Sunny Singh at UCLA

Sunny Singh, who ran for UCLA student body president, lost by 31 votes to a candidate who pledged not to take trips to Israel sponsored by particular groups. (Christina House / For The Times / May 19, 2014)

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.

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FOR THE RECORD:
UCLA student government: An article in the May 20 Section A about a focus on Israel in UCLA student government campaigns erroneously said that UCLA student Gabriel Levine is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. The article also said that representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Hasbara Fellowships said that students are chosen for sponsored trips to Israel on the basis of their beliefs. Students are not picked based on their beliefs. —

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"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 reestablish 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.