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By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Sunny Singh campaigned for UCLA student body president this spring, pledging to push for mental health resources, increase graduate school opportunities and make student government more efficient.

But try as he might, Singh believed his campaign kept getting overshadowed by one issue: Israel.

A student activist had asked candidates for all undergraduate student council offices to sign a pledge that they would not take trips to that Middle Eastern country under the sponsorship of three pro-Israel lobbying groups.

“It seemed unnecessary,” Singh said, adding: “We spent a lot of time talking about what we thought about Israel.”

Activists were successful in getting 17 of the approximately 30 contenders to sign the promise, saying they wanted the candidates’ positions about Israel on the record.

Singh and others felt that a small group of students had tried to bully them. Singh lost by 31 votes to a candidate who signed the pledge saying he wouldn’t take trips sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League or Hasbara Fellowships. The winner, Devin Murphy, could not be reached for comment.

The issue — part of a broader movement in Europe and on college campuses here opposing Israel’s policies — has roiled the Westwood school.

Although the new board already has taken office, administrators and others say that the effects of the election linger and that they want to take steps to re-establish a civil tone and prevent the polarization that the pledge engendered.

Chancellor Gene Block sent an email to the campus Friday, saying he was disturbed by the events in the campaign. He asked for more tolerance and said administrators would try to find ways to avoid similar instances in the future.

“I am troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others,” he said. “I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion.”

UC President Janet Napolitano also weighed in, saying she shared Block’s concerns. “The principles of civility, respect, and inclusion … should also govern our campuses,” she said. “The actions of these students at UCLA violate these principles.”

Gabriel Levine, the pledge’s author, said that Block mischaracterized the pledge and denied trying to intimidate his peers. “An election is a chance to pin people down and find out what they believe,” he said.

Groups of students throughout the nation have pushed administrators to cut their business ties with companies doing business with Israel. Undergraduates at the University of Michigan and UC Santa Barbara voted down divestment resolutions, and UC Riverside students approved one, but observers say UCLA’s situation is the most contentious they have seen.

In February, UCLA student council members voted on whether to ask the UC system to divest from U.S. companies with connections to Israel, even though the university’s regents have consistently said they would follow the example of the U.S. government.

That night’s student council meeting began at 7 p.m. and ended 12 hours later. Even though speakers were allowed only two minutes each, public testimony went on for nearly nine hours.

“It’s amazing. Everyone was talking right past each other,” said Berky Nelson, a UCLA administrator who advises student government.

The student leaders voted in secret because some said they feared for their safety. Some also said they have been threatened on social media.

In the end, they voted not to call for divestment.

After the vote, a student panel began investigating whether Singh and another student who took a similar sponsored trip had a conflict of interest. It has not concluded its work.

When the election season for student government began this spring, Levine, a senior, wrote the pledge that called on candidates to refrain from trips to Israel sponsored by the three groups, which he said were “Islamophobic.” The statement also called on student representatives to refrain from trips supported by groups that promote discrimination on the basis of race, religion and other factors.

Several other organizations, including the Armenian Students’ and Muslim Student associations, also supported the pledge.

Levine, who is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and says he is Jewish, said he also questioned why student leaders should benefit from the heavily subsidized trips while some of their peers were having trouble paying tuition.

“It just seemed unfair,” he said, adding that he doesn’t plan to advocate that other groups circulate similar pledges on their campuses.

Levine said few of the candidates would promise not to travel to Israel on certain trips, so he thought a written pledge was the best way to get their attention.

Representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Hasbara Fellowships said that the trips are meant to be educational and that students are chosen on the basis of their beliefs or a promise to share the groups’ viewpoints. They also said that students from across the country apply for the tours and that a handful of UCLA students go annually.

Amanda Susskind, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region, said she was worried that students at other schools could adopt similar tactics and scare others from going on trips. “It’s a very slippery slope,” she said.

In the UCLA student council whose term just ended, three student representatives had gone on such a trip sponsored by one of the three groups, according to Levine.

Singh, 20, said he went on one sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League because he is a history and economics major and studies the region.

He saw the trip as an opportunity to “see the region with my own eyes.”

During his eight-day trip, Singh, of Irvine, met with Israeli and Palestinian students. “I don’t think we talked about divestment once,” he said.

Yet divestment became a major topic during elections. Singh said he’s agnostic about whether the UC system should cut business ties with some companies but said he wishes student government spent more time concentrating on issues closer to home.

“I ran to increase efficiency and get more mental health resources on campus,” he said, “not because I wanted to weigh in on world affairs.”

Photo via Flickr

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