Sitting around a table together is about to get even more symbolic.
For the first time, two students, one Muslim and one Jewish, will sit together as the two student members of the University of California’s Board of Regents when the board meets in San Francisco later this month. One voted against the other’s appointment and both faced opposition and hard feelings when they were named to what remains, to many, an obscure post on UC’s system-wide governing body.
Their unprecedented roles will unfold against a backdrop of continued fiery conflict in the Middle East—a volatility that has incited passion and protest at U.S. campuses and perhaps particularly at UCs. It has inspired some pro-Palestinian students to stage mock harassment “checkpoints” on campus, some pro-Israeli students to sue the university for permitting what they called a “hostile environment,” and both sides to face off over a campaign demanding divestment in companies doing business with Israel.
“It’s not a secret that we have different views, but as long as you conduct yourself with integrity, that’s all that matters,” says Sadia Saifuddin, a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in social welfare. As a second-year regent, she is now a full voting member of the board. “I think it’s how we have conversation that matters. I’m not stopped by working with someone who feels differently from me.”
Abraham “Avi” Oved, a senior majoring in economics at UCLA, is a first-year regent-designate, meaning he will attend meetings but can’t yet vote. He wants to put the controversy behind him. Despite pro-Palestinian student protests around his bid to be a regent and Saifuddin’s vote against his otherwise unanimous approval by the regents, he says he considers her a mentor and looks forward to working with her on a shared list of concerns affecting all UC students.
“She is brilliant and I have a lot to learn from her,” he says. “A lot of people like to focus on that fact she voted against my appointment, but I like to focus on how we want to work together. I want to move forward.”
How exactly will that work? The two will tour all the UC campuses together in the coming year. They will listen to students and see firsthand how policies on finance, tenure and planning are carried out. And they already share a commitment to some of the same issues: prevention of sexual violence, and making college accessible to a wider group of students.
“They know there are issues in the Middle East where they disagree. They probably agree on nearly one hundred percent of everything else.”
It’s a new school year, but you don’t have to be the Long Island Medium to predict that this will be a hot-button issue again at the University of California, already a battleground for supporters and opponents of a movement to retaliate against Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians with boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
Both sides rallied at Berkeley. And both say they have encountered hostility—anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim—because of their beliefs and backgrounds. In an article written by a student staffer at Berkeley’s Restorative Justice Center, students expressed concerns about blatant lack of respect for divergent views about the conflict.
This fall has already seen demonstrations at campuses around the country, from the University of Chicago to the University of Texas to Vassar College. A student senator at Ohio University recently had to resign after demonstrating an ice bucket challenge—in which she poured a bucket of “blood” on herself to protest deaths of Palestinians.
As for the UCs, this summer the elected officers of a union representing some 13,000 teaching assistants and other student workers drafted an open letter backing divestment and an arms embargo against Israel, declaring, “We stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination from a settler-colonial power.” In response, 12 pro-Israeli groups urged UC President Janet Napolitano to ensure that propaganda won’t masquerade as curriculum, writing, “Teaching undergraduate students one-sided propaganda which falsely alleges that Israel is a ‘settler colonial’ and ‘apartheid’ state worthy of elimination and promoting an antisemitic boycott of Israel do not constitute education but unabashed political indoctrination, which is expressly forbidden by the UC Regents.”
Last year Saifuddin co-sponsored a successful but non-binding student government measure at UC Berkeley urging divestment in companies doing business with ties to the Israeli military or to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That prompted critics to condemn her appointment as a student regent-designate.
While other UC campuses adopted such resolutions, a similar measure was defeated at UCLA following a long and heated debate. Oved spoke out against the proposal, calling the record nine-hour meeting a traumatic and draining experience.
Except for demonstrations on campus or at regents’ meetings, though, the turbulence overseas will have little bearing on the student regents’ responsibility: watching out for the interests of fellow students.
“It’s not an issue that the Board of Regents deals with,” says George Kieffer, head of the committee on student regent selection, who believes the two student regents have more in common than most realize. “They know there are issues in the Middle East where they disagree. They probably agree on nearly one hundred percent of everything else.”
Both went through a rigorous—and contentious—five-month selection process that, Kieffer said, “reflects the diversity of opinion at the university and the acceptance of that diversity.”
And, in fact, Saifuddin and Oved do have similarities in their paths to UC. Both worked hard to get there, both sought out student leadership posts early on, and neither plans to have a future in politics. Both are children of immigrants, her parents coming from Pakistan and his from Israel. Both are over-achievers: The student regent positions typically go to graduate students, and only three undergraduates have been appointed to the board in more than a decade.
Saifuddin was born in Fremont and moved with her family to Stockton when she was about 8. In high school she served as junior class president and as a student trustee on the local school board, where she said the “majority of issues were about little things, like students not wanting to wear IDs.
“But it was an interesting exercise in navigating politics,” she continues. “Everyone comes in with a different mindset and interests, and you have to hold true to your own.”
At Berkeley she experienced personally how difficult it is to make ends meet. Her aid was cut because her father, who owns his own business, made slightly more money than her grant allowed. “My dad sat me down and said you are going to have to apply to jobs and figure out how to make this work,” she says. “I just wanted to make enough for rent.”
