UCLA judicial board nominee questioned for Jewish background in appointment hearing

At a Feb. 10 hearing of UCLA’s student government, four of nine representatives raised concerns that the Jewish background of Judicial Board candidate Rachel Beyda could present a conflict of interest and make her unfit to serve impartially as a judge in the student government’s judicial branch.
February 24, 2015

At a Feb. 10 hearing of UCLA’s student government, four of nine representatives raised concerns that the Jewish background of Judicial Board candidate Rachel Beyda could present a conflict of interest and make her unfit to serve impartially as a judge in the student government’s judicial branch.

Although the council eventually unanimously approved Beyda’s appointment, the 9-0 vote came after 40 minutes of debate, an initial 4-4 vote that was later invalidated and an interjection by a faculty representative who explained that Beyda’s affiliation with the campus Jewish community does not constitute a conflict of interest. A video of the meeting can be viewed on YouTube. Beyda declined comment to the Journal, writing in an email, “As a member of the Judicial Board, I do not feel it is appropriate for me to comment on the actions of UCLA’s elected student government.”

According to UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, four student representatives — Fabienne Roth, Manjot Singh, Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed and Sofia Moreno Haq — voiced concerns about appointing Beyda. The four students have since publicly apologized in the Daily Bruin.

The hearing began when Roth asked Beyda how she, as a Jewish student, could remain unbiased as a Judicial Board member. 

Although Roth did not refer to any specific cases that could pose a problem, last May the Judicial Board heard a case in which members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) argued that two student government representatives who had gone on sponsored trips to Israel — Sunny Singh and Lauren Rogers — should not have been allowed to vote on a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution that targeted Israel. The Judicial Board ruled in a 4-0 vote that there was no conflict of interest and that Singh’s and Rogers’ votes were valid.

“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” Roth asked Beyda, “how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

After a few minutes of questions, Beyda was asked to leave the room, during which the representatives debated for about 40 minutes whether Beyda’s being Jewish would constitute a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest for her on the board. Some representatives, including President Avinoam Baral, argued that Beyda’s Jewish background should not be considered a relevant factor in her candidacy, while others voiced concerns about her religious affiliation.

“I feel like we should be working on a way to make sure that we make things better at USAC [Undergraduate Students Association Council], and we have a legacy that’s not being more divisive towards things,” Roth said. “She’s part of a community that is very invested in USAC and in very specific outcomes that Judicial Boards make decisions on every year.”

Sadeghi-Movahed added: “For some reason, I’m not 100 percent comfortable. I don’t know why. I’ll go through her application again. I’ve been going through it constantly, but I definitely can see that she’s qualified for sure.” In a Feb. 12 Facebook post, Sadeghi-Movahed apologized for that comment and asked UCLA students, particularly Jews, for forgiveness. 

The tone of the hearing took a perceptible turn after Debra Geller, chief administrative officer for student and campus life who was overseeing the hearing, told the student council that they did not appear to fully understand the difference between conflict of interest and perceived conflict of interest.

“I don’t know that there’s a single student in this campus community you could appoint to anything where somebody wouldn’t have a perceived conflict,” she said. “That would apply to all of you as well.”

Shortly after her comments, the council voted again, this time approving Beyda’s appointment 9-0. Sadeghi-Movahed, Roth, Haq and Singh issued a public apology Feb. 20 in the Daily Bruin.

“We ask the Jewish community to accept our sincerest apology,” they wrote in part. “Our intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people.”

Baral, in an interview Feb. 24, said that he was surprised when Beyda’s religion became an issue, and felt he needed to raise his concerns. “It was definitely very difficult for me to sit there as they were discussing the appointment and were quite clearly biased against her because of her Jewish identity and her affiliation to the community,” Baral said. “As a Jewish student, this for me echoed a centuries-long sort of connotation of Jews being unable to be truly loyal.”

He said that he had initially nominated Beyda for the appointment because of her academic background in pre-law studies, her law clerk position with the Judicial Board and her two pervious law internships. 

In an interview with the Journal, Roth issued a strong apology and said that she wants to work with Hillel at UCLA toward understanding more about anti-Semitism.

“I am really sorry with how I framed my argument and the words that I used. Using someone’s identity against them is completely unacceptable,” Roth said. “I am truly, truly beyond sorry for unintentionally attacking the Jewish identity and making anyone who is Jewish uncomfortable on my campus.”

In an email to the Journal Feb. 24,  Haq said that toward the end of the hearing, after she learned more about Beyda’s qualifications, she said she had “no doubt she will excel in her position.”

“I take responsibility for not expressing the reason for my doubts, which, by the way, had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Beyda is Jewish,” Haq wrote. “I have since been labeled as an anti-Semite, which is both false and unfortunate.” She cited personal and family friends who are Jewish, work she has done in the past week with Bruins for Israel and a project she’s working on to raise money for Save a Child’s Heart in Tel Aviv.

Singh also emailed the Journal affirming his respect for the Jewish community and his support for Beyda. “I am wholly accountable for not being more clear in my position regarding keeping Judicial Board non-partisan,” Singh wrote. “I expressed on the council table that my hesitation had nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Beyda is Jewish.”

Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, issued a letter the afternoon of Feb. 24 that addressed both this incident as well as the discovery Feb. 22 of inflammatory posters around UCLA comparing SJP members to Hamas executioners.

“A few council members unfairly questioned the fitness of a USAC Judicial Board applicant because of her Jewish identity,” Block wrote, adding, “No student should feel threatened that they would be unable to participate in a university activity because of their religion.”

Baral said he’s working with the campus Jewish community to draft a resolution for the council that would condemn anti-Semitism. The student government is expected to take up the resolution next week.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the incoming executive director for Hillel at UCLA, emailed the Journal to say that free speech on campus must also come with “a demand for condemnation of hate speech and acts.”

“The same group of elected student leaders who were instrumental in bringing an anti-Israel resolution to campus earlier this year felt it was appropriate to publicly question a fellow student’s qualifications as a candidate because of her ethnic and religious identity,” Lerner wrote. He continued, however, that he’s “glad that the students involved in this particular incident saw it as a learning experience and elected to apologize publicly in the Daily Bruin.”

“Now it’s time to question whether BDS belongs on campus,” Lerner concluded. “Especially given the way it has allowed itself to become polluted by an inability to distinguish between advocating for Palestinian rights versus freely mingling with and even sponsoring anti-Semitic speakers and events.”

Rachel Frenklak, Beyda’s roommate and best friend, attended the Feb. 10 hearing and wrote an op-ed in the Daily Bruin describing what happened and condemning the students who questioned Beyda’s religious affiliation. “I was really shocked,” Frenklak said in an interview Feb. 24. “It’s very upsetting.”

She added, though, that the incident doesn’t make her less comfortable as a member of UCLA’s Jewish student body, even though it indicates there are certain “hostile” forums on campus for Jewish students.

“The Jewish community at UCLA is really strong,” Frenklak said. “That’s not to say that I feel comfortable at all parts of the school. It gets to be a hostile environment in, especially, the student government area.” 

Feb. 26: UCLA's student government has removed from YouTube the video of this hearing.

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