Controversy at UCLA spurs student transfer, complaint, criticism


Has the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel at UCLA gotten so bad that pro-Israel students don’t feel safe studying there anymore?

Milan Chatterjee, a former UCLA Graduate Students Association (GSA) president and third-year law student, sent a letter on Aug. 24 to university Chancellor Gene Block indicating that he is “leaving UCLA due to [a] hostile and unsafe campus climate.”

In an Aug. 30 phone interview from New York, Chatterjee told the Journal he would begin classes the following day at New York University School of Law.

“It’s really unfortunate,” he said of his departure. “I love UCLA, I think it’s a great school and I have lot of friends there. It has just become so hostile and unsafe, I can’t stay there anymore.”

Chatterjee, 27, is Indian-American Hindu and was president of the GSA during the 2015-16 academic year, during which time he made distribution of GSA funds for a Nov. 5 UCLA Diversity Caucus event contingent on its sponsors not associating with the divest-from-Israel movement. 

The move brought protests from BDS supporters, including the UCLA chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). That group advocated for the removal of Chatterjee from the presidency on the grounds that he violated a University of California policy that requires viewpoint neutrality in the distribution of campus funds. The GSA board of officers censured Chatterjee in April, and a June investigation by the UCLA Discrimination Prevention Office (DPO) concluded that Chatterjee’s stipulation violated the policy.

In a statement sent to the Journal by UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez, the university expressed disappointment at Chatterjee’s decision to leave but stood by the findings of the DPO report.

“Although we regret learning that Milan Chatterjee has chosen to finish his legal education at a different institution, UCLA firmly stands by its thorough and impartial investigation, which found that Chatterjee violated the university’s viewpoint neutrality policy,” the Aug. 31 statement says.

With the legal assistance of Peter Weil, managing partner at the Century City law firm Glaser Weil, Chatterjee has filed a complaint with UCLA, pursuant to “Student Grievances Regarding Violations of Anti-Discrimination Laws or University Policies on Discrimination.” In the Aug. 10 complaint, he charges that the university discriminated against him “because I refused to support an anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist activity, organization and position while serving as President of the UCLA Graduate Student Association.” The grievance was addressed to Dianne Tanjuaquio, the hearing coordinator and student affairs officer in the UCLA office of the dean of students.

Chatterjee’s complaint asks for immediate withdrawal of the DPO report, acknowledgment by DPO that he acted in good faith and a promise that he won’t be subject to any disciplinary action. For his final year of law school, Chatterjee will study at NYU under the status of a “visiting student” but still earn his degree from UCLA, he said. 

In UCLA’s Aug. 31 statement, the university reiterated its support for Israel while also defending the right of students to express positions critical of Israel: “Though the university does not support divestment from Israel, and remains proud of its numerous academic and cultural relationships with Israeli institutions, supporters and opponents of divestment remain free to advocate for their position as long as their conduct does not violate university policies.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was troubled by events leading to Chatterjee’s decision to depart UCLA.

“We have tremendous respect for the institution, and it’s troubling that the past president of the GSA felt like he had to leave the university because of what he felt was a hostile, unsafe campus created in part because of these outspoken anti-Israel activists,” Greenblatt said in a phone interview. “Regardless of his views on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, where there are deep, difficult issues, this student’s decision to leave UCLA because of these attacks is incredibly problematic.”

The Chatterjee affair is only the latest iteration of the BDS movement against Israel causing problems at UCLA, according to Josh Saidoff, a UCLA graduate student who has supported Chatterjee in the pages of the Daily Bruin, the UCLA campus newspaper, and is the son of pro-Israel philanthropist Naty Saidoff.

“What we’ve seen at UCLA is an attempt by BDS activists to use legal intimidation and other forms of social stigmatization to silence those who oppose BDS, and you only need to look back as far as what happened to Lauren Rogers and Sunny Singh to see that they’ve used the judicial process within student government to try to silence and marginalize and exclude those people who do not advocate on behalf of BDS,” the 36-year-old grad student said in a phone interview, referring to two non-Jewish students who were the focus of opposition campaigns by SJP after accepting trips to Israel from pro-Israel organizations. “So I was surprised that the university allowed itself to become complicit in this process because I think it’s part of a very clear pattern of intimidation used by the BDS activists on our campus.”

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said “major [UCLA] donors” have called him and wanted more information about what happened with Chatterjee in the wake of his departure, but he said that no donors he knows have threatened to pull their gifts.

“I think most UCLA donors love UCLA, have UCLA’s best interest at heart and are not trying to threaten UCLA. They’re trying to help UCLA, trying to be involved in conversations with the university, want to be in conversation with students and professionals to understand what the right steps are,” Lerner said in a phone interview.

Those troubled by Chatterjee’s departure include David Pollock, a Los Angeles-based financial advisor, and his wife, Lynn, who have more than 20 pieces of their art collection on loan to the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Pollock told the Journal that he has contacted UCLA Anderson School Dean Judy Olian about the possibility of taking the artwork back in light of what has occurred with Chatterjee. 

“I was perfectly happy to have it there until this thing got me going,” Pollock said.

In a Sept. 5 statement, pro-Israel organization StandWithUs joined many major Jewish organizations in applauding Chatterjee for standing by his principles. “We commend Mr. Chatterjee for standing up for his beliefs in the face of intimidation, and hope that the attacks he has faced from anti-Israel extremists are taken as a testament to his principles, rather than a stain on his reputation,” the statement says.

Chatterjee’s stipulation was expressed in an Oct. 16 email to Manpreet Dhillon Brar, a UCLA graduate student and diversity caucus representative who did not respond to the Journal’s interview requests. Chatterjee said in the email that the caucus’ event must have “zero connection with ‘Divest from Israel’ or any equivalent movement/organization.” He said that he later clarified that the
caucus could not be affiliated with any position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
wThus, the stipulation was viewpoint neutral, he said.

Whatever the case, the caucus accepted the stipulation — as well as the $2,000 grant from the GSA. The Nov. 5 town hall organized by the caucus went off without any incident.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the school of law at UC Irvine, said in a Feb. 8 letter that stipulating that the caucus not associate with either side of the issue does not violate viewpoint neutrality. “I think it is clearly constitutional for the GSA to choose not to fund anything on this issue,” he said, “so long as it remains viewpoint neutral.” 

Jerry Kang, UCLA’s vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion and the author of a July 19 blog post on the UCLA website titled “Viewpoint Neutrality,” said there are more sides to the story and that supporters of divestment felt threatened by the law student’s actions.

“People on the other side of the political issue, they also feel harassed, threatened and retaliated [against],” Kang said in a phone interview. 

Kang’s statements were echoed by Rahim Kurwa, 29, a doctoral candidate in the UCLA sociology department and a member of UCLA’s chapter of SJP, which has argued that Chatterjee’s actions amounted to stifling free speech on campus. 

SJP, which during the process received legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, posted the DPO report, which was confidential and omitted names, on its website. The Daily Bruin also linked to the report. Kang dismissed concerns expressed by some major Jewish organizations that the publication of the report violated Chatterjee’s privacy.

“This is obviously a matter of great public concern about a student-elected official using mandatory student fees, so it is a public record we had to release,” he said.

Despite how the whole affair may make things look to outsiders, Kurwa said in an email that pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students get along better on campus than people think they do.

“For the most part, the day-to-day interactions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups on campus is much less dramatic and tense than it is portrayed by off-campus actors,” he said.

Still, Saidoff, who holds dual Israeli and American citizenship, said, “I can tell you that Milan has very good reason to not feel welcome here because he was targeted and scapegoated, because he was made into an object of derision and he has reason to not feel comfortable here.”

But, he added, “I feel OK here at UCLA.”

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