Media reports whitewash the facts behind the Olive Tree Initiative -- and its powerful supporters.
Last week, a troubling article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a shady student organization run primarily through the University of California, Irvine that is rapidly spreading. The subject of intense criticism, the OTI has been infiltrated by (among others) activists from the terrorism-supporting International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and has sent students to meet with a leader of Hamas. Even so, what appeared in the Post does little to hold the organization accountable -- or its powerful supporters in the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC).
The OTI has been covered extensively at FrontPage, most recently in an article detailing a 2009 student trip to Israel and the West Bank on which students met with one of the foremost leaders of Hamas, Aziz Duwaik (trips to Israel to meet with “dialogue partners” are a central function of the program). The meeting occurred just months after Duwaik’s release from Israeli custody. Afterward, students were told to coverup the meeting and to essentially deceive officials in order to avoid trouble crossing borders and leaving the country. A spokeswoman from UC Irvine told FrontPage that there was no investigation into the incident that she knew of, nor has there been any evidence of an investigation subsequently. That is to say, neither the university nor the OTI’s funders have shown any interest in understanding the OTI’s dealings with Hamas, and in particular, how it is possible that the OTI arranged this meeting and what internal connections brought it about. (Duwaik, incidentally, was detained again in May by the Israeli Defense Force.)
The fact that there was no investigation is most puzzling, as JFOC sent a letter to Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake ostensibly insisting that an investigation be preformed. Yet with no investigation conducted, the federation continues its support.
Also in the absence of an investigation, only a matter of weeks after the Hamas meeting was made known to Drake, University of California President Mark Yudof donated $5000 to the OTI via the Lumina Foundation for Education. This was followed in May 2010 with a $2000 award to the OTI by Yudof for the university’s Presidential Leadership Award. For such generous support, the university has been woefully remiss.
But OTI students typically meet with an abundance of radical anti-Israel activist who are just as objectionable as Duwaik. Explaining the JFOC’s enduring support, federation president and CEO Shalom Elcott told the Post, “We could all agree that we don’t love all the speakers, but we have to work with American Jews to develop a greater understanding about how important that diversity of opinions in Israel is. Our job is to work with OTI and open the door to the best possible teachers and people who know the facts on the ground and make sure they’re engaged on the trip” (emphasis added).
To be clear, Elcott’s definition of the “best possible teachers and people who know the facts on the ground” includes: George S. and George N. Rishmawi, both co-founders of the ISM, a group that openly endorses Palestinian terrorism; Mazim Qumsiyeh, a leading figure and co-founder of the economic warfare movement against Israel (BDS), who also promotes the anti-Semitic lie that Israel, the only non-apartheid nation in the Middle East, is an apartheid state comparable to Nazi Germany (which also causes all wars in the region); UN Gaza refugee director John Ging, who has accused Israel of creating a humanitarian crisis and supports the foreign flotilla assaults on the Gaza blockade; representatives from organizations such as Ir Amim, which has accused Israel of pursing policies of “Judaization;” representatives from Human Rights Watch, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes and various human rights abuses; and numerous others.
What about these impeccable “facts on the ground” that Elcott extolls? In 2010, George S. Rishmawi outrageously told students that “Israeli soldiers would fire and spray bullets randomly at Palestinian civilians in their homes,” one OTI participant recorded. The participant, who is in fact supportive of the OTI, then caught Rishmawi in another lie. Rishmawi, fumbling for an explanation, claimed that Palestinians sometimes fire guns “into the air...as a sign of resistance.” Actually -- the student cornered Rishmawi into admitting -- Palestinians sometimes fire directly at IDF officers, to which the provocateurs receive the appropriate response. There is simply no positive way to spin these facts: what Elcott and the JFOC consider “diverse opinions” are repulsive lies meant to incite hatred and justify Palestinian violence toward Israelis.
This same OTI participant, on the same 2010 trip, was also left with the distinct impression that George S. Rishmawi promotes violence. The young sojourner wrote (emphasis added):
[M]y biggest problem with individuals like George is their emphasis on being a “peace” activist. George, for instance, claims that he is a non-violent peace activist, however in the same breath he maintains that if his peace is not realized within a year (mentioned above) there is no point in peace and drastic steps must – no – will be taken.
The extent of the Rishmawis’ involvement in the OTI program and its development is immensely curious and disconcerting (remember, these are ISM, Palestinian-terrorism supporting activists). The Centre for New Diplomacy (CFND), a Swedish NGO that does work in Israel, lists the OTI as one of its programs, asserting that it began as a “partnership programme” in 2007 with UC Irvine. One of the George Rishmawis works -- or did, at least -- as a CFND “coordinator for Palestine.” Most compellingly, George S. Rishmawi previously did work for the Holy Land Trust circa 2004 on what was called the “Olive Harvest Encounter.” As you can probably guess, the Olive Harvest Encounter was another fellow-traveller “dialogue” program that distinguished itself by focusing on the “persecution” and land confiscation of Palestinians by the Israeli government. The group even alleged that members of a particular family faced threats to their lives. Both Rishmawis have been involved in OTI programming every year from at least 2008-2010, and George S. was brought to UC Irvine in November of 2010 by the OTI as a speaker. The Rishmawis’ role in the development of the OTI must be investigated. Considering what we already know of them, it is obscene that they are a part of the program at all.
As to the claim of “balance” frequently touted by OTI supporters and repeated in The Jerusalem Post without scrutiny, a simple look at an OTI itinerary shows that this is not the case. Itineraries show a preponderance of extreme anti-Israelism (including an over-representation of BDS supporters) and Palestinian-exclusive narrative. UC Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who analyzed the 2010 itinerary, asserted that an “overwhelming majority [of speakers] have expressed an overt animus towards” Israel, which she objected to in a letter to Elcott in 2010. In 2009, students were in the Israel region almost five days before they encountered a pro-Israel speaker even remotely comparable to the level of anti-Israel indoctrination they received. Students’ initial impressions of Israeli-Palestinian relations were shaped by: the two Rishmawis; Mazin Qumsiyeh; Zoughbi Zoughbi, an anti-occupation activist and BDS supporter; a Palestinian whose son was killed by the IDF; a Bethlehem resident “affected by the wall,” and a tour of a refugee camp.
The JFOC has also been dishonest in the disclosure of its funding of the OTI. The federation has publicly denied that it provides significant funding to the program. In December of 2010, Jeff Margolis, co-chair of the federation’s Rose Project (through which the federation says it funds the OTI), told Pajamas Media that the project provides “nominal” funding of the OTI, and Margolis told the Post that the federation was “only one of a number of sponsors.” But in fact, the federation letter to Chancellor Drake regarding the Hamas meeting identifies the federation as the “largest funder” of the OTI and further describes the federation as being central to the program’s development. Moreover, documents recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Rose Project has given tens of thousands of dollars to the OTI in the last several years. Notably, in the Post article, neither Elcott nor Margolis denied that Jewish communal funds have been used to fund the program, as Post editor Caroline Glick alluded to in a recent column. The use of communal philanthropic funds has been a major bone of contention for opponents of the OTI, and is a characterization that the federation has objected to. In all reality, however, the issue of communal fund use is largely moot, as any support whatsoever for the program is objectionable.
The purpose of the OTI is clear for anyone with eyes to see: by taking the most anti-Israel of the anti-Israel fringe and putting it on par and in such considerable proportion to mainstream views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the OTI seeks to render virulent anti-Israelism mainstream by association. And contrary to what the OTI claims, where these insidious views are provided a legitimate platform, the public discourse drastically degenerates and naked anti-Semitism thrives. The campus at UC Irvine, home to Israeli Apartheid Week, provides an overwhelmingly hospitable environment for these anti-Israel views, and has been identified as a center of anti-Semitic activity by the Anti-Defamation League. It is not coincidental that the university put itself on the map last year when students associated with the school’s Muslim Student Union attempted to shout-down a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, defaming him and his country with outlandish accusations of genocide. On May 31, the Chabad House at UC Irivine, home to the rabbi and his wife, was vandalized, its front window smashed. The perpetrators remain unknown; the environment that enabled them is not.
[A pledge to prevent Jewish federation funding of BDS-related activity has been developed in response to the Olive Tree Initiative. To view the pledge, click here.]