So Saifuddin needed three jobs. She worked as an exhibit assistant in the architecture department, and as an instructional services assistant in the business school. When those weren’t enough, she found an opening as chief of staff for Student Regent-designate Jonathan Stein, a job that turned out to be a perfect fit.
“I totally understood the stress of what it means to be a student and work and have the university not support you,” she says. “I was a social welfare major and the state and university were not supporting me.”
Her growing interest in higher education led her to run for office as a student senator. She also helped start a food pantry at Berkeley, supported by student fees.
It was Stein who suggested she apply for the position on the Board of Regents, and defended her in the press against those critical of her support for divestment, saying “Sadia was what kept UC Berkeley from cracking apart through that experience.” That failed to satisfy skeptics such as conservative politico David Horowitz, who petitioned the UC Regents that her appointment “would set a dangerous precedent to encourage escalated anti-Semitism on campus, which is already a big problem in the UC system.”
The vote in her favor was almost unanimous, with one abstention from U.S. Regent Richard Blum, husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
“I got the job,” Saifuddin says, “and it was kind of a whirlwind of how to make this work with my schedule and how to maximize the next two years.”
She has now finished her coursework and is mostly engaged in research. She carves out personal time, she says, which includes managing to get a full night’s sleep, and spend time with friends, family and her new husband. Saifuddin got married this summer (she met her husband in student government, of course), and when she graduates wants to collaborate with nonprofits to foster greater corporate responsibility.
For now, she says she plans to collaborate with Oved, and that their different beliefs should not hold them back any more than they impede her relationships with friends on the opposite side of the Palestinian issue.
“My husband’s best friends are Jewish,” she says. “When the divestment hearings were happening, his friends were on the other side. At the end of it we would give each other a hug and have pizza, and there were no hard feelings.”
Aside from sitting on five regent committees, she wants to initiate a UC-wide study about student hunger and homelessness—yielding data to make the case for needed services.
Oved, who grew up in Encino, says he sought out the student regent position precisely because he was so disillusioned with politics after serving as internal vice president of the undergraduate student government at UCLA and going through the divestment debate.
Early on, in middle school, he began pursuing jobs in student government. By his senior year of high school, he was elected student body president. At UCLA he got involved in the Jewish Student Union and in student government campaigns. He was chief of staff for the internal vice president’s office—a liaison between the university and more than 1,000 student groups—before becoming internal vice president.
He focused on an effort to improve campus safety: using a mobile phone app that works like a panic button. He also worked on an overview of student fees, to analyze how they were divided and spent within the office. And he helped get student government meetings broadcast and posted online via YouTube.
Who, you might ask, would watch a student government meeting, even broadcast live? Not that many, it turned out—until the agenda turned to divestment from companies doing business with Israel.
That night, Oved remembers, more than 600 people showed up, forcing the meeting to be reconvened in a bigger auditorium.
“Going into it, everyone knew my position,” he says. “I met with students and groups all across the board. I felt it was important to do that. Also, it was important for me to be honest.”
In retrospect, he says, “It was not the greatest experience, to say the least. That event was one of the reasons I didn’t want to continue in student government. I felt like politics were getting in the way of what I wanted to focus on.”
A better path, he reasoned, would be to work as a student regent. He applied “on a whim,” he says, adding he was surprised and honored when he was chosen.
He did not foresee the backlash. A protest led by Students for Justice in Palestine said Oved had inappropriate connections to Adam Milstein, a pro-Israel businessman who has given money to the Jewish organization Hillel at UCLA, which donated to a slate of candidates for student government office with Oved. Protesters urged the regents to postpone their vote on Oved, but they refused, saying there was no evidence that Oved broke any rules. Milstein told reporters the allegations about Oved were part of “an antisemitic smear campaign.”
Saifuddin says she told him she was voting against him because she represented students who opposed his appointment. She says she couldn’t sleep the night before the vote.
Even now, the opposition hasn’t completely dissipated. Kash Nikazmrad, a Berkeley student and core member of Students for Justice in Palestine, says students “are not going to forget.”
“What he did was wrong and it’s going to be just as wrong a year from now…” he says. “We can ask for him to be recalled. We could protest and boycott. There are some tools in our arsenal we could use.”
Oved is hoping to continue advocating the ideas he pushed while in student government, especially the development of the personal security mobile app. It is part of a technology challenge endorsed by the White House. He has already been to Washington, DC to discuss the project, which will let users automatically contact friends, family, police or crisis treatment services.
He also wants to create more communication between state colleges and universities, and promises to visit with as many student leaders as possible to talk about common issues.
And he’s thinking about picking up another major, perhaps political science, although he knows that means more pressure and commitments. When the regents asked him how he’d manage his time, he half-joked, “I think classes are getting in the way of my education.”
Oved isn’t sure what he wants to do once he graduates, but doesn’t think it will involve politics. Still, “It was interesting to walk into this world of politics, the one I was trying to escape,” he says. “But maybe everything happens for a reason. Maybe it happened so I would get thicker skin for the job I’ll be doing for the next few years.”