The psychological war against Israel is silently securing a foothold in the U.S. before our very eyes. The latest example is a controversial student program known as the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), which has bamboozled many peace-minded individuals, even those in the usually vigilant Jewish community. While masquerading as a “bridge-building” enterprise, the OTI’s history and ongoing activities show it to be closely affiliated with virulently anti-Israel activists, who openly condone violence and are devoted to the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish State. Controversy has mounted over the Jewish Federation of Orange County’s decision to give funding for Jewish students to participate in OTI programming, which, all reports suggest, it has no intention of discontinuing. This leaves many to worry about the inroads radical front groups have made into the mainstream, and the likelihood that such acceptance will spread.
Formed in 2007, the OTI claims to promote peace and a fair understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by providing a platform where both Israelis and Palestinians can engage in dialogue. It preforms information-sharing and awareness activities, often in the form of panel discussions and speaking events. It also organizes trips for students to visit Israel and disputed territories, one of its major “bridge-building” functions. Yet, many OTI speakers and organizers involved in the Israel trips show that the group’s interest in fairness and balance is extremely disingenuous.
In a December 2010 letter to the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the Hillel Foundation, Dr. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the University of California - Santa Cruz provided an assessment of groups and speakers involved in the OTI’s student trips. Of these parties, Dr. Rossman-Benjamin explained, “an overwhelming majority have expressed an overt animus towards the Jewish state.” According to Dr. Rossman-Benjamin, over a third of the speakers representing the Palestinian side promote boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) strategies against Israel, while others call for Israel’s elimination or are allied with violent, anti-Semitic terrorist groups.
The preponderance of BDS supporters involved with the OTI should not be overlooked. Central to BDS campaigns is the assumption that the country being inveighed against, in this case Israel, is so fundamentally oppressive toward marginalized groups, that the ordinary political process is ineffective. This assumption serves to delegitimize the authority of the oppressive state (think disobeying an “unjust” law) and to justify extreme measures taken by the oppressed group. For instance, many of the advocates of BDS strategies against Israel liken the Jewish State to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, a completely false imputation that recklessly demonizes the county. One such advocate and OTI speaker is Diana Buttu, a Canadian-Palestinian lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 2008, following the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip (initiated by Hamas rocket attacks against Israel) Buttu claimed in a Fox News interview that Israel used the inauguration of President Barack Obama as an opportunity to “go into the Gaza Strip and kill Palestinians.” When the interviewer, Greg Jarrett, asked Buttu if the terrorist group Hamas shared any culpability in the war’s bloodshed, she responded, “Absolutely not. You are blaming the victim.” She then went on to accuse Israel of “war crimes,” for which it should be prosecuted.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the OTI’s association with Palestinian extremism. Irvine community member Dee Sterling became embroiled in the situation when she discovered that the OTI had sponsored George S. Rishmawi to speak at the University of California - Irvine in November 2010 and that the event had been promoted by the Jewish student president of the university’s Hillel group. Rishmawi has been very active in the OTI and is the cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a very controversial and notoriously anti-Israel organization. It has long been known that the ISM approves of violence against Israel and cooperates with anti-Semitic terrorist organizations. Two of its other cofounders, Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, told the Palestinian Chronicle in 2002, “We accept that Palestinians have a right to resist with arms” and that resistance “must take on a variety of characteristics—both non-violent and violent.” The ISM’s own website states, “We recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggles.” The ISM has also admitted that it cooperates with terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as affirmed by the Washington Post in 2006.
Lee Kaplan, undercover investigative journalist with expertise in the ISM, says that the group was founded under the guidance of a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Kaplan has reported much of his research to the Israeli government, which has used the information to help develop ways of counteracting the ISM’s support of terrorism. Kaplan was also appalled to discover Rishmawi’s involvement in the OTI and his presence at UC Irvine. He, too, has documented Rishmawi’s extensive involvement with organizations, such as Al-Awda, which are animated by a desire to dismantle the Jewish State through violence and to demonize it into de-legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. In essence, as Kaplan aptly described, groups like Rishmawi’s ISM are not at all interested in dialogue, but in conducting “economic and propaganda warfare” against Israel. Likewise, BDS strategies, which the OTI has a pronounced association with, is no less a form of economic warfare.
