UCLA pro-Palestine groups gain ground with pledge signings

The pro-Palestine campus movement flexed its muscles again last week as 18 of 30 candidates for positions in UCLA’s student government signed a pledge to not take trips to Israel that are sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Hasbara Fellowships. 

The development was reported by UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, which added that an additional four candidates did not sign the letter but said that they would not be part of such trips. 

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

“As many students have experienced this year, AIPAC and ADL have political agendas that marginalize multiple communities on campus,” read part of the statement. “Both AIPAC and the ADL (as well as its current president) have histories of Islamophobia. AIPAC has sponsored Islamophobic speakers at its conferences and has also consistently pushed for war with Iran, even while the Barack Obama administration has sought a diplomatic route.”

AIPAC is a pro-Israel lobby that aims to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship, while the ADL fights anti-Semitism and bigotry. 

ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director, Amanda Susskind, issued a statement that characterized the accusations in the pledge as “repugnant” and “misguided.”

“The suggestion that the trips somehow taint participants also assumes that they have no ability to judge for themselves about the experiences to which they have been exposed,” Susskind wrote. “This effort is just another strategy to delegitimize Israel and reflects how far the anti-Israel movement is willing to go in order to stifle voices that support the Jewish state.”

Gabriel Levine, a fifth-year UCLA student and board member of JVP, declined to comment, referencing instead the language used in the pledge.

In calling on candidates to avoid trips by Hasbara — a pro-Israel campus activism organization — the pledge pointed to the fact that Hasbara is part of Aish International. It said that Aish is “an organization that has helped disseminate Islamophobic materials on campuses” that “portray the Muslim community as threats, have incited violence against Muslims and serve to marginalize Muslim students on campus.”

The May 9 elections for the student government’s 13 open positions (10 contested) saw the Bruins United Party take six seats. All six elected candidates refused to sign the pledge. In fact, according to the Daily Bruin, none of the party’s candidates signed.

However, every candidate in Bruins United’s two largest competitors — Let’s Act! and Fired Up! — signed the pledge. Four candidates from Let’s Act! won student government seats. Of the three independents who won, none signed, but two told the Daily Bruin that they would not attend trips sponsored by AIPAC, ADL or Hasbara. 

The new president of the student government, Devin Murphy (Let’s Act!), signed the pledge and won with 50.2 percent of the vote, narrowly edging Bruins United candidate Sunny Singh. During an April 29 student government hearing, Murphy said that he had previously traveled to Israel, in January 2013, on a trip sponsored by the pro-Israel American Jewish Committee (AJC).

“I wasn’t a councilmember,” Murphy said at the hearing, which is available on YouTube. “But as a councilmember, when it provides a conflict of interest, that’s not something we should do.”

This pledge is the most recent example of a string of actions in recent months by California’s pro-Palestine campus groups and other student groups with which they’ve nurtured relationships. 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, which ended in a tie, 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 UCLA chapter of SJP filed an official complaint against Singh and fellow student Lauren Rogers, both of whom voted against the resolution. It accused them of violating the student government’s constitution by going on Israel trips with the ADL and the AJC, alleging that participation in those trips created a conflict of interest. SJP’s petition calls on the student government’s judicial board to call into question the acceptability of the votes by Singh and Rogers. 

Giving big to tiny innovation

L.A. philanthropists Henry and Anita Weiss pledged $1 million last week to support and expand nanotechnology research at Ben-Gurion University’s (BGU) Beersheva campus.

“We are so proud to continue to help provide BGU the resources necessary for continued cutting-edge research and training in nanotechnology,” Henry Weiss said. “It is so exciting to see the level of research being conducted in the Negev. It is our hope that this expansion will benefit and amplify scientific advancements worldwide.”

The donation would finance work at the Atom Chip and Quantum Optics R&D Facility, part of the university’s “Nano in the Negev” program, and help BGU retain technical staff to continue its nanotechnology research.

BGU’s Atom Chip lab, part of the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, is the only one of its kind in Israel. Atom chips are used in the construction of atomic clocks, a component of high-precision guidance systems for satellites and missiles, according to American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU).

The Weisses have supported nanotechnology at BGU since 2005, funding the Henry and Anita Weiss Family Building for Advanced Research and the Weiss Family Laboratory for Nanoscale Systems.

In April, Ben-Gurion University received a $3 million pledge for its Atom Chip lab from AABGU National Vice President Ruth Flinkman-Marandy and Ben Marandy, also from Los Angeles. 

