By Nanette Asimov
SAN FRANCISCO — Over the objections of Jewish organizations, the University of California regents on Wednesday selected a new student regent whose advocacy for divesting from Israel, and her outspokenness against “Islamophobia,” has placed her in the center of one of the most divisive issues in campus politics: Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Sadia Saifuddin of UC Berkeley will become the first Muslim to serve as “student regent designate” — for 2014-15 — after receiving unanimous support from the regents who voted.
Regent Dick Blum abstained, saying, “If you’re going to be the student representative, you have to represent all students. You don’t want to alienate them. … So I’ve got a problem with this.”
But many others at the regents’ meeting in San Francisco — including Jews — spoke in favor of appointing Saifuddin. She embodies “open-mindedness and tolerance,” said Jonathan Stein, a Cal law student who served on the selection committee. “At Berkeley, she established the first interfaith worship space, and … invited Muslim and Jewish students to town hall meetings. Jewish students adamantly respect and like Sadia.”
A social welfare major and member of student government, Saifuddin will serve as a non-voting regent for one year before becoming a voting member in the next year, succeeding Cinthia Flores, a law student from UC Irvine.
To those who spoke on her behalf, Saifuddin is not only a brilliant student and kind mentor, she is an advocate for tolerance and inclusion of all students.
But to representatives of anti-defamation groups who addressed the regents and sent emails opposing the appointment, Saifuddin’s actions have fomented a “toxic and hostile” environment for Jewish students.
“We urge you to vote a resounding no,” Rabbi Aron Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles told the regents. He criticized not only Saifuddin’s co-sponsorship of a resolution calling for UC to divest from Hewlett-Packard and other companies that do business with Israel, but her condemnation of UC Santa Cruz professor Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who was recorded saying Muslim students “are fed on a diet of anti-Semitism,” and other generalizations.
Roberta Seid, of pro-Israel “Stand With Us,” told the regents that Saifuddin’s divestment work shows she is “prominent in an extremist movement that fosters bigotry.”
During the debate, Saifuddin sat with several family members, the women easily identifiable by their headscarves of teal and peach, and the men by their white caps. Saifuddin, too, wears a headscarf.
Regent Bonnie Reiss, who is Jewish and served on the selection committee, addressed Saifuddin’s family, saying, “Congratulations on raising a remarkable young woman who has the courage to stand up for what she believes in. There are many Americans who passionately support Israel, myself among them. … The committee would not have selected her if we thought she was anti-Semitic.”
After the unanimous vote, with Blum’s absention, Saifuddin took a seat on the board beside Flores.
At the lunch break, she faced reporters.
“I hope my leadership is seen in a wider perspective,” she said, noting that her divestment activities had been on behalf of a campus advocacy group called the Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian Coalition.”I think the position on divestment is irrelevant. It may be my personal opinion, but that has nothing to do with my work as a student regent.”
Her main goals on the board will be improving student access to financial aid and making campuses more tolerable for all students, she said, describing herself as an “activist against hate speech.”
Blum sought her out after the vote, and they agreed to meet for lunch.
— Reach Nanette Asimov at email@example.com