UC Regents OK Muslim Student, Despite Anti-Israel Concerns

UC Berkeley senior Sadia Saifuddin is first practicing Muslim to hold the post

The University of California Regents on Wednesday voted to appoint the first Muslim student to its board, despite vocal criticism from some Jewish groups who say her views on Israel verge on being anti-Semitic.

After the vote in San Francisco, however, Sadia Saifuddin, 21,  a social welfare student at UC Berkeley, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Saifuddin said after the meeting that she hopes people will look beyond some of her political activity to other things she has done.

"I'm really excited," she told NBC Bay Area after the vote. "And I'm not anti-Semitic." 

She said her views on Israel and human rights should have nothing to do with her role as a student Regent, where her top priorities are making financial aid more accessible to students and curbing tuition fee hikes.

The Pakistani-American from Stockton is the first practicing Muslim to hold this post. She was picked from a field of 30 applicants to serve on the UC Board of Regents during the 2014-15 academic year.

Her nomination had been vigorously opposed by some Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the pro-Israel group StandWithUs and conservative commentator David Horowitz. They have all said they oppose her not because she is Muslim but because they say some of her student political activities as a student senator and member of the Muslim Students Association at Berkeley disqualify her from representing the UC system's more than 222,000 students.

Her supporters, however, argue that she is a bridge-builder, and point out that the criticism comes from far-flung fringe groups.

At the meeting, UC Regent Bonnie Reiss, who is Jewish and disagrees with Saifuddin's position on divesting from Israel, still voted for the "remarkable" student. Reiss said: "The committee would not have selected Sadia as student Regent if we thought she was anti-Semitic."

Regent Richard Blum, who is Jewish and married to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was the only non-yes vote. He abstained, saying he was concerned about the divisiveness caused by the divestment measure.

No one on either side, though, seems to dispute the activities she has engaged in, including the fact that she supports divesting from Israel.
Saifuddin co-sponsored a bill calling for the divestment of university funds from companies with economic ties to the Israeli military or Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and she authored a resolution condemning a UC Santa Cruz lecturer who had linked the Muslim Students Association with terrorism "for inciting racist and Islamophobic rhetoric."

In April, she wrote an op-ed piece - free of anti-Israel vitriol - for the Daily Cal voicing her support for the student body voting to divest from funds from companies committing human rights violations in the Palestinian territorities.

MORE: Sadia Saifuddin's Op-Ed in Daily Cal

It's her activities, not her faith, that sparked the concerns from some Jewish groups.
"We think an appropriate Muslim candidate could have been and would be a wonderful student regent,"  Aron Hier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's director of campus outreach, told the Associated Press before the vote. "This has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with opportunism and championing things she cares about on the one hand and trampling on things other people care about on the other."
In addition, Horowitz and Jeffrey Wienir wrote an open letter to the UC Regents in June voicing their worries about her, as she has engaged in "Israeli Apartheid Weeks" and has been an active participant in the boycott of Israel, a move many Jews feel is anti-Semitic.

However, Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco-Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Santa Clara, Calif., attended the Regents meeting in San Francisco in support of Saifuddin. "The vote was well deserved," she said afterward.

Billoo told NBC Bay Area that critics have attacked the young student activist for being "divisive," but in all the vetting of her, most have found her to be a "bridge-builder."
Saifuddin has described herself as an advocate for students.
"I'm looking forward to learning about different students and their struggles, having conversations with them and doing the best I can to help," she said. "I'm in a very privileged position in that I'm able to give back and make sure that the people who come after me have the same opportunities I had."

Her blog contains nothing that is anti-Israel. Started in May 2012, the blog has just a few entries, including a message to students to vote for Prop. 30 and to pass a resolution condemning Islamophobic hate speech at UC.

Jonathan Stein, a Berkeley law school graduate who recently completed a one-year term as the UC student regent and was part of the five-member committee that recommended Saifuddin, told the Associated Press that Saifuddin's critics have overlooked her work to build bridges. He cited her work bringing Muslim and Jewish students together during the divestment debate and founding the Berkeley campus' first interfaith worship space.
"The really negative response that's come, that has characterized Sadia as extremist, intolerant, I guarantee that is coming from people who have never met her in person," Stein said. "She is, in fact, an incredibly mature, thoughtful, tolerant person."

And not all Jewish groups oppose her either. The ultra-liberal group, Jewish Voice for Peace, tweeted a "Mazel Tov" after her appointment.

On Wednesday before the vote, when school was out because of summer break, there was little to no buzz on campus regarding her election. And there were only a handful of critics who attended the Regents meeting. Some Cal students noted that many people on the ultra-liberal campus participate in Israel boycott activities, no matter what their faith. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a regular flashpoint for students and faculty members at the University of California.

 As student regent-designate, Saifuddin will participate in meetings but won't be able to cast votes during the school year that begins this fall. She is the 40th student regent. She will be replacing Cinthia Flores, a law student at UC Irvine.

Saifuddin realizes that she is now getting a lot more attention than Flores did, because she's the first Muslim voted to the student post who holds politics that some find offensive.

"I sort of expected this," she said. "But I didn't expect it to be so overwhelming. It's kind of weird."

Lisa Leff of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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