Former UCLA student association president, claiming BDS harassment, leaves UCLA


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.

Thus, 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.”

 

Full statement sent to the Journal by UCLA on Aug. 31:

“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.

Throughout the entire process, university officials took great care to respect Chatterjee’s rights, to get to the bottom of the issue fairly and to encourage all sides to de-escalate the heated rhetoric surrounding the dispute between Chatterjee and his fellow students.

The dispute centered on allegations made by student groups that as the then president of the Graduate Student Association, Chatterjee had improperly made funding for a campus event contingent on the sponsoring organization having no connections to groups that supported divestment from Israel — in violation of university policy that funding of student groups and activities must be “viewpoint neutral.”

Conducted by the Discrimination Prevention Office, the university’s investigation included interviews as well as careful reviews of meeting minutes and related documents, email correspondence and applicable university regulations. All parties were given the opportunity to provide evidence and no evidence offered by the parties was excluded.

The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether the university’s policy on viewpoint neutrality had been violated. It did not examine or make a determination on whether Chatterjee, the former president of the Graduate Student Association, purposefully or knowingly violated policies.

As reflected in the Principles Against Intolerance recently adopted by the UC Board of Regents, UCLA is firmly committed to freedom of expression, association and debate for all regardless of viewpoint, ethnic background or religious affiliation. 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.”

___________________________

UPDATE Aug. 31, 2016, 4:37 p.m.: This story has been updated to add UCLA's response and statement.

Refaeli takes on Waters over boycott letter


Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli tweeted in Hebrew that she no longer wants to be associated with British rocker Roger Waters after his open letter calling for a boycott of Israel.

“Roger Waters, you better take my picture off of the video art at your shows. If you’re boycotting — go all the way,” Refaeli said Wednesday on Twitter.

Her image is among dozens beamed on the wall during Waters’ concerts.

A day before Refaeli expressed her anger on Twitter, reports of the Aug. 18 boycott letter by Waters became public.

“I write to you now, my brothers and sisters in the family of Rock and Roll, to ask you to join with me, and thousands of other artists around the world, to declare a cultural boycott on Israel,” the former Pink Floyd frontman wrote.

Waters also accused Israel of practicing apartheid and noted Stevie Wonder’s cancellation of a performance for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces as a recent success story.

Recently he came under fire for using in his concerts a huge inflated balloon in the shape of a wild boar with a prominently visible Star of David, as well as a hammer and sickle, crosses and a dollar sign, among other symbols. Waters has used the gimmick for several years.

Oberlin College Student Senate endorses divestment resolution


The Oberlin College Student Senate endorsed a resolution that calls for the college to divest from six companies that do business in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and Gaza.

Following a three-hour discussion, the resolution was approved “by majority” on Monday, the Oberlin College Students for a Free Palestine said in a news release.

The six companies are Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Group 4 Securicor, SodaStream, Elbit Systems and Veolia.

Similar resolutions have been passed this school year at the University of California campuses in Irvine, Berkeley and San Diego.

The Students for a Free Palestine group at Oberlin said it would bring the resolution to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee, which sets the college's financial policies.

“My concern about BDS is that it furthers the polarization between students who might consider themselves pro-Israel and students who might consider themselves pro-Palestinian,” Oberlin sophomore Noa Fleischacker, co-chair of J Street U’s Oberlin chapter, told the Oberlin Review student newspaper before the vote.

“What we really need to be doing is creating conversation and dialogue between those students, and also on the ground of creating negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.”

$14 million raised without Stevie Wonder at FIDF gala


Despite a stormy week of protest and provocation following music icon Stevie Wonder’s last-minute pullout from the Friends of Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region dinner, the Dec. 6 gala went off without a hitch, raising a record $14 million for Israeli soldiers. 

Approximately 1,450 Israel supporters filled the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Century City for the annual gala hosted by Haim and Cheryl Saban, including a who’s who of Los Angeles’ Israeli and Jewish communities.  

But for the approximately 130 protesters outside the hotel, the fact that Wonder would not appear made the moment a cause for celebration.

“We are here to celebrate our brother Stevie Wonder for standing up on a principle, the principle that the Palestinians of today are the South Africans of yesterday,” said Shakeel Syed, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “He had the courage and principle to defy the oppressors and defend the oppressed.”

As FIDF guests drove past, the protesters shouted, “Shame on you!” “Stop killing children!” “Israel is a racist state!” 

Inside, during cocktail hour, Israeli news crews clamored for interviews with celebrities, including Israeli-American business and entertainment giants Avi Arad, head of Marvel Entertainment, film producer Avi Lerner, real estate developer Izek Shomof, Oracle business magnate Larry Ellison and the Israeli-born actress-producer Noa Tishby.

The four-and-a-half hour evening, emceed by “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander, was filled with moving firsthand accounts of the Israeli experience during wartime. Active-duty soldiers flown in from Israel for the event shared personal stories, softening hearts and loosening pockets before Haim Saban personally conducted a live-auction-style fundraiser from the stage.

Businessman and producer David Matalon made the night’s only mention of Wonder, when he pledged $8,000 to the FIDF and, “In honor of Stevie Wonder, another $2,000.”

Saban was quick with a rejoinder: “I’ll have him call you to tell you he loves you,” he quipped.

When Wonder backed out a week before the gala, organizers and sponsors were mostly silent, and speculation varied over the reasons given for Wonder’s decision. 

Many articles focused on the thousands of signatures on a letter and online petitions urging Wonder not to appear. The FIDF’s initial explanation for Wonder’s cancellation mentioned that some individuals associated with the United Nations had pushed Wonder, who was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009, to drop out.

But in addition to these efforts, voices from within the African-American community in Los Angeles and beyond also put significant pressure on Wonder to abandon his planned appearance.

“The first level, which has been popularized, is the petition campaigns,” said Dedon Kamathi, a producer of Freedom Now, a weekly KPFK radio show about “pan-African political and cultural” subjects. “I think that the real, within-the-family pressure came from a number of black community organizations.”

Kamathi, who first heard about Wonder’s planned appearance from Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Atlanta, said leaders within the black community told Wonder’s staff that if he didn’t drop the FIDF benefit appearance, they would picket in front of KJLH, the Los Angeles-based r&b and gospel radio station owned by Wonder, as well as at Wonder’s annual “House Full of Toys” benefit concert at the Nokia Theater in L.A. later this month.

“We take personal responsibility for people like Bob Marley, people like B.B. King, people like Stevie Wonder, people like Public Enemy,” Kamathi said, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel about an hour before the FIDF gala was scheduled to start. “We gave them life; they live in our communities.”

A similar intimate bond applies to the America-Israel relationship, which is bolstered mainly by American and Israeli-American Jews. For many in that group, the FIDF gala is a unique opportunity to support the young soldiers who risk their lives to defend the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when, in lieu of hearing the traditional refrain of uncritical and unequivocal support for Israel, emcee Alexander shared some unusually candid remarks about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a lengthy and serious address, he talked about his love for both Israelis and Palestinians and his work with the organization One Voice, which has exposed him to nuances on both sides of the conflict.

Speaking of his engagement with Israeli and Palestinian civilians, he concluded: “This conflict continues because of the inability of leaders to break through this impasse and find a way to peace.” 

Nevertheless, Alexander was careful to balance his remarks. The most vigorous applause came when he referred to the Jewish state as the most “maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nation on the planet” and expressed admiration for its soldiers.

“I believe that the men and women soldiers that defend [Israel] are among the most honorable and noble soldiers the world has ever seen,” Alexander said, though he added that sometimes “they have made mistakes.”

That rationale — that Israel’s military sometimes exercises undue power — seems a plausible explanation as to why Wonder, an avowed peace activist, feared he might compromise his image as a neutral figure by appearing. Although the protesters were quick to claim Wonder as a fellow activist for their cause — one man held a sign with Wonder’s face and the words, “Thank You!” painted on it — in a statement posted on the KJLH Web site, Wonder did not choose sides.

“Given the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East, and with a heart that has always cried out for world unity, I will not be performing at the FIDF Gala on December 6th,” Wonder said in the statement. “I am respectfully withdrawing my participation from this year’s event to avoid the appearance of partiality. As a Messenger of Peace, I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere. In consistently keeping with my spirit of giving, I will make a personal contribution to organizations that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities.”

Inside the ballroom, several Israeli soldiers took to the podium to share stories, all of them heart-wrenching reminders that even with its military might, the IDF has suffered profound losses. Yoni Asraf, an American who enlisted in the IDF, told the crowd how he had lost a limb in a mortar attack during the 2008 incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. In a feat of stunning courage and perseverance, he refused to relinquish his post after his loss and spent years rehabilitating himself in order to rejoin his unit.

A Moroccan-born mother who immigrated to Israel to raise a family in peace recalled for the crowd the dreaded knocks on the door — once on the first night of Passover — informing her she had lost a child. Two of her sons died in combat. “I am not broken,” she nevertheless told the group. “You cannot break a spirit.”

After her emotional speech, host Cheryl Saban embraced her, while her husband looked on with misty eyes.

Haim Saban used his pulpit time to talk about the values of the IDF, portraying an army of ideals, of “courage, compassion, strength and sacrifice.”

After millions of dollars in pledges were collected, Grammy-winning musician and producer David Foster orchestrated some light entertainment, with performances by “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard and Chaka Khan, the Grammy-winning “Queen of Funk-Soul,” who sang the hit “I’m Every Woman.”

UC-Irvine student senate approves non-binding divestment resolution on Israel


[UPDATE, NOV. 15] A resolution passed by the UC Irvine undergraduate student council calling on the university to divest from companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” has been rejected by the UCI administration. More.

[NOV. 14] The student senate of the University of California, Irvine unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling on the school to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

All 16 members of the legislative council of the Associated Students of UCI voted for the resolution on Tuesday that calls on the university to divest from companies that “have promoted and been complicit” in “ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government.”

The companies are Caterpillar, Cement Roadstones Holding, Cemex, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon, Sodastream and L-3 Communications.

The measure also calls for a further examination of university assets” for investments in companies that profit from human rights abuses anywhere in the world.” It refers to what it calls “Israel's system of apartheid,” saying that “as the example of South Africa shows, it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus.”

The student government’s executive board must pass the resolution before it advances for consideration by the Irvine administration.

Irvine would become the first California university to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

“Our work today stands tall in the noble tradition of students advocating for justice, joining the ranks of those brave and visionary students who demanded that our Universities divest from the terrible crimes of South African apartheid,” said Sabreen Shalabi, a co-author of the legislation, in a statement issued by the council.