Campus Hillels across the country have distanced themselves from their University of California, Los Angeles affiliate following revelations that UCLA Hillel acted as a pass-through for political donations to pro-Israel student government candidates.
Hillel International, the campus centers’ parent body, nevertheless strongly supports the donations, which UCLA’s student newspaper revealed recently.
The donations, which came to light in early July, when The Daily Californian obtained several personal emails disclosing them, have raised concern in some quarters about Hillel venturing into student government politics as a partisan player.
“I couldn’t remotely even think about getting involved in that,” said Rabbi Leah Cohen, executive director of the Hillel at Yale University, referring to the type of actions UCLA Hillel undertook.
Originally, the money in question came to UCLA Hillel as a single $1,000 donation from Los Angeles-based real estate mogul Adam Milstein, a prominent pro-Israel activist. The emails obtained by the Daily Californian showed that Milstein asked UCLA Hillel to direct his money to “UCLA Student Government Leaders.” Milstein wrote that he wanted the contribution to be used to help pro-Israel student candidates “prevail vs. some anti-Israel, pro-BDS students” competing for the same seats. “BDS” is an acronym for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel to protest its occupation of the West Bank and policies toward the Palestinians.
UCLA Hillel complied with Milstein’s request, though it was not required to do so.
Avi Oved, one of the two student candidates who ultimately received the money channeled via Hillel, later wrote Milstein to directly thank him for the “generous donation.”
“It is amazing to see how connected and united the Jewish community can be when our ideologies and voices are at stake,” Oved wrote to his benefactor. The candidate, an economics major whose parents immigrated to the United States from Israel, emphasized to Milstein that the donation would help him defeat his opponent, who was a BDS supporter.
After news broke on campus of the previously undisclosed donation pass-through, many students criticized Milstein as well as Oved. At the time, Oved had just been nominated to the University of California Board of Regents as a student representative, a significantly more influential position. In response to the disclosure of the donation, several hundred students signed a petition demanding that the regents postpone his ascension to the state board. Others testified against Oved at a regents hearing to reconsider his nomination.
Kareem Aref, the outgoing president of the UC Student Association, had originally submitted Oved’s nomination to the regents. But after the disclosure of the donation, Aref voiced concern at the regents meeting about “the potential for outside organizations buying off student elected officials.”
Oved did not respond to a request left via his page on Facebook for an interview. But at the Board of Regents hearing, Oved vowed, “As the student regent-designate, my only allegiance is to the students.” The board approved his nomination at the meeting.
For all the controversy the donations have provoked, UCLA’s student government bylaws nowhere require their disclosure. But UCLA Hillel’s own bylaws prohibit channeling any of the center’s income or assets to “any director, officer or member … or to the benefit of any private person.”
Oved worked as an intern for Hillel between May 2012 and May 2013, according to his LinkedIn profile. He thanked Milstein for the donation on an undisclosed date in 2013. Rachael Petru Horowitz, director of development at UCLA Hillel, to whom Milstein made out his check, according to the emails, denied the center violated its bylaws. Hillel, she wrote the Forward in an email, “never cut a check to Avi Oved in relation to his campaign for student government.” She declined to comment further.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service also prohibits tax-exempt charities like Hillel from contributing to partisan political campaigns. But Ellen Aprill, a specialist in tax law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, told the Forward that “as far as I can tell, student government is private, like a club set up by the university, and not a public office.” She cautioned that the question was a murky one, given UC’s status as a state-sponsored public university.
In interviews with the Forward, spokesmen at several Hillels nevertheless assumed it was illegal for their centers to donate to or endorse student government candidates. Legality aside, nine separate campus Hillel branches also made clear that for them, the idea of wading into partisan campus politics on one side would contradict Hillel’s role as a campus unifier.
“To favor a candidate because of a specific background would not further our goals of enhancing campus life and cultivating community,” said Davey Rosen, associate director of the University of Michigan Hillel.
Marni Blitz, associate director of the Princeton University Hillel, echoed Rosen. “We support all students whether they’re Jewish or not, and would give the same resources to all students no matter their beliefs,” she said.
To non-student outsiders, the hubbub may seem ludicrous considering the limited power and financing most student government bodies have. UCLA student government, however, is an exception when it comes to funding. Its budget of more than $90 million is the most, by far, of any student government in the country.
Moreover, some big players in real-world politics see a crucial need to get involved now in campus politics. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2012 national conference for student activists, Jonathan Kessler, the Israel lobby’s leadership development director, bluntly described the organization’s campus goals to some 10,000 students.
“How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley?” Kessler asked, referring to a pro-BDS proposal that the UC campus’s student government had passed recently. “We’re going to make sure pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
It is unclear to what extent AIPAC — where Oved has been working this summer as an intern — has gotten involved in campus elections. Kessler agreed to be interviewed, subject to the approval of AIPAC’s chief press spokesman. But the spokesman, Marshall Wittman, told the Forward, “We have no comment.”
Hillel International agrees with Kessler on the need to back pro-Israel candidates in campus elections. It also supports its UCLA affiliate.
“UCLA is a very well- publicized example of an American campus where the BDS movement has politicized the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said David Eden, Hillel International’s chief administrative officer. “This is a unique response by UCLA Hillel, and a justified one.”
Eden stressed the growth of the BDS movement on campuses nationwide — 17 resolutions requesting divestment from Israel put before student governments in the past year alone, of which four passed — and anticipated a more proactive pushback against the “anti-Israel movement” by Hillels in the coming year.
But interviews with many Hillels at schools with active BDS movements found a hesitancy or stolid refusal to venture into student politics.
At University of California, San Diego, where the student government passed a BDS resolution in 2013, Michael Rabkin, executive director of the Hillel, said that despite the tense climate, “our approach has remained to develop strong student leaders and not get involved in student political campaigns.”
Similarly, at Arizona State University, where the student government passed a BDS resolution in 2012, executive director Debbie Yunker Kail said her Hillel had never endorsed or donated to a student campaign.
“Hillel tries to unify people, and it seems like getting involved in campus politics might be unnecessarily polarizing.”
Contact Yardain Amron at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @yardain