In the summer of 2014, Milstein got involved in student government elections at the University of California, Los Angeles. Earlier that year, UCLA’s student government had voted against a resolution for the university to divest from U.S. companies with Israeli army contracts, a cause that pro-Israel activists vehemently opposed. (The school’s student council passed a divestment measure later that year.)
“It’s of extreme importance that they prevail vs. some anti-Israel, pro-BDS students that are competing against them.”
Through the UCLA Hillel, Milstein secretly donated $1,000 to the campaigns of two pro-Israel activists on campus, Avi Oved and Avinoam Baral, who had opposed that measure. The activists asked Milstein to reach out to other pro-Israel donors to contribute to the campaigns of their election slate as well. Milstein’s involvement came to light through leaked emails published by UCLA’s student newspaper.
“It’s of extreme importance that they prevail vs. some anti-Israel, pro-BDS students that are competing against them,” Milstein wrote. In response, Oved thanked him and pledged to stand up against BDS initiatives at the student council.
The revelation of Milstein’s funding rocked the campus, angering students who thought that it was wrong for an outside donor with a committed ideological agenda to secretly fund a student election campaign. That anger was compounded by Milstein’s repeated posts on Twitter, where he scoffed at President Barack Obama’s declaration that Islam is a “religion of peace,” accused Obama of “cuddling up to Islam,” and said the president wanted to destroy America.
“Students had their campaigns funded by outside donors, and nobody knew who they were and what their agenda was,” said Rahim Kurwa, who at the time was a board member for UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, and is now a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “They were making a mockery and sham of any normal democratic process.”
Milstein’s involvement in UCLA student politics extended to funding California college student trips to the AIPAC conference, one pro-Israel advocate from California familiar with Milstein’s work told The Intercept. A Jewish UCLA student at the time also familiar with Milstein’s work said that Milstein invited pro-Israel students over to his house in a wealthy LA suburb to schmooze with his pro-Israel donor friends. The gatherings were meant to give students a chance to request donations for campus elections and to meet potential mentors for future professional connections, establishing a pro-Israel pipeline from UCLA to post-graduate jobs.
“He found his niche. He wanted to be the guy, and that was a space that was relatively untapped and he could have a huge impact,” the California pro-Israel advocate said.
While the student election funding disclosure cast a harsh spotlight on Milstein, he did not step away from campus Israel politics. Instead, he dived deeper into them — and, of late, has poured money into efforts that target individual students who speak out for Palestinian rights.
THE ISRAEL ON Campus Coalition, or ICC, which coordinates with the Israeli government and targets progressive students with secretive online campaigns, has been an outlet for Milstein’s efforts to stifle pro-Palestinian speech at universities. He is a director on the group’s board, according to the coalition’s website as of December 2018, as well as its most recent tax filing, and his foundation has given the group $115,000 since 2010. The ICC did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
The coalition’s stated aim is to coordinate the pro-Israel campus activism of a wide array of groups, but it has carried out some of its operations in secrecy. Investigative reporting, however, mostly by The Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis, has exposed the coalition’s advocacy work.
Last September, The Forward revealed that the coalition had secretly monitored a workshop organized by Open Hillel, a group of progressive Jewish students seeking to change how Hillel, the major campus Jewish group, operates by getting the student group to include perspectives in favor of Palestinian rights at campus events.
“These donors are really scared that Jewish students will attend colleges across the country and start having nuanced conversations on Israel-Palestine,” said Eva Ackerman, Open Hillel’s national organizer.
The Forward, along with ProPublica, also reported on how the ICC ran a Facebook ad campaign in 2016 accusing Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet, of “violence and hate.” The ICC did not disclose its involvement with the ad campaign, which appeared to have been the work of students at the campuses Kanazi was visiting for performances at the time.
Perhaps most disturbing for campus activists, The Forward exposed how the ICC operates the group SJP Uncovered, which accuses the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine of anti-Semitism, racism, and terrorism, and trawls through the social media pages of college students involved in Palestinian rights work. SJP Uncovered has gone as far as comparing Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights to the Ku Klux Klan. Much like Canary Mission, another anonymous blacklist website, the ICC plasters students’ names and faces on SJP Uncovered’s website, Twitter, and Facebook pages, often taking quotes out of context and fueling online harassment of students. (Milstein is said to be a funder of Canary Mission, according to an undercover investigation by Al Jazeera, though he has denied the allegation. Eric Gallagher, the former pro-Israel advocate who said Milstein funded Canary Mission in the documentary, told Milstein that Al Jazeera had selectively edited his quote to make it appear he was saying Milstein backed the blacklist.)
PS You can access the censored Al Jazeera documentary “The Lobby,” featuring undercover exposes of the people running pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian advocacy in the US via this website: