Battleground California: How UCLA became the epicenter of the campus battle for Israel


If only Lauren Rogers had known what she was getting herself into when she signed up to go to Israel.

During UCLA’s winter break in December 2013, the rising senior and outgoing financial supports commissioner for UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association (USAC) took an all-expenses-paid trip called “Project Interchange,” organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which allows California undergraduates to travel throughout Israel to learn about the country’s society, culture and political structure and to meet with key players on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

Five months later, on May 15, Rogers — a Christian — found herself sitting in a classroom in UCLA’s Royce Hall facing cross-examination from Dana Saifan — a member of UCLA’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — who was grilling her as part of a hearing before UCLA’s student judicial board about allegations that Rogers’ trip had violated USAC rules against student officers creating a perceived conflict of interest.

SJP alleged that the free AJC trip to Israel may have influenced Rogers’ no vote in February on a SJP-sponsored resolution calling upon UCLA’s administration to divest from a number of companies that do business with the Jewish state. 

When losing is winning

Taher Herzallah is encouraged.

The campus coordinator for SJP spoke with the Journal by phone from Orange County about the resounding 4-0 defeat SJP had just endured at the hands of UCLA’s judicial board.

There is no central governing board of SJP that directs strategy for its many campus branches. Nevertheless leaders at each chapter regularly communicate with one another and with Herzallah about successful and unsuccessful tactics, thereby providing the group’s chapters in California and around the nation crucial feedback and information that help SJP leaders design their plans. 

Had the board’s May 21 ruling at UCLA favored SJP, it could have ensured that all aspiring student leaders at the university would need to choose between running for office and taking sponsored Israel trips, which could have been a major blow to the pro-Israel campus movement at UCLA and across the country.

But the defeat doesn’t worry Herzallah.

“In our world, whatever step we take to bring about justice is a step forward, whether or not the outcome is necessarily the desired outcome,” he told the Journal.

Herzallah is one of the “Irvine 11”—11 students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside who disrupted and cut short a 2010 speech at Irvine by then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. The students were removed from the room and were ultimately charged and convicted in 2011 of misdemeanors. One of the students, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, took a plea deal.

Their disruption of the ambassador’s speech was just the most famous of the many public displays that SJP used to hold regularly on Southern California campuses. These days, the displays are not nearly as common as they used to be in California, perhaps because SJP’s chapters in the Golden State moved on to the equally public, but far less obviously disruptive battle for votes.

At San Diego State University (SDSU), SJP co-chair Nadir Bouchmouch knew that the divestment resolution brought to vote on April 23 was a long shot. As predicted, SDSU’s student government resoundingly rejected it, with 16 members voting against and only three in favor.

 “We went into it with that knowledge,” Bouchmouch told the Journal in April, saying they were “trying to shock it [the student government] into something about issues that don’t just pertain to Palestinian students, but to students of color in general.” 

SJP’s aim is to keep Israel in the conversation and its supporters on the defensive. At UCLA, SJP’s sponsorship of a speech on campus by BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti in January, the divestment resolution in February and everything since — all of it receives significant media attention — on campus, in these pages, and sometimes in local and national media, as well, which means Israel has become a constant topic on the minds of UCLA’s students.

Judea Pearl is an international award-winning professor of artificial intelligence at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named for his late journalist son, who was murdered in 2002 by Muslim terrorists in Pakistan; Pearl is also a Jewish Journal columnist.  

Making friends

Estee Chandler, the Los Angeles organizer of JVP, a leftist group, said JVP and SJP share a common goal — peace.

“Both organizations probably are looking for a resolution to the conflict which affords Israeli Jews and Palestinians self-determination and equality; justice and security,” Chandler said. “Both organizations seek an end to the Israeli occupation.” That’s precisely why JVP and SJP worked in concert to circulate the Israel travel pledge, along with three other groups.

“When you see the commonalities between people speaking out for Palestinian rights with the dreamers with other organizations of people who feel marginalized, it’s no wonder that they have such a broad coalition,” Chandler said, referring to the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association, which also joined SJP’s push for the pledge.

When the Journal emailed the UCLA Armenian Students’ Association asking for comment on its involvement in the effort, a spokesman responded that, “Armenian concerns about the Anti-Defamation League’s problematic stance on the Armenian Genocide and AIPAC’s involvement with Azerbaijan/Ambassador Suleymanov” prompted the group to sign on. 

Describing SJP’s success in coalition building, Rahim Kurwa, an SJP member, explained that appealing to “human rights” and attracting students who care about “social justice” and other “progressive” values gives SJP a leg up in finding allies.

The rising cost of supporting Israel

For William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor who has analyzed many of SJP’s recent tactics across the country on his popular legal blog, “Legal Insurrection,” the group’s recent actions at UCLA go deeper than raising the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are a warning call to pro-Israel students who want to run for office — it will cost you.

“What they tried to do was create a chilling effect for pro-Israel students becoming involved in student government,” Jacobson said. By dissuading certain sponsored trips to Israel and targeting Singh and Rogers, Jacobson thinks that SJP is trying to filter out from student government UCLA’s most pro-Israel students.

A mixed record

If Jacobson and Cohen are right — that SJP’s new tactics will tarnish their image among college students — there still may be a ways to go until that evidence is clear.

On May 22, Cohen spoke by phone with the Journal from the campus of DePaul University in Chicago, where, one day later, the student body passed a referendum calling on the administration to divest from a number of companies that do business with Israel. The measure passed, with 1,575 students supporting divestment and 1,333 voting against it. 

Since 2010, an estimated 24 schools have voted on resolutions on Israel divestment, and that’s not counting Earlham College in Indiana, whose dining service removed Sabra hummus from its coffee shop in 2012 after a request made by some students and faculty.

Of those 24 schools, student votes for divestment have passed cleanly at 10, with UC Santa Cruz's student government passing one on the night of May 27. An additional two schools’ student governments (University of South Florida and Loyola University Chicago) have favored divestment, but their votes either were overturned by veto or invalidated. That leaves SJP with a .500 batting average when it comes to divestment resolutions, which is not bad, especially because the organization seems to view garnering attention to be nearly as important as scoring actual political victories.

This year, though, SJP divestment votes passed at only six of the 18 schools where it was voted upon. Is the mood toward SJP souring? Or is the new tactic of playing politics going to evolve over time, with early losses no indication of future results?

For Herzallah and SJP, the answer makes no difference, at least in the short term.

“Some have passed, some have not, but the campaign continues,” Herzallah said.

Fighting back

Miriam Eshagian knows not to discount the determination and intelligence of SJP’s leaders at UCLA. But she also knows that the group’s many actions this year have prompted a reaction — it has rallied UCLA’s many pro-Israel students around a common cause. 

“I think we are dealing with a very strong chapter at UCLA,” said Eshagian, president of Bruins for Israel, UCLA’s pro-Israel group. She added that Bruins for Israel wants to encourage more UCLA students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to visit the country, in the hope that a trip there will unravel the perception SJP tries to create of Israel as an apartheid state.

Even so, Eshagian said there’s a lot of difficult bridge building for pro-Israel groups to do.

“They’ve created very strong alliances with groups like the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association,” she said. “It’s hard for us to create a relationship with them, because they are already so biased.”

UCLA Hillel executive director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller believes SJP may have hurt its cause in 2014, revealing to the student body what he said is the group’s anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic intentions.

“They’ve overplayed their hand,” Seidler-Feller said, citing SJP’s sponsorship of Barghouti as revealing BDS’ purported “moderation and reasonableness” as a “cover” for its true aim — destroying Israel.

The new unity across much of the Jewish political spectrum at UCLA might also be seen in the condemnation issued by UCLA’s J Street U, the campus arm of the left-leaning “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby that has had a shaky relationship with some more-established pro-Israel organizations. 

“We reject the implication that students are not able to think critically on sponsored trips,” J Street said in its statement.

Then, on May 22, UCLA undergrad Abraham “Avi” Oved was nominated as the 2015-16 student representative on the UC Board of Regents. Oved is active in UCLA’s pro-Israel movement and follows the previous year’s appointment of Sadia Saifuddin, a UC Berkeley student and outspoken BDS advocate. Ovid’s nomination could suggest that UC leaders wanted a pro-Israel voice on the board, although in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, UC regent George Kieffer denied any relationship between the two students’ stances on Israel.

From West to East?

The very public and very visible actions SJP has gained a reputation for have by no means vanished at East Coast schools. In April, SJP at New York University in Manhattan slid mock-eviction notices under the doors of a heavily Jewish dorm, which began with the statement: “We regret to inform you that your suite is scheduled for demolition in three days.” They concluded with the words, “This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.”

A few weeks later, on May 15, SJP at NYU marked the secular anniversary of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day — Palestinians refer to it as “Nakba Day” or “Day of Destruction” — by staging a “die-in,” with students dressed in red playing dead in the courtyard in front of NYU’s business school. 

In February, at Vassar College in upstate New York, a session for an earth sciences class was picketed by SJP members in response to a planned class trip to Israel with 28 students. Nine members passed out leaflets to students walking into the class, citing various allegations of Israeli human rights violations. 

The purpose of the trip? 

To study water conservation and distribution in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

From Los Angeles to San Diego and Irvine to Davis, the move toward diplomacy and away from the “street theater” that is still active on the East Coast is already entrenched in California. Of the 10 campuses that fall under the UC system, all but two — San Francisco and Merced — have voted on divestment, with six of them endorsing the move. And while “die-ins” and “apartheid weeks” may not be gone in the Golden State, the shift in tactics here will, according to Herzallah, spread across America’s campuses. 

“A lot of other schools nationwide are looking at this model here in Southern California and sort of following in the footsteps,” Herzallah said, adding that SJP is starting its work on California State University campuses.

“UCLA has definitely grown in the past couple years and has really become a model,” he said. “This is really just the beginning of something much bigger. A lot hasn’t been done yet.”