October 17, 2018

Israel trip aims to broaden minds of UCLA student leaders

“In some senses, you’re more on the front lines than I am,” a seasoned Israeli peace negotiator told a roomful of UCLA student leaders. “I have a lot of sympathy for your position.”

Tal Becker, who has weathered decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — beginning in the 1970s with the Camp David Accords — hosted a lecture in Jerusalem for the college students on the afternoon of March 25, midway through their nine-day spring break tour of Israel. 

The trip was a first-of-its-kind “educational journey of Israel and the Palestinian Authority” led by Hillel at UCLA. The university’s Hillel leaders conceived of the trip about one year ago, in response to a pledge circulated among candidates for UCLA student government in which they promised not to accept any free trips to Israel with certain pro-Israel organizations, lest that sway their vote while serving on the council.

Hillel director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller called the pledge a “prejudicial way of looking at travel to Israel.” Instead, he said, “We wanted to demonstrate that going to Israel is an educational experience. This is about learning, about engaging.”

Over months of planning, the Hillel trip gained new urgency. UCLA’s student council passed a resolution in November urging the UC system to divest from five big American companies whose weapons and machinery are used by Israel in the Palestinian territories. And just weeks before the students were set to depart, four members of UCLA’s student government made national headlines when they questioned Jewish student Rachel Beyda, a candidate for the student judicial board, because she is Jewish and therefore, they worried, potentially could be biased in favor of Israel in her judgments.

At the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Jerusalem-based think tank and education center where Becker works between rounds of negotiations, he puzzled at the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) debates that have swept U.S. campuses, including UCLA.

“I don’t get why conversations on campus are treated as if, in that very moment, you are determining the future of the world,” Becker told his visitors. “Why do you have to get that excited about it, that intense about it? So like a student council resolution, is it determining the future of the Middle East?”

The students laughed — hard — and the few who were nodding off perked up. “Can you come speak at our school?” one pleaded.

Becker warned students: “Those conversations, and I don’t mean to be offensive, but they don’t determine the future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. What they determine is the future of the discourse in the place that they exist. They determine the life of the place where it happens. Is it a place where people respect each other? … Is it a place of tolerance, or not?

“It’s not about us,” he said. “It’s about you.”

Of the 21 students on the tour, all but four were not Jewish. They had been invited to apply for the trip by student leaders at Hillel through a word-of-mouth network, and then were selected from a pool of more than 40 applicants through a vigorous interview process. “The real secret of this trip was peer-to-peer recruiting,” Seidler-Feller told the Journal. “There was never a piece of publicity that went out about this trip.”

No Muslim nor expressly anti-Israel students took part (“no one who wants the end of the Jewish state,” said a student organizer), nor did any elected members of the current student council.

Inviting only councilmembers “would have transformed this whole effort into an overtly political effort,” Seidler-Feller said. “It would have muddied the whole thing and I think it would have created problems.” 

Instead, Hillel’s invited leaders came from a wide spectrum of student organizations — including Campus Crusade for Christ, mock trial, Bruin Republicans, Bruin Democrats, the Indian Student Union and the Student Veterans Association — as well as students serving in lower, non-elected positions within UCLA student government offices.

Natalie Charney, student president of Hillel at UCLA, said in a hushed interview with the Journal during a tour of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre: “The goal of this thing is not to change the politics at UCLA. To make that pointed plea to student government members is in some ways shortsighted. You’re missing 70 percent of the student population.”

A handful of participants told the Journal they weren’t ruling out a campaign later in their college careers. And two students from the trip — Ruhi Patil and Ian Cocroft — are now running in spring elections. 

In the past, UCLA’s branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and its allies have come out strongly against student decision-makers accepting sanctioned trips to Israel. However, the Hillel tour hasn’t generated the same controversy as trips run in the past by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) — perhaps in part because no currently elected student officials participated in the tour, and because there are no votes in progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Rahim Kurwa, a graduate student and longtime member of SJP, told the Journal he hadn’t heard the Hillel tour was happening. He said he’d have to see a full itinerary to comment on the content of the trip, but that in theory, there would be nothing inherently wrong with Hillel taking UCLA students to Israel. 

“I think people understand generally that there’s a certain flavor of politics that comes with UCLA Hillel,” Kurwa said. However, he added, “There’s no reason for SJP to comment unless there’s a case where they’re giving an elected member of student government a trip and then asking for something in return.”

One Hillel trip participant, Sunny Singh, 21, was at the center of last year’s Israel tour controversy. After participating in an ADL-sponsored visit to Israel, Singh voted against the BDS resolution — prompting BDS supporters to pin him as a “foot soldier” for the Israel lobby. SJP filed a formal complaint against him, alleging conflict of interest.

Former student council member Sunny Singh, who was at the center of last year’s ADL-sponsored Israel tour controversy after voting against the BDS resolution, is on the current tour. 

Singh, who didn’t win a spot on this year’s council and said he’s now focusing on “cooking and cocktails” instead, told the Journal he voted against the BDS bill simply didn’t believe it was “the role of the student government” to take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“If they’re going to debate it, they should know what’s going on here. I think it would be beneficial for everybody to come,” he added.

The Journal joined the students as they were guided through Jerusalem’s Old City on a busy Wednesday. In his description of holy sites, Eldad Brin, an independent Israeli tour guide, was careful to remain balanced: He blamed Jews, Muslims and Christians alike for failing to coexist peacefully in Jerusalem. The current conflict, he stressed, is just the latest in centuries of religious war. “Jerusalem is the successive story of religions trying to outshine each other,” he said. “If you remember anything I told you today, I hope it’s this.”

The narrative tilted more pro-Israel later that afternoon, when the group ducked through the tunnels under the Western Wall. Around half of the tour participants popped white kippot onto their heads as a young Orthodox tour guide detailed the 2,000-year-old Jewish quest to reclaim their homeland. “It’s in our prayers for Jerusalem to become what it’s supposed to be … to once again become a city of peace and prayer,” the guide ended, leaving his remarks open to interpretation.

Over nine days in Israel, participants visited more Jewish sites than Arab ones and talked to more Israelis than Palestinians. But the trip’s custom itinerary, drawn up by the Israel Experts tour company, did make some unorthodox stops: at an ideologically charged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, a dinner with Palestinian college students from East Jerusalem, meetings with multiple Jewish-Palestinian coexistence organizations and a visit to the planned Palestinian development of Rawabi, to name a few.

“There’s no trip that’s completely objective,” Hillel director Seidler-Feller said. But he said Hillel took pains, with this trip, “to show the students the complexity of the conflict and engage with people who believe there can be a future, that there can be a solution. They met some people that were hard line on both sides. But they got that Israel is a dynamic society.”

Various tour participants echoed this sentiment in follow-up interviews. “Something that really stuck out to me is that there are so many different sides,” said Julia Nista, 19, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ and a columnist for the conservative Bruin Standard magazine. “There’s not just two sides — there’s seven different sides. It just goes to show that no one on campus understands how complicated this issue is.”

Nista said that before taking the trip with Hillel, she had “believed all the right-wing propaganda and media bias from America” and “never really put any thought into the interest of the Palestinian sides.”

After glimpsing the Palestinian territories and speaking with Palestinians, though, she “realized you cannot ignore an entire other people.”

By contrast, David Perez, 27, the vice president of Student Veterans Association, said the trip only strengthened his views: “I was supportive of Israel before, and I’m more supportive of Israel now.”

For Arn Olano, a freshman involved in UCLA’s chapter of Amnesty International, meetings on March 26 with Jewish settlers and Palestinians from Al-Quds University made for the most jarring day of the trip.

“Because they live in such ease, and there’s not much violence close to them, they feel like they don’t need to do anything and it will eventually just fizzle out,” Olano said of the settlers. “They’re happy, so they don’t need to seek peace.”

And of the Palestinian students, he said: “That night was very difficult for all of us. It was around the first time we had seen the Palestinian narrative so aggressive. For me, personally, it kind of shook my world a little bit, because up until then, people had seemed happy. It definitely made me more curious about the things we hadn’t seen.” 

Still, compared to the divisive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at UCLA, many participants said the pockets of coexistence Hillel showed them in the region were refreshing. 

Luis Sanchez, 22, a UCLA senior who’s involved in more than two dozen organizations on campus, including many representing minority groups, told the Journal: “Being a student leader on campus, people always ask you what’s your position. Even being neutral, people label me pro-Israel.”

Sanchez said he’s watched his peers in student leadership roles jump on the pro-Palestine bandwagon without much thought. “People use Palestine as a platform to appeal to human rights and take a liberal stand. It’s a real trend to be pro-Palestinian,” he said. “I feel like, in general, this trip fills in a large gap between what is said on campus and what really happens here.”

Singh, the former councilmember, said as he walked through the Old City gates toward East Jerusalem: “I’m used to tons of people yelling at me. Nobody’s yelling at me here,so I feel like I’m better off than a year and a half ago.”