Jewish organizations struggle with an age-old question: how to advocate an agenda and at the same time remain true to your values. Many times the issues are not clear; the lines not black and white. At times there are gains, but the question is, are they worth the losses?
This is the primary issue the community has been debating concerning the Olive Tree Initiative at UCI. Hoping to create a bridge of understanding that will diffuse tensions, it brings Jewish and Muslim students together for dialogue, speakers and trips to Israel. There has been a lot of misinformation. We need to get our facts straight. Olive Tree is a project organized by Muslim, Jewish and Christian students at UCI. This was not a Jewish Federation & Family Services project, nor was it funded by JFFS. The Federation, through the Rose Project, a Federation effort on campus supported by local philanthropists, underwrote the cost of a few students who went on trips to Israel. Supporters claim that Muslim students who participated returned with a more moderate view of Israel, its policies and a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Some Jewish students who went on the trips claim they saw firsthand the false propaganda being spread about Israel and it empowered them to be stronger Israeli advocates.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I had always been skeptical of this project and the Jewish community’s support of it. I do feel that there has been progress at UCI to mitigate the influence of radical Arab groups. I do not believe that it’s dangerous for Jewish students at UCI. Jewish life is flourishing on campus because of the efforts of Chabad and Hillel.
What’s the problem with OTI? Some of the Palestinian speakers on the trips are linked to groups like the International Solidarity Movement. While claiming to be peaceful, ISM has a radical agenda of boycotting Israel, and its leaders have endorsed violence against Israel. It is known to be supported by Hamas and Saudi Arabia. The question is, are we in the Jewish community, even indirectly giving credibility to this radical group and exposing Jewish students to its leaders, many of whom hide their true intentions in their suave presentations? This may give them credibility and entrée into UCI.
Both sides of the debate have crossed the lines of civility. Critics of the Federation should have first attempted to raise this specific issue privately before going public. To call for a termination of funding to Hillel and Federation before doing so was wrong. Federation and Hillel responded to the criticism like many organizations do, by circling the wagons. The response was overly harsh.
What needs to be done? First the Federation and Hillel owe an apology to Deirdre Sterling for their strident response. She needs to do the same for going public first, before trying to resolve this specific issue privately and asking for a boycott of funding. All sides need to realize that they share a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. We need to stop demonizing each other and build on this common commitment. We need to disagree in a civil fashion befitting Jews who understand the concept of Lashon Hara.
Then we need to consider the real questions that we as a community need to explore. Do we want to be part of this project at UCI? Can OTI be moderated and not include speakers with radical agendas against Israel. OTI, while in my mind misguided, was an effort to build bridges of understanding to Muslim students. In that area it had some success. Still the questions that have been raised are valid and need proper examination.
Orange County has been blessed with a remarkable spirit of community. We have historically been free of the petty politics and divisions that plague many Jewish communities. This has been achieved because community leaders have strived for inclusiveness, tolerance and sensitivity to the views of others. OTI is a real issue that must be debated, but we must do so in a fashion that reflects the values we treasure as a community.