The list of OTI’s despicable speakers and other associations extend well beyond Rishmawi. Dr. Rossman-Benjamin’s original letter to the Jewish Federation of Orange County lists a host of others -- and these are only from the OTI’s trip to Israel in 2010. Sam Bahour, a well-known Palestinian activist, has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and supports BDS; the group Breaking the Silence promotes the libelous Israeli “war crimes” meme and has been criticized by the Israeli police for “antagoniz[ing]...settlers in the hope that the settlers will attack them.” Mazin Qumsiyeh, co-founder of Al-Awda (a Palestinian group that opposes Israel’s existence and supports the covert dismantling strategy known as the Palestinian “right of return”) and an early advocate of the BDS movement, is known for his interchangeable use of “Israel” with “apartheid South Africa” and “Nazi Germany.” He also promotes the well-worn anti-Semitic canard that “Zionists” control American foreign policy and he rejects the possibility of a two-state solution -- extreme even in terms of extremists.
It is not uncommon for impressionable students who participate in OTI’s Israel trips to come back harboring radically negative views about the country because of the misinformation they have been exposed to. According to Dr. Rossman-Benjamin, after visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, one such student blogged: "I will never understand how Israel offers Jews from the diaspora a right of return from 4,000 years ago, and denies Palestinians the right of return from 60 years ago. The math feels racist." Dee Sterling, who has set up the website www.ha-emet.com on the OTI controversy and has helped craft a petition demanding that the Jewish Federation stop supporting the OTI, has had similar experiences. One student related to Dee that he thought Mazin Qumsiyeh was a nice person and claimed Ms. Sterling would like Qumsiyeh if she knew him. Hearing this disturbed Dee a great deal, knowing the full extent of Qumsiyeh’s views; clearly something the student was not aware of.
Thus, the outrage over the OTI is twofold: first, the organization’s entanglement with individuals such as George S. Rishmawi and Mazin Qumsiyeh is highly problematic in the sense that, not only does the OTI provide a platform for their vicious misinformation and propaganda, but by simply extending these individuals a seat at the table, their views are elevated to the status of legitimate dialogue. However, George S. Rishmawi is not interested in dialogue. Neither are the numerous other OTI-affiliated individuals who share his cause. They traffic solely in Palestinian propaganda and the incitement of absolutist anti-Israelism. Their entire raison d'être is the delegitimization of Israel and the conversion of supporters to that cause. Secondly, sending young Jewish students into the arms of individuals who are behind organizations like the ISM, who have forsaken dialogue by their commitment to warfare (of one kind or another) against Israel, is simply setting students up for indoctrination of the worst possible kind. It should be no surprise that students come away from the program with a new appreciation of the systemic “racism” of Israel, or that the people who spread this narrative are really “nice” once you get to know them.
It should also be no surprise that where the views of Israel-demonizers have been brought into legitimate debate, the discourse has accordingly become more acerbic and hateful. This, in fact, has proven true at UC Irvine. In 2010, a talk by Michael Oren, ambassador of Israel to the U.S., was momentarily overtaken by a mob of anti-Israel students, who had to be forcibly removed from the event -- but not before hurling accusations of Israeli-perpetrated genocide and intimidation the ambassador into silence. The incident made national news and disgraced the university. UC Irvine is part of a growing number of colleges hosting the misinformation campaign known as “Israel Apartheid Week” and whose student governments are considering divestment of university funds from Israel, a process in which external anti-Israeli organizations are often actively involved.
More than mere anti-Israelism, these “Israel Apartheid Weeks” are often harbingers of naked anti-Semitism -- sometimes in such an extreme form, it bears comparison to the darkest eras of Jew-hatred in modern history. Gary Fouse, adjunct teacher at the UC Irvine, has observed that anti-Semitic activity is rare at Irvine, but it peaks during the annual Israel Apartheid Week or when anti-Israel speakers are invited to the campus. One speaker such, Imam Muhammad Al-Asi, said to his Irvine audience in 2001:
We have a psychosis in the Jewish community that is unable to co-exist equally and brotherly with other human beings. You can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jew.
