A portion of this post deals with UCLA Hillel. Before I launched into the post, I wanted to juxtapose my own experience as a graduate student at this Hillel back in the 1970s with today’s reality.
Then, I was pursuing an MA in Comparative Literature. The campus Hillel, led by Rabbis David Berner and Chaim Seidler-Feller, was my Jewish home. Each week, I davened at the Westwood minyan, an egalitarian service attended by faculty, staff and graduate students. It was a spiritual, intellectually challenging place of Jewish worship. I have even heard from some former members of the minyan decades later via this blog. On the High Holidays, I attended the services at Hillel and still remember the chazan’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of Hineni. I helped organize the annual Jewish Culture Festival at which I arranged for Israeli poet, Dan Pagis, to give a poetry reading.
My real goal had been to engage Leonard Cohen to offer a concert, but his agent said he was off at a Buddhist monastery, dividing his life between spiritual retreat and engagement with the real world.
In those days, Hillel was a tolerant, diverse place both spiritually and politically. It was made so because of the leadership offered by Rabbis like Chaim. But I gather that those days are over, perhaps long over. Rabbi Seidler-Feller clearly approved of the shenanigans described below and I know from a source he was furious at the negative coverage Hillel received in the media. I don’t believe the Chaim I knew decades ago would have participated in this scheme (though perhaps I am wrong and didn’t know him as well as I thought).
He is retiring and will be succeeded by a young doctrinaire Orthodx rabbi, Aaron Lerner, who earned smicha at a New York Orthodox seminary. Lerner does not believe in Jewish diversity. He’s an implacable ideologue as proven in this email he sent to the Hillel mailing list describing the Jewish community’s enemies on campus. He’s as much an Islamophobe as Milstein. In fact, UCLA Hillel rejected the application of the student Jewish Voice for Peace chapter to become part of the official Jewish community. JVP isn’t Jewish enough; or perhaps Zionist enough. When I participated in the UCLA Hillel community there was no Zionist litmus test. Now there is. And even worse things too.
I e mailed Rabbi Lerner with a series of questions about matters described below. He did not reply.
I published a post a few days ago about Los Angeles real estate investor and pro-Israel philanthropist, Adam Milstein. It delved into his past as a convicted felon, his funding of pro-Israel UCLA student government candidates, and his family foundation, which funds NGOs devoted to Islamophobia and pro-Israel advocacy. Among them, he gives six-figure gifts to Aipac’s program to bring the national political elite on Israel junkets, and to StandWithUs. He gives five-figure gifts to a host of others of similar ideological outlook.
A glowing profile of Milstein published recently noted that he began his real immersion in the Jewish world with the cult-like group, Aish HaTorah. It seeks out wealthy Jewish corporate executives and pairs them with rabbis who engage in Jewish study. The learning comes with a strong dose of pro-Israel political indoctrination. This is how Aish has built its settler empire which includes a yeshiva next to the Kotel which is preparing for the destruction of the Haram al-Sharif and its replacement with the Third Temple. Aish also spawned the Clarion Project and its series of Islamophobic film productions. Milstein’s family foundation gave $60,000 to Aish according to its 2013 IRS 990.
According to a confidential source I interviewed who has knowledge of these matters, Milstein’s interest in UCLA and its campus politics relates to an obsession with defeating the BDS movement (a pro-BDS motion passed the UC Student Association, of which UCLA is a part, last month; UCLA too passed such a motion in 2014). He, like his allies at SWU, believe that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement, a sort of Trojan Horse, whose goal is to destroy Israel. For this reason, he believes it must be fought intensively and with all the resources the pro-Israelists can muster.
For at least the past three years, Milstein has donated funds via UCLA Hillel (another comprehensive review of the entire scandal is here) to support the pro-Israel student government slate Bruins United, an affiliate of Bruins for Israel. Though we know that Milstein personally donated $1,000 to the slate (e-mails confirming this are published here), he also solicited funding from other pro-Israel donors. Both he, Hillel, and the slate have refused to reveal how much external funding was given.
Milstein was much more than a mere donor. He held strategy sessions with the executive candidates. He held a gala fundraising event at his home attended by Hillel staff, prospective donors, and UCLA faculty and staff. The purpose was to encourage donors to participate in the project to benefit both Hillel and Bruins United and to oppose BDS. One wonders at the propriety of UCLA faculty and staff attending a fundraising event whose goal was to combat BDS, when such a subject might be a subject of discussion in courses, with some students likely to take positions supporting the movement.
— Adam Milstein (@AdamMilstein) September 19, 2014
The tweet above suggests Milstein’s enmity towards UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies, which offers courses in a wide-range of fields of study encompassing the varied societies of the Middle East including Israel and Arab states. His Twitter feed is filled with tweets that broadcast repugnant Islamophobia as well. Milstein makes common cause with pro-Israel advocates like the Amcha Initiative, which accuse the Center of sponsoring programming that amounts to anti-Semitism in targeting Israel for special opprobrium.
Milstein doesn’t, however, have the same feelings for another UCLA academic unit, the Center for Middle East Development, which is a project founded by, and largely featuring Prof. Steven Spiegel. In fact, Milstein’s son-in-law Benjamin Radparvar, a member of the local Iranian Jewish community, is a PhD candidate affiliated with the Center. Milstein gives $50,000 to it each year.
Previous reporting on this story noted that UCLA Hillel likely violated IRS regulations by acting as a conduit for the funds to student government candidates, because the ultimate recipient had no 501c3 status or charitable purpose. Here is what the Daily Cal had to say:
The UCLA Hillel is classified under Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C & 501(c)) as a 501(c) 3 non profit. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit these organizations [ed., and their donors] enjoy exemption from federal income taxes. However as clearly delineated in the IRS website under The Restriction of Political Campaign, Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations;
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds … clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
…If these elements qualify student elections at the UC as political campaigns for public office, then the donations to Oved’s [Bruin’s United] campaign violated federal law.
I consulted a lawyer who specializes in non-profit governance and tax regulations. She said that there is another possible IRS violation involving the Foundation’s designation of its donation on behalf of Bruins United. Such donations may not be directed to a non-charitable entity. Donors may suggest gifts be directed to such entity, but the charity is under no obligation to do so. Since in this case Hillel accepted the gift with the explicit understanding it would be passed-through to Bruins United, this is another possible IRS violation.
The tax lawyer also noted that the Bruins United candidates who accepted the funds, Avi Oved and Avinoam Baral, may be liable for tax penalties. Officers of the UCLA Hillel board may be subject to financial penalties for approving the pass-through “gift.” I sent Baral a message via his Facebook account asking if he’d answer a series of questions I posed. He did not reply.
I also noted in my earlier post Milstein’s felonious abuse of IRS non-profit regulations in the Spinka scam. There, he and his business partner (along with many other Los Angeles Jews) donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Hasidic sect, received a tax deduction, and then got most of the money back for their personal use.
The profile of the former felon features his own criminal defense lawyer singing his praises (and minimizing his legal offenses) seems part of a public relations “rebranding” effort. It included this gem:
Milstein says he takes full accountability for his conviction, which originated when he voluntarily took responsibility for a past violation to help a friend. Ed M. Robbins, Jr., Milstein’s attorney, adds, “In retrospect, Adam finds it hard to explain why he would do it when the amount that he was writing off represented a very small fraction of the taxes that he paid.”
This self-serving verbiage sent me to the final legal agreement the defendant made with the Department of Justice. Here in language clearly drafted by defense counsel, he explained his behavior is greater detail:
Through David [Hager], Adam also began giving to Spinka, the Orthodox Hasidic organization at issue in this case. As Adam admits, David was forwarding Adam’s checks to Spinka and was receiving a kickback from Spinka that he returned to Adam. According to Adam, David Hager, as a child of Holocaust survivors (Mr. Hager’s wife is also a child of Holocaust survivors) felt compelled to have money “put away” in order to survive future catastrophic events…
Hager also helped Adam rationalize that his contributions to Spinka, notwithstanding the fact that these cash kickbacks were stored, were a way of offsetting the nondeductible donations he was making to his family and others in the United States and Israel. In retrospect, Adam finds it hard to explain why he would do it when the amount that he was writing off represented a very small fraction of the taxes that he paid. Although Adam takes full responsibility for his actions, he was clearly swayed by the high esteem in which holds David Hager.
There are several aspects of this passage that are remarkably disingenuous. First, the idea that a Jew can justify committing a crime based on his experience as the child of Holocaust survivors is offensive. Second, the notion that Milstein felt justification in taking an illegal tax break because he subsidized his Israeli family is, if you take it at face value, incredibly naive. The U.S. tax system doesn’t make such allowances and he clearly knew this. But it didn’t deter him because he felt his own good deeds entitled him to cheat the government. It shows a man easily swayed by his own inner logic.
Milstein’s counsel here does a neat job of blaming his partner for his predicament, while at the same time denying he’s doing so. At a later point in the legal agreement, the defense claims that his client came forward despite the fact that the government had not yet approached or questioned him. The real truth here is that Milstein feared that once they had Hager in their sights, it would just be a matter of time before they discovered Milstein’s wrongdoing. Going to the feds voluntarily and before you’ve been implicated in a crime was a clear motive to avoid a harsher sentence (Hager served six months in federal prison and Milstein three).
His history of gifts to UCLA Hillel given through his foundation also seem to skirt the law, since the money he was laundered through the non-profit and then passed through for a purely political purpose. This funding helped the Bruin slate win the student election. Its president, Avinoam Baral, used his new position to spearhead the campus crusade against BDS, which eventually lost.
To exemplify Milstein’s tenuous relationship to the truth, in this profile he takes issue with Abe Greenhouse’s Electronic Intifada piece, which says that the State of Israel formally intervened in the legal case on his behalf. EI notes that the then-Israeli consul general wrote a letter on official Ministry of Foreign Affairs stationery to the judge requesting leniency. Milstein replies:
…The letter was written by the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles but was simply a personal letter of support and far from an official Israeli government intervention, as The Electronic Intifada claimed.