Don’t cut support to innovative nonprofits

From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, the impact of the global financial crisis feels like an eerie parallel to the days after Sept. 11. No one knows whether the acute phase is over or whether there will be further shocks. For some, little has changed; for others, life will never be the same. Everyone knows someone who has been directly affected.

Our major institutions are struggling to adjust, react, prepare but most of all to respond to those most harmed. News outlets strive to explain and advise; houses of worship have added services; social service agencies brace for increased demand even as they anticipate reduced charitable and government support. Each organization is focused on what it can do to minimize and mitigate the effects of the crisis on our city, our country and our world.

Amid this outpouring of effort, we have been dismayed by intimations, in the Jewish media and elsewhere, that smaller, newer nonprofit organizations will and perhaps ought to lose funding support in order to allocate more to immediate concerns: a warm meal, a place to stay, income stabilization. While we agree that protecting the most fragile is key, we disagree with this last-hired, first-fired funding mentality.

The argument against the new nonprofits is both simple and disingenuous. The simple argument is that they are risky investments, ephemeral champions of the latest passing fads. The disingenuous argument is that these innovators are self-indulgent narcissists, insubstantial and erosive of the communal fabric. These arguments are not only wrong, they are counterproductive.

Far from risky ventures, new start-ups like Darkhei Noam, Hadar, Jewish Milestones, IKAR and the Progressive Jewish Alliance actually are fulfilling the promise of engaging a new generation of Jews in their own idiom and on their own terms. It is this generation’s connection to Judaism that ultimately will determine the future of Jewish life and of its larger institutions. They build innovative new minyanim and educate young leaders who in turn will strengthen their communities. They develop, test and promote new models of community involvement that will be the foundation for generations to come.

From Hazon to Jewish Mosaic to Matan to Sharsheret, they use new tools and methods to promote environmental responsibility, ensure our community welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, widen the reach of special education and put resources into the hands of those afflicted with deadly diseases — all missions at heightened risk in the period of social and economic turmoil we are entering.

While the big boys debate scalpels and hatchets, these new start-ups quietly perform laparoscopies without cutting open the patient. Bootstrapped together with all the advantages of today’s cost-saving technologies that many established Jewish organizations have yet to discover, these start-ups are models of industry and investment that will help America emerge from recession. They can feed for a year on what their larger brethren consume in an hour. They are lean, staffed more austerely than their older, bigger peers and subsist by sweat equity donated by those for whom they mean a great deal.

Putting the attention on new start-ups distracts us from asking the tough questions of our most venerable institutions, many of which have lost sight of their original missions in the struggle for institutional survival.

But these start-ups are also fragile, without reserves to fall back on, and do not yet possess long-term funding relationships to be called upon in times of crisis. They lack the confidence and reputation — and the sheer seniority — conferred on larger nonprofits by decades of service. Questioning the viability, merit or necessity of nascent nonprofit organizations risks becoming self-fulfilling. Moreover, it’s unfair to do so without also challenging the unquestioned assumptions governing larger nonprofits.

New ventures are essential to our recovery and are ideal places for funders to invest to stabilize the community. Individual or institutional funders seeking ways to make fewer dollars go further should take a closer look at the group of emerging nonprofit organizations ready to rise to the occasion if given a chance. These new groups do far more than put on hip-hop concerts and publish risqué magazines. From a communal investment perspective, these organizations provide tremendous value.

Just as after Sept. 11, the priority is on rebuilding — not only our portfolios but also our souls. We must succor those re-examining their values and goals, and support those for whom economic distress leads to personal distress. Financial crisis is often the mother of religious crisis, during which the quest for meaning becomes not only more potent but more critical. It is precisely in trying times that we must focus on efforts that can best distill and transmit the essence of Jewish values in today’s complex and decentralized world.

The age of an organization doesn’t correlate to the significance of its mission. In 1798, when our new nation faced a grave economic and political threat from France, John Adams summoned leaders of each of the nation’s diverse faiths to organize “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer,” during which citizens were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it.” The message was clear — strengthening committed communities strengthens our nation.

The new groups formed by our most gifted social entrepreneurs are just such committed communities — some religious and others not — and now is the hour when they can do their finest work.

Shawn Landres is the CEO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation in Los Angeles. Toby E. Rubin is the founder/CEO of UpStart Bay Area, igniting Jewish ideas and supporting Jewish start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Martin Kaminer is the New York-based chair of the board of Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.

The Headache of Resolutions

Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

Dirty Money?

Exactly two weeks before a controversial last-minute presidential pardon made him a household name in the United States, Marc Rich was sitting in the VIP section at a mega-event for Birthright Israel in Jerusalem.

