Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor of the Jewish Press
Here’s what happened this past week (in case you missed it):
A UCLA student by the name of Milan Chatterjee traded the University’s law school for New York University School of Law. While that in and of itself is not unheard of, the reasons why he switched schools are.
Chatterjee is the former president of UCLA’s Graduate Students Association, and by all accounts a successful student. The sort of student who, under normal circumstances, a university would like to retain. But these are not normal circumstances.
In November of 2015, Chatterjee threatened to withhold funding for a student town hall, “if pro-Palestinian groups used the occasion to promote divestment from Israel. He said his intention was to maintain the Graduate Student Association’s neutrality in political affairs.” (JTA.com) At the time, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and four different legal organizations confirmed that Chatterjee and his GSA administration acted in a viewpoint neutral matter.
But in July of this year, the university turned around and reprimanded him for that decision, causing Chatterjee to eventually make the decision to leave. He cited bullying and a lack of support from the administration, calling the UCLA campus “a hostile and unsafe environment for students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who choose not to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, let alone support the State of Israel.”
“In fact,” he wrote in his letter to UCLA Chancellor Block, “when Palestine Legal and the ACLU circulated a legal letter defaming me on the Internet, had their attorney write a libelous article about me in the Daily Bruin, and sent lawyers to GSA meetings to attack me personally, I contacted the Interim Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs many times for help. Not only did she decline to provide me with the necessary legal support, but she told me that I needed to get my own lawyer.”
Chatterjee himself is not Jewish. That is relevant for a few reasons.
As soon as Chatterjee’s initial decision to ‘remain neutral’ became the cause for an internal investigation (the on-campus BDS reps filed a complaint), he received support from the American Jewish Committee in the form of pro-bono backing from lawyers.
“Milan’s treatment,” AJC’s Executive Director said in a statement, “is emblematic of the nastiness and bullying tactics employed by the BDS movement, which does not discriminate at all in targeting campus leaders who are outspoken in support of Israel, or in Milan’s case merely seeking to be neutral on the topic.” (Forward.com)
The question is whether true neutrality on this topic is even within the realm of possibilities. It seems the old adage “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” holds more truth than ever when it comes to BDS. Again and again we read stories about bullying, about an aggressive stance that has very little to do with actual Middle East politics and everything with an atmosphere in which it is fashionable to spit on Israel and its supporters. This is no longer a debate. This is all-out disdain, with no room for civilized discourse. Simply put: it’s nice to believe in a cause, and I’m all for college students flexing their political muscles, but do they have to be so nasty about it?
I’m going out on limb, and suggest that those who are the loudest might not have any first-hand knowledge of Gaza, or the West Bank, Jordan or Lebanon. I’m guessing the vast majority of these ‘protesters’ have never set foot in the Middle East (Note: reading about it doesn’t count).
UCLA, I am sure of it, considers itself a champion of diversity. Having an Indian American who is Hindu as president of the Graduate Students Association means a check mark for inclusion. And yet the administrators are unmotivated to stand by him when the going gets tough. I wonder; had this been an issue tied to policies in Turkey, or North Korea, would the end result have been the same? You’ll have to forgive me for being doubtful. If it swims and it quacks, it most decidedly is a duck.
Had Chatterjee been in fact Jewish himself, would this story have had a different ending? That, too, I think is doubtful. On many college campuses, it is no longer acceptable to openly and wholeheartedly support Israel, but it is also no longer acceptable to merely call for neutrality, regardless of who you are. And the administrators at UCLA should be ashamed, because they have effectively “stood by and done nothing.” They are the silent bystanders who are letting this happen. Inclusiveness, but only when convenient.
Don’t tell me I am overreacting. These are the kinds of events that deserve our attention, because they form the building blocks to an uncertain future. A future where we have to worry about where our kids go to school, where being Jewish is circumspect, and where those who scream the loudest go unchecked. A future where people continue to believe that being anti-Israel has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and where all opinions are equal, but some are more equal than others.