Jews have been harassed and, in at least one instance, a classically anti-Semitic caricature of Ariel Sharon was affixed to a mock rendition of Israel’s Gaza defense barrier, Fouse reported.
At another UC school, the University of California - San Diego, conservative author and activist David Horowitz delivered a lecture as an answer to the Muslim Student Association’s (MSA) 2010 Israel Apartheid Week. During an exchange with an MSA member after the talk, Horowitz asked the student if she was “for or against” a statement from the leader of Hezbollah professing that he wanted all the Jews to gather in Israel so he didn’t have to hunt them down globally. The student said she was “for it.” The incident was thankfully captured on film and was picked up by the media, giving the world a glimpse of the horror that is infecting our universities. But the problem only continues to grow.
Credibility of anti-Israeli views is especially reinforced when they are expressed under the auspices of respected organizations like the Jewish Federation and Hillel. The Jewish Federation at Orange County has dismissed this criticism by saying that it provides students with “nominal” funding to participate in OTI trips through its Rose Program and that it is important for Jewish students to have a presence in the program. Numerous citizens, religious leaders, and respected activists, however, are resolute in their outrage over the association. Roz Rothstein and Roberta Seid, PhD, CEO and education director of StandWithUs, respectively, have spoken out about the OTI and its involvement at UC Irvine. To highlight the severity of the concern, Rothstein also attested to witnessing George S. Rishmawi tell an audience that the Israelis had developed a gas that slowed Palestinians down so that they could be shot in the back. There was, sadly, no evidence of what the nature of the gas was, he admitted, because the clever Israelis pick up the canisters before anyone can see them.
The request of the aggrieved is a simple one: no one is disputing the right of individuals like Rishmawi to speak at universities or the right of Jewish students to attend his talks or even adopt his deeply misguided views if they like. Neither is there a desire to see funding stripped from Hillel of UC Irvine or the OC Jewish Federation. The issue that has enraged so many, activists say, is that Jewish philanthropic money is being used to either host these individuals or send young Jewish students into what are quite literally anti-Israel indoctrination retreats abroad.
The justification, supporters say, is ever-fashionable “dialogue.” But what value is there in dialogue with terrorist co-conspirators? Why waste philanthropic resources for trips to the West Bank when students are already exposed to the worst aspects of the dialogue in their own universities? At the very least, we should expect alleged bridge-building programs to produce actual results in terms of peace and understanding -- but it has ushered in only more anti-Semitism, more hatred, more legitimacy for the killing of Jews. Renowned world leader Rabbi Aba Dunner, who represents all orthodox rabbis of the U.K. and Europe as executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis, deftly highlighted this absurdity in a recent letter to the OC Jewish Federation CEO, Shalom Elcott. The trend of exposing “youth to all that is available is valid up to a point. But not when it endangers the continuity of the Jewish people.”
Unfortunately, the Jewish Federation of Orange County’s response has so far been unsatisfactory to OTI objectors. The request of concerned parties has consistently been that the Jewish Federation of Orange County disassociate from the OTI, particularly in terms of any funding for student participation in OTI programming, yet there is no evidence that this has been undertaken. Communities leaders have expressed frustration that the federation will not even investigate the extent of the group’s ulterior motives and its negative impact on Jewish students. This is in stark contrast to Israeli government’s recent decision to probe domestic NGOs, which, although entitled to free expression, may owe much of their ability to wage political warfare against Israel to the financial beneficence of foreign government, activists, and financiers. This engenders the obvious question: if the Israel government is concerned enough to investigate these groups, some of which (Breaking the Silence and Ir Amim) have clear association with the OTI, why won’t the Jewish Federation of Orange County do the same?
A reasonable enough resolution has been raised by the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism, which has formally asked the Orange County Jewish Federation to adopt the Jewish Community of San Francisco’s guidelines for funding. Among other things, the guidelines prohibit funding for any activities that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the [BDS] movement, in whole or in part.” Whether such a measure or other reconciliatory actions will be undertaken by the federation is sadly unclear. The need for such action, however, is not.
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Ryan Mauro contributed to this report.