Any high school senior can explain the difference between a personal and official letter. Indeed, Milstein solicited hundreds of letters as part of his campaign for leniency. Many are personal letters, not written on corporate or government letterhead. A number are written on company or organizational stationary. But the consul general’s letter is the only one written by any government representative, and it is clearly an official communication (page 207 of the plea agreement).
Milstein has introduced another ‘innovation’ to the pro-Israel toolbox: the Pro-Israel Mentor Student Network (PIMS). It’s an ingenious program that potentially offers great political benefit to the founder’s political agenda, and material benefit to the student. His Foundation identifies and recruits potential student leaders who will give pro-Israel campus activism the greatest boost. As part of the terms of the mentorship agreement, PIMS and the family foundation provide pro-Israel training to the mentee. They encourage him or her to participate in campus activities, political groups, etc. And if they run for office, they even offer financial support. It goes without saying that key elements of expected student activism will involve fighting BDS on campus and pro-Palestinian activists as well.
Here are the guidelines:
Any full-time college student currently enrolled at UCLA who is interested in a “mentorship” program, which will help them towards reaching their career goals.
1. Students must demonstrate that they are (or willing to become) Pro Israel activists.
2. Students must be members of a civic organization on campus.
3. Students will go through an application and interview process to determine eligibility.
Expectation of Students:
1. To initiate the communication with assigned mentors
2. To provide a monthly report about their work with their mentor and their Pro Israel activity.
3. To attend 2 PIMS networking events.
4. To engage in Pro Israel activity on campus.
5. Be a member of a civic organization on campus.
Student participants derive enormous material benefit: they’re teamed up with a successful entrepreneur in his field of professional interest. The entrepreneur offers job training, mentoring, networking, resume writing and general career guidance. The value this offers to an enterprising student is incalculable. Given this fact, it’s entirely possible students will be drawn to this program more for the benefit it offers them, and less for the ideological indoctrination/lobbying which Milstein expects. Presumably, that’s why candidates are vetted by staff and undergo an application process.
The PIMS website is exceedingly vague about its actual activity. It notes that there were mentor relationships during the 2014-2015 academic year. But it doesn’t list any mentors or even company names. It doesn’t given even general examples of student mentees or their campus activities. The website appears to be a well-kept secret with an Alexa ranking of 8-million. But an informed source tells me there have been PIMS parings for the past two years at UCLA.
I’ve researched whether PIMS offers paid mentorships and I am not aware of any. I’ve emailed a series of questions about the project to the Milstein Family Foundation which did not respond.
PIMS is a profoundly troubling phenomenon. It’s one thing for Rotary International or Kiwanis to offer college scholarships to worthy students. But to offer young people career advancement in return for turning campuses into ideological free-fire zones appears to be a perversion of the academic process. I do welcome the college environment as a free-wheeling market of ideas. I expect vigorous debate about these ideas. But I don’t expect the Israel Lobby to “fix” this contest by offering blandishments and material benefits to those who will take up the cudgels for Israel.
Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, we’ve sold our political process to the highest corporate bidders (like Sheldon Adelson). Is that what we want to happen on campus as well? Do we want Sheldon & Miriam Adelson Pro-Israel Fellowships disbursed to students at many of the major U.S. universities by StandWithUs and under the watchful eye of Adam Milstein? Do we want paid internships for pro-Israel students with UCLA Hillel, SWU, etc. This is what is in the offing if we allow things to play out as they have been.
Speaking of Sheldon Adelson, he’s a pal of Adam Milstein, who co-founded the Israeli-American Council. The Council had its annual fundraising gala last week and raised over twice as much as it’s ever raised, $23-million. A very sizable portion of that total came from Adelson himself. We know from Connie Bruck’s New Yorker profile some years back that Adelson thinks Aipac is a bleeding-heart liberal outfit. There can be only one reason Adelson would be willing to sink such substantial sums into IAC. He sees it as the successor to Aipac; as the real hard-core pro-Israel Lobby.
It’s worth noting that Milstein and his friends at SWU will be struttin’ their anti-BDS stuff at a Los Angeles conference next week. For a mere $400 you too can savor five “gourmet” kosher meals while rubbing shoulders with the ‘intellectual’ elite of the anti-BDS movement like Roz Rothstein, Ken Marcus, Alan Dershowitz, Noah Pollak and Gerald Steinberg.
On a special note, SWU has recruited a “moderate” Palestinian, Bassam Eid, who broke away from B’Tselem to found his own Palestinian “human rights” group, which is apparently in favor with the SWU and the Lobby. Eid opposes BDS (natch’), UNWRA, and the Right of Return as well, making him an exceedingly pliant Palestinian. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some of our major pro-Israel donors funding his NGO. I searched for his NGO, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and its website is defunct. It does make one wonder…