Photo courtesy of Austin Yu / Daily Bruin Senior Staff
Ha’Am, as well as many major national media outlets, have discussed ad nauseam the anti-Semitic comments and/or troubling voting record of USAC council members Fabienne Roth, Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed, Sofia Moreno Haq and Manjot Singh in the Rachel Beyda appointment fiasco. For those living under a rock, on Feb. 10, 2015, at the weekly Undergraduate Student Association Council meeting, the aforementioned student government representatives initially voted to oppose President Avinoam Baral’s nomination of Rachel Beyda to the school’s judicial board, contending that her Jewish identity posed a “conflict of interest” and that it constituted an impediment to her ability to remain objective.
The extensive news coverage this imbroglio has (rightfully) received has embarrassed this university and the student government which claims to represent it. With public threats from donors to reconsider their generosity and widespread labeling of UCLA as an ‘anti-Semitic university,’ the dissemination of the circumstances of this scandal has stained the otherwise sterling reputation of UCLA.
But of all the repercussions to result from the balloon into which this story has blown up, perhaps none presents as big a potential impact as the one yet to unfold. And of all of the details reported from that meeting, perhaps none means more to next year’s UCLA undergraduate experience than the one still untold.
Because on that evening, Morris Sarafian served as a proxy to External Vice President Conrad Contreras, who could not make the meeting. With his recent announcement of his candidacy for the presidency of the USAC on the Let’s Act slate, Sarafian hopes his time sitting at that table on that chilly February night will not be his last. As the director of Bruin Lobby Corps and a non-voting member of the University of California Student Association board, Sarafian has leadership experience that certainly seems to qualify him as a fitting proxy for Contreras, and perhaps even as a fitting candidate for student government.
But with his words from that evening, Sarafian called into question his own credentials. Because as Contreras’ proxy at that Feb. 10 USAC meeting, Sarafian, too, implicitly questioned whether Rachel Beyda’s Jewish identity rendered her incapable of serving faithfully on the judicial board. Luckily for him, his comments went largely unnoticed and/or unreported because his proxy status disqualified him from voting, the procedure around which many media outlets oriented their news coverage.
Indeed, while the aforementioned four council members received the brunt of public outcry, Sarafian was arguably just as deserving of it, yet received none of it. After Beyda was asked to define a conflict of interest by a council member, and did so by calling it an “invested interest in the outcome of a judicial board case,” Sarafian asked her whether she has “any certain specific political affiliations that might in any way constitute that sort of conflict of interest.” In response, Beyda repeatedly explained that her presidency of the Jewish sorority — a religious, cultural and ethnic involvement — does not constitute a political affiliation, but these efforts did not appease Sarafian.
Of course, the aforementioned four council members protested with similar comments and pointed questions, but they at least issued a (half-hearted) public apology to the Jewish community, while Sarafian has not done so as publicly.
In order to hear his perspective, Ha’Am reached out to Sarafian to inquire whether he had any interest in discussing, clarifying and apologizing for the comments he made at the meeting.
In response to a question about his inexcusable conflation of Beyda’s religious identity and political affiliation, Sarafian told Ha’Am that he is “not anti-Semitic in [his] beliefs, perspectives and ideology,” but that he understands how in retrospect, his comments could “look anti-Semitic,” even though his questions “were not [actually] anti-Semitic.” He continued that he has “issued apologies to the Jewish community,” and that his Armenian heritage helps him understand the Jewish narrative, especially that which pertains to Jewish oppression and genocide.
Still, Sarafian’s comments at the February council meeting actually extended further and deeper than those made by the other four council members, except for Fabienne Roth. Indeed, Sarafian was the first and only commentator to introduce the notion that Beyda’s conflict of interest could involve “divided loyalties” she might secretly harbor. Of course, the stereotype of the Jew having divided loyalties is an anti-Semitic trope that oppressors have used as a pretext for the persecution, ostracism and even genocide of the Jewish people throughout history. This, obviously, does not in any way equate Sarafian with those oppressors, but it is worth mentioning to underscore the gravity of implicitly leveling such an accusation.
Sarafian even implied that Beyda intentionally “kept giving big [and circuitous answers as to what constitutes a conflict of interest],” and that “[her answer] kind of shows me that maybe she hasn’t done the right homework.” Going even further, he admitted that he “feel[s] like it would have been much better if she gave us the definition that is the honest truth.” Of course, much like the stereotype of “divided loyalties,” the stereotype of Jews as dishonest or underhanded has historically both motivated and justified the horrible maltreatment of the Jewish people.
Interestingly, Sarafian did not introduce these types of comments — which attempted desperately to find fault in an otherwise perfectly qualified candidate — until after a faculty adviser pointed out that his previous comments expressing concern were based entirely on Beyda’s religious identity. Searching for any remotely legitimate reason to reject the nomination of a student with a 3.9 GPA, clerkship experience and ample leadership potential, Sarafian seemed to have realized that he had to locate a politically correct cloak to shroud his real concerns: her religious identity. To be clear, he seems to have worried not about her religious identity per se, but about her religious identity in its supposed association with a political affiliation she does not hold. Thus, ironically, in searching for a more legitimate reason to discredit Beyda, Sarafian employed arguments that more obviously reflected his prejudice, and consequently provided more legitimate reasons for others to discredit him.
Although Sarafian told Ha’Am that he supports divestment from companies allegedly perpetrating human rights violations in Israel, he also argued that divestment has nothing to do with this issue or anti-Semitism in general. Still, it seems he may be unaware, or unwilling to seriously consider, that the push for divestment drove this anti-Semitic line of questioning in the first place.
Ultimately, Sarafian’s comments indicate that at best, he lacks a fundamental understanding of the history, heritage and concerns of the Jewish population on campus — about 10 percent of the student population he seeks to represent. At worst, his comments — anti-Semitic in nature — may reflect that he harbors a more nuanced prejudice than can be detected on the surface. In speaking with Sarafian, he is clearly not a bigoted man, but still, his actions prove he is not fit to serve as the premier leader, student representative and face of the students at this university.