power.

    Machiavelli endorsed the principle of Consent of the Governed: Only the people ruled could convey authentic power to those who ruled them.

  3. hophmi
    hophmi on June 16, 2014, 2:09 pm

    This is another jealousy post. If the pro-Palestinian community in the United States was organized enough to create an organization to send the same kids to the territories, you wouldn’t be criticizing it. You’d be promoting it. Once again, you’re simply jealous of the organizational structure and commitment of the Jewish community.

    There is only one reason these kids are not taken into the territories, and it is the same reason that they are not taken to the settlements either. The cost of insurance and security is too high. There is nothing stopping these students from reading Mondoweiss or any other pro-Palestinian source online to learn about the pro-Palestinian perspective.

  4. traintosiberia
    traintosiberia on June 16, 2014, 3:51 pm

    One news paper published from out of Springfrield IL USA ,last year condemned in it’s editorial last year , the paid travel of the IL lawmakers to Taiwan precisely on the ground that the lobbying by these lawmakers on behalf of Taiwan makes the trip unethical,prejudiced,and possibly illegal from obvious conflicts of interests .
    But that was Taiwan

  5. RoHa
    RoHa on June 17, 2014, 12:11 am

    If that rusty wreck is a typical Israeli tank, Hezbollah can take over tomorrow.

  6. ritzl
    ritzl on June 17, 2014, 4:01 am

    Thanks for the follow-up, Alex.

    I still can’t get past the question of why ANYBODY would oppose voluntary, before-the-fact ethics pledges on any issue whatsoever. The mind-numbing fear of an ABSENCE of corruption that has to motivate that view is SO difficult to comprehend. It seems like such a total perversion of any even minimal concept of open, informed democracy (which I suppose is the point). Enough so to call into question the fitness of anyone holding that view to serve in public office. I mean how can one publicly state that ethics in politics is something to be condemned and be in office past the next election?

    Maybe OT, but exposing this rot (hell, it’s not even rot, it’s a sterile political void of cosmic proportions, but I digress…) suggests a townhall question for the rest of us: “If you [prospective national candidate] had to choose between $3B for hungry constituent families and $3B in aid for Israel, which would you choose?” Now there’s an ethics pledge.

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