Debates have always been part of the college environment, and students have always been encouraged to look at both sides of a given issue. When the issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the venue is UCI and the ability to fire off a response is instantaneous, the methods of handling such a debate are going to be questioned. Recent events in Orange County have shown that the debate over how to handle the debate is almost as emotionally charged as the debate itself.
Is there an appropriate way to introduce students to both sides of the issue? Is there moral equivalency? Is there indoctrination of impressionable young minds? Are Jewish community dollars involved? People in the community are asking questions and demanding due diligence, and community leaders are providing answers and vowing vigilance about a program called the Olive Tree Initiative.
Nearly four years ago, the Olive Tree Initiative was created as a student-driven bridge-building mechanism. According to the organization’s website, “In March 2007 a diverse group of UCI students from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and non-religious backgrounds with varying perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict founded the Olive Tree Initiative. The students were inspired to create a forum where they could discuss and learn about their different perspectives on the situation in Israel/Palