The 'Flytilla': Brought to You by Friends of the Olive Tree Initiative

The controversial UC Irvine program continues to discredit itself.

Evidence continues to mount over the nefarious nature of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a controversial student program that originated at the University of California, Irvine and is rapidly spreading to other campuses. Radical anti-Israel activists with long-standing involvement in the program have been identified as lead organizers of what has been dubbed the “flytilla,” a recent stunt aimed at putting the Israel delegitimization campaign back in the headlines. Sending young college students to meet with such Israel-hating extremists -- including a leader of the terrorist organization Hamas -- is what the OTI’s powerful patrons consider "holistic" education.

Of the numerous parties involved in the “flytilla,” more technically known as the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, two of them are associated with the OTI. The campaign’s purported objective was to inundate the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv with foreign activists ultimately destined for a week-long agitation event in Palestinian territory. The spectacle was also intended to coincide with the unsuccessful effort to sail a multi-national flotilla to the Gaza Strip. However, Israel refused entry to hundreds of known flytilla activists, achieving cooperation from airport personnel in other countries, who disallowed identified activists from boarding flights to Israel. Regardless, a deluge of activists were able to travel to Tel Aviv, some of whom were permitted entry into Israel upon arrival, although many were detained or sent back.

One of the key campaign organizers was the radical anti-Israel activist Mazin Qumsiyeh. Qumsiyeh, a PhD who previously taught at Yale, has served for the past three years as a speaker for the OTI. He travels the globe giving presentations against Israel, and commonly accuses the country’s government of being a Nazi regime, which previously collaborated with the Third Reich and killed twice as many Palestinians as are estimated to have died in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, he is a highly-esteemed figure among OTI participants.

Qumsiyeh’s involvement is perhaps best chronicled by the numerous mass emails he has sent out to his followers regarding the Welcome to Palestine campaign. For instance, on June 12, in reference to Welcome to Palestine, Qumsiyeh assured his acolytes in the “Palestinian American Congress” that he was “back in Palestine and busily working with dozens of volunteers (but we need more) on the July and other actions to challenge the system of [Israeli] apartheid.” Illustrative of his typical dementia, Qumsiyeh also told followers that a young Jewish American was “attacked by apartheid state mercenaries” for speaking out, presumably against Israel.  Qumsiyeh, it should be pointed out, works tirelessly to popularize the defamatory notion that Israel, the only non-apartheid, democratic country in the Middle East, is an “apartheid state.”

In a July 7th email, while again extolling the Welcome to Palestine campaign, Qumsiyeh promised that afterward, “We will plan bigger and more dramatic events in the months to come.” And in response to Israel’s largely successful attempt to thwart Welcome to Palestine, Qumsiyeh told followers that “Israeli policies towards anything or anyone relating to ‘Palestinians’” are “dictatorial, racist, and criminal and not complying with basic elements of democracy or human rights.” He also accused Israel of attempting to “isolate and imprison Palestinians.”

These diatribes are typical of Mazin Qumsiyeh. He is not neutral, nor does he pretend to be. He is a man working night and day to bring about an end to Israel through a worldwide public relations program to paint Israel as a racist, militant, and colonialist state. That mission is clearly being fulfilled through his work with the OTI. For example, in a 2009 OTI program booklet titled “Expressions/Impressions,” one student recorded the valuable message he learned from Qumsiyeh (emphasis added):

Rhetoric, [Qumsiyeh] explains, is key to framing the conflict, and regardless of the truth behind the terms, what matters is how we invoke a response and convey our message.

What is meant by “rhetoric,” of course, is maliciously contrived, thoroughly invented demonizing propaganda, the truth behind which this particular student observer was not interested in ascertaining. Instead, the student wrote, he learned to “respect that rhetoric” and that “emotions and suffering becomes more important than fact[.]”

To date, three groups of students from UCI (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other) have traveled to Israel and the West Bank to meet with both sides of the conflict. However, evidence has shown over the course of the last three years that this venture is heavily weighted with radical anti-Israelism and Palestinian whitewashing. This includes extensive, ongoing involvement with two co-founders of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), another group that participated in Welcome to Palestine and which also happens to endorse Palestinian terrorism. These two particular co-founders, George S. Rishmawi and George N. Rishmawi, have served as OTI speakers and guides for at least the last three years. According to one OTI participant’s account, George S. Rishmawi, promotes violence.

The ISM was also the signatory of a Welcome to Palestine appeal for participation published on one of the campaign's affiliated sites. The statement itself scarcely conceals its contempt for Israel’s right to exist. It asserts that Israeli “colonial authorities are implementing their racist apartheid policies throughout historic palestine” and that “ethnic cleansing and killing/injuring civilians are just some of the many violations of basic human rights.” The statement then declared that the campaign’s purpose was to challenge the Israeli “siege of the whole of palestine.”

Perhaps the most egregious misstep made by the OTI occurred in September 2009, when students met with Aziz Duwaik, one of the most prominent leaders of Hamas, just months after he was released from Israeli custody. The OTI also attempted to coverup the meeting, which it did successfully until it was exposed in early 2011.

Nevertheless, the OTI remains sponsored by UC Irvine and, indeed, is a favored project of University of California President Mark Yudof.  Most shockingly, the program’s self-professed “largest funder” is the Orange County Jewish Federation (OCJF), which has provided the OTI with tens of thousands of dollars through its Rose Project. In the face of enormous criticism, the OCJF refuses to withdraw support for the OTI. This has prompted a community response under the aegis of Ha'Emet (“the truth”) to urge other Jewish federations to pledge to disassociate from all delegitimization activity, including BDS, or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

With another trip being organized for September into this increasingly volatile region, who knows what the next OTI delegation will encounter. It is doubly concerning that the very individuals involved in the OTI are responsible for fomenting this volatility through their hate campaigns. As for those recalcitrantly sponsoring the OTI, it is high time they examine where their sentiments lie. The OTI is accomplishing nothing more than enabling and giving credibility to the Mazin Qumsiyehs of the world.

Gary Fouse, an adjunct teacher at UC-Irvine Ext. and retiree from the Drug Enforcement Administration, contributed to this report.