UCLA student court hears case against students who accepted Israel trips

The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) campaign against UCLA’s pro-Israel movement became even more heated last week as the school’s undergraduate judicial board heard arguments in a case brought by SJP against two members of UCLA’s student government who had taken sponsored trips to Israel.

Lauren Rogers and Sunny Singh, neither of whom is Jewish, traveled to Israel in 2013 — Rogers with Project Interchange, a project of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Singh with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

SJP filed a complaint in April alleging those trips created a conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof, for the two students, and asked the judicial board to consider nullifying votes by Rogers and Singh last February against a resolution that had called upon UCLA to divest from Israeli companies that do business in the West Bank.

The divestment resolution, which both Rogers and Singh opposed, was defeated 7-5.Sunny Singh defending himself against an SJP complaint.

The May 15 hearing, which was held in a classroom, was entirely devoid of the passion and anger that has accompanied so many of the campus political debates surrounding the Israelis and Palestinians.

Aside from the informal dress of the participants, the 4 1/2-hour hearing felt like a court case. Each side made opening statements and was granted time for cross-examination — of Rogers, Singh and witnesses — before offering closing statements.

SJP’s main student legal representative, Dana Saifan, grilled Singh about the contents of a liability clause ADL asked him to sign before his trip, questioning why he didn’t submit into evidence his entire ADL trip application. Singh said that his application was filled out on an old laptop that he no longer had in his possession.

From left to right: Sunny Singh, Katie Takakijan, and Ian Cocroft watch as SJP's Dana Saifan cross-examines Lauren Rogers.

The court further questioned Singh about a gala he attended and who the attendees were, trying to establish if connections he made there could have created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Laila Riazi, the other SJP member who argued in front of the court, said that the issue at hand was whether there was actual conflict of interest, or even merely a perceived one. “It is about limiting the perception of conflicts of interests,” she said, adding though, “The council member may have felt obliged to pay them back.”

Chief Justice Matt Satyadi repeatedly challenged SJP’s legal representatives, Saifan and Riazi, asking how a quid pro quo would work, given that Rogers and Singh had both voted by a secret ballot. “How they voted doesn’t matter,” Satyadi said. Because Rogers and Singh cannot be compelled to reveal their votes on the divestment resolution, it’s doubtful that the court could invalidate their votes even if it determined there was a conflict of interest.

Satyadi also questioned SJP’s suggestion that Singh’s free invitation to an ADL gala could cause a conflict of interest.

“Just because he gets a dinner doesn’t mean he has to vote for that person,” Satyadi said.

Katie Takakijan, Singh’s and Rogers’ main legal representation, warned the judicial board that SJP’s complaint could entirely change the dynamic of student trips abroad.

“What does that say to future students? Don’t apply for any educational programs abroad,” Takakijan said. “Don’t try to serve your student body by applying to be a member of USAC [student government]. Don’t do both together because you could have your entire reputation slandered and sit in a judicial board hearing and be crucified.”

Counsel for both Rogers and Singh called as witnesses ADL regional director Amanda Susskind and immediate past national board chair of Project Interchange Robert Peckar in an effort to establish that ADL and AJC did not expect Rogers and Singh to vote a certain way on divestment as a result of their involvement. 

SJP’s counsel cross-examined Susskind and Peckar, attempting to show that there was at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

On May 16, the day after the hearing, Saifan said on Twitter, “Pretty much just took the Israel lobby to court. Bye bye ADL and AJC.” 

This hearing is only the latest in a flurry of legislative and judicial actions by SJP’s many campus branches in California, some of which have been victories, all of which have thrown the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the campus spotlight.

Last week, 18 of 30 candidates for positions in UCLA’s student government signed a pledge not to take trips to Israel that are sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the ADL and Hasbara Fellowships. 

UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, added that an additional four candidates did not sign the letter but said they would not attend such trips. 

The May 9 elections for the student government’s 13 open positions (10 contested) saw the Bruins United Party take six seats. Each of the party’s candidates refused to sign the pledge.

Five student groups had a hand in drafting the pledge: SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Muslim Student Association, the Afrikan Student Union and the Armenian Students’ Association. 

On May 16, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement insisting that although the pledge falls “squarely within the realm of free speech,” he is troubled that it could “reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints” by only targeting AIPAC, ADL and Hasbara.

UC President Janet Napolitano issued a similar statement on the same day, echoing Block’s concern that sponsored trips to Israel are being selectively targeted and criticizing students who circulated the pledge for violating “the principles of civility, respect and inclusion.”

William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University, has followed the anti-Israel campus movement for years, documenting it on his blog, legalinsurrection.com. He said that the tack SJP is taking at UCLA is different from anything he’s seen thus far around the country.

“Because sponsored trips are such a big part of the Jewish educational experience, particularly for college students, this will make people who want to go into student government hesitant to take such trips,” Jacobson said, adding that he thinks SJP’s ultimate goal is to “alter the composition of student government” by intimidating students who don’t want to be singled out for supporting Israel into not running at all.

On May 8, the student government at UC Davis debated a resolution that would have called on university administrators to divest from many companies that do business in Israel. That resolution ended in a 5-5 tie, and therefore failed to pass.

In late April, student governments at San Diego State University, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside (UCR) all held similar votes. Only UCR’s resolution passed. In 2012 and 2013, divestment resolutions passed at UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Berkeley. 

In February, after a contentious all-night debate, UCLA’s student government voted 7-5 against a divestment resolution. The fate of that resolution would be in question if the judicial board invalidates Rogers’ and Singh’s votes.

The five student judges are required to issue their decision by May 29. As of press time, no decision had been made.