In April 2015, I enthusiastically accepted a position as Melnitz Movies co-director, before being appointed as director at beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year. Even though I had enrolled in UCLA to become a film scholar, I could not resist the lure of film programming and curating central to directing Melnitz Movies.
Serving as Melnitz Movies director, entailed participating in the Graduate Student Association governing body, including voting on initiatives, expenditures and resolutions. One such resolution was the “neutrality clause,” on which GSA voted on via an online Doodle poll, on Oct. 24. This resolution, not discussed in cabinet meetings this academic year, stated, “Under this resolution, the UCLA GSA – as a governing body – will abstain from taking any stances or engaging in any discussion in regards to Israel-Palestine politics.” I was immediately suspicious of this clause; it was vague and fraught. Moreover, I was concerned about how it would affect my programming of films for Melnitz Movies. During my tenure, I programmed a variety of films, none Israeli or Palestinian, not by design, but because none was presented to me as I sought titles. Yet, what if I were presented with such a film?
I phoned the president of GSA Milan Chatterjee within an hour of receiving the “neutrality clause” poll, since he had sent its notice. Milan convinced me to approve of the resolution on the basis of pragmatics. He persuasively argued that adopting such a resolution would prevent GSA from dealing with an exceedingly contentious and sensitive issue. The argument was that this would allow the GSA to avoid likely distraction from tasks and duties that it was responsible for carrying out. I reluctantly voted to endorse it.
This neutrality clause was then amended into a more elaborate statement, on Nov. 23. Again, the GSA received a communication from Chatterjee to cast a “very urgent” Doodle vote. We were not invited to discuss this amended resolution, but to urgently vote on it. I refused to vote under the applied duress. On Nov. 24, the GSA held a cabinet meeting in which it discussed the neutrality clause in its original and amended forms and a member mentioned that the GSA had adopted the neutrality clause based on discussions in the previous 2014-2015 academic year to address the movement to divest from companies profiting from the Occupied Territories. I responded to say that if I had known that this was the basis of the resolution I would have never voted for it. Not only was the clause vague, especially in its original form, but it was also duplicitous.
Why did Chatterjee not tell me about the discussions from the previous year, considering our lengthy phone conversation? I believe that this had to do with my origin, because he assumed that I would resist endorsing it. Chatterjee had resisted holding the GSA cabinet meeting of Nov. 24, writing, “It’s not worth our time to meet as a board.” I insisted that the meeting take place and therein insisted that Chatterjee disclose his emails to the Diversity Caucus that served as the basis for the letter of American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, a letter whose following observations I corroborate: one, Chatterjee’s emails single out pro-divestment groups in articulating the GSA governing body’s adopted neutrality clause, thereby misrepresenting it; two, the GSA was invited to vote on the neutrality clause in a poll titled “GSA Poll to Abstain from Israel-Palestine Politics” on Oct. 24, well after Chatterjee’s emails to the Diversity Caucus, dated Oct. 16 and Oct. 18. Thus, Chatterjee communicated a resolution on behalf of the GSA governing body before he had received our votes necessary for its official adoption. Instead of discussing the noted letter’s content with the group, Chatterjee elected to defend himself in the press, invoking the GSA willy-nilly without consulting the governing body first.
Acknowledging the maelstrom that has fomented recently involving GSA, its governing body has determined to undertake procedural improvements and outreach. However, this is not enough to palliate the deception I experienced nor to undo my ill-advised endorsement of an insidious policy of bias couched in the parisology of neutrality. This ardent Palestinian has thus withdrawn. I have resigned as director of Melnitz Movies, with it the express offer to perform interim duties, as well as to assist in hiring a new director. Melnitz Movies is a storied and special program, and I am proud to have been a part of it.
I wish to conclude with three points for the benefit of the UCLA community: GSA’s neutrality clause is a duplicitous, disingenuous resolution that cannot be rehabilitated in any form. Second, Chatterjee’s recent duplicitous actions are inexcusable and signify the need to check the powers of the GSA president. Third, I am convinced that the current GSA governing body is committed to serving UCLA graduate students. It is a body populated by talented and devoted individuals that have and continue to do valuable work. I look forward to learning about the GSA’s future successes.
Ghawanmeh is a cinema and media studies graduate student and a former director of Graduate Student Association Melnitz Movies.