Political campaigns frequently include promises by candidates on certain issues. At the University of California at Los Angeles this spring, a pledge that pro-Palestinian groups asked candidates to sign has some groups calling the tactic anti-Semitic. On Friday, the chancellor of UCLA sent a message to the campus saying that the activity was free speech that should not be banned, but he also criticized the activity -- and called for new efforts to promote civil debate on campus.
The pledge may be a new flashpoint in campus discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pro-Palestinian groups call the pledge an "ethics" statement. In it, student candidates were asked to promise not to travel on programs paid for by three pro-Israel groups: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Hasbara Fellowships. The statement said that these groups have promoted Islamophobia and supported "the marginalization" of Palestinian and other groups in the Middle East and on campus.
The pledge also includes a vow not to take trips sponsored by any non-student organization that "promotes discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, marital status, financial status or social status, or which engages in any form of systematic prejudiced oppression." Only the three pro-Israel groups are specifically banned.
The pledge follows an unsuccessful effort by pro-Palestinian groups this spring to have the UCLA student government back the idea of the University of California selling stock in companies that are viewed as supporting Israel and its policies in the West Bank. While the UCLA student government has no authority over investment decisions by the university system or UCLA, pro-Palestinian students have been urging student governments to back divestment. Some pro-Palestinian student leaders have accused some in the student government who oppose divestment of being swayed into pro-Israel positions by trips paid for by pro-Israel groups.
Pro-Israel groups, concerned by growing anti-Israel sentiment in higher education, are in fact sponsoring trips for students and faculty members. Numerous other groups (having nothing to do with the Middle East) offer student leaders the chance to apply for programs that may include travel.
The groups pushing for the pledge said that it was simply a matter of letting the student body know the stands of the candidates. Critics said that the pledge was an effort to stigmatize any candidate who might think there was value in participating in a travel program to Israel, and that the implication was that Jewish and other students opposed to divestment must have been bought off.
"The groups that circulated the joint statement of ethics are calling for the effective blacklisting of only Jewish and pro-Israel organizations from campus life and politics," said a statement from Bruins for Israel.
In his statement to the campus, Chancellor Gene D. Block defended the legal right of students to circulate whatever pledges they wish. "Students active in student government, who have varying views on Israel-Palestine issues, have participated in the recent past in free trips to the Middle East organized by Jewish groups," he wrote. "Prior to the recent student elections, some student groups asked candidates to sign a pledge promising not to go on such trips. The pledge was not sanctioned, proposed or required by our current student government or the university administration. No one was barred from running for office, participating in the election or serving on the council as a result of not signing the pledge. Some students signed, others did not. Both signatories and non-signatories won offices. The decision to circulate this pledge and the choice to sign it or not fall squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus."
He added, however, that he questioned the tactic. "[J]ust because speech is constitutionally protected doesn’t mean that it is wise, fair or productive. I am troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others. I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion. I condemn any remarks on social media or elsewhere that are disrespectful or hurtful."
Further, Block said: "I am personally concerned any time people feel disrespected, intimidated or unfairly singled out because of their beliefs. Important issues will generate passions, even discomfort -- that cannot be avoided. But if the political debate on campus gets more shrill and less nuanced, if hostility replaces empathy, if we see each other as enemies rather than as colleagues trying to figure out how to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, we will all be the lesser for it. It is possible to express strong opinions without belittling others."
The UCLA chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement on Saturday responding to the chancellor's email.
"The ethics statement is about holding student leaders accountable. It is about calling on them to become cognizant of their role as representatives for the general student body by disallowing their neutrality to be compromised by gifts and allegiances to off-campus groups, and to realize that their affiliation with the organizations in question is hurtful to various campus communities," said the statement. "We are pleased that your message showed sensitivity to the experiences of students on campus, but we cannot help but note the silence in regards to the anti-Arab and Islamophobic speech being promoted by the very groups in question."