Surrounded by thousands of young, primarily North American Jews on free trips to Israel, Rich, one of 14 people who have pledged $5 million to the program, apparently was moved to tears.
“He loves Israel; you could see that he was so turned on being there,” said one Birthright official who sat near him at the event.

Rich, a commodities trader who fled the United States during an investigation that led to a 1983 indictment on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating sanctions against trade with Iran, was one of 140 people pardoned by President Clinton on Jan. 20.

Rich, who is accused of evading $48 million in taxes, will now be able to return to the United States without fear of criminal charges.

His lawyers have argued that he was the victim of overly zealous prosecutors, but many critics believe his pardon is directly linked to the fact that his ex-wife is a major Democratic fundraiser.

In addition to raising questions about Clinton’s judgment, the case puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the many Jewish and Israeli causes, like Birthright Israel, that Rich supported.

Indeed, a recent New York Times article noted that the list of people who wrote letters supporting Rich’s pardon is “a virtual Who’s Who of Israeli society and Jewish philanthropy.”

Rich has given to a variety of major institutions in Israel, including Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Ben-Gurion University, the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation.

Rich also helped to bring dozens of Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen to Israel, Avner Azoulay, a former Mossad agent who runs Rich’s foundation in Israel, told Israeli media.

Efforts to reach Rich and Azoulay were unsuccessful.

The case also revives questions about the dilemma Jewish institutions find themselves in when faced with donors of questionable reputation.

Despite some related texts in the Talmud and Bible, ethics in fundraising is an issue around which there is little consensus in the Jewish world.

In the Rich case, no beneficiaries appear to be reconsidering his support.

Rich’s best-known beneficiary among American Jews is Birthright Israel, an international organization that has sent approximately 17,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel since its trips began last year.

The program has been widely praised for sparking Jewish interest among a largely unaffiliated group.
Michael Steinhardt, a hedge funds manager-turned-philanthropist who is one of Birthright’s founders, said the charges against Rich were “no source of concern.”

“Marc Rich is a well-established Jewish philanthropist and has given to many Jewish causes, and I’m pleased he’s chosen to give to Birthright as well,” Steinhardt said.

Asked whether Birthright would ever decline money from a person deemed unethical or criminal, Shimshon Shoshani, Birthright’s chief executive, said, “Of course there are some cases, but in this case it was no case.”

“If municipalities in Israel accept money from Marc Rich and other organizations accept money from his foundation, I don’t see any reason why Birthright Israel International will not accept money from his foundation,” Shoshani said.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of a project that aims to get “Jewish institutions to examine Jewish values in accepting money,” does see a reason.

Liebling, who works for the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, describes Rich’s prominence in Jewish philanthropy as a “serious problem” and says the Jewish community “needs to stand for values and ethical business practices.”

“We are not helping” if Jews take money from someone accused of violating the law or exploiting people and “restore that person’s good name without that person doing teshuvah,” he said, using the Hebrew term for repentance.

In Liebling’s view, “it is a rare Jewish organization that thinks carefully about the source of a donor’s money.”

Rabbi Tzvi Blanchard, director of organizational development at CLAL: The Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is disturbed that none of Rich’s beneficiaries appeared to talk about whether he was a problematic donor until “it blew up as a public issue.”

“The dangerous thing is not that people make moral mistakes but that we don’t talk about it,” Blanchard said.

While Liebling and Blanchard decry the lack of attention given to the ethics of taking certain gifts, others say Jewish organizations frequently struggle with the issue.

They say they weigh reservations about honoring certain donors against a desire to fund what they believe are good and needy works.

“You want to give a person a chance to contribute to society. In Judaism there is a tradition of teshuvah — you don’t want to say because you did something wrong therefore you can’t return to our community and do good things,” Blanchard said.

However, said Blanchard, accepting money is different from publicly honoring a donor.
Reuven Kimelman, a Judaic studies professor at Brandeis University, said Jewish organizations face a difficult dilemma.

They “promote their cause by saying we’re doing something ethical” but also have to weigh the good a large gift can do, even if its donor raised funds in a potentially unethical manner.

Others argue that, other than a few high-profile cases involving people accused of illegal activities, most situations where a donor’s ethics or propriety are questioned are not clear-cut.

“Analyzing the nature of business involvements can be a slippery slope,” said one large-city federation executive who did not want to be named.

“Most nonprofits have come to the view that it’s desirable to avoid scrutinizing both the business practices and investment patterns of those that seek to serve the community,” the federation executive added.
But, he added, “obviously, illegality is a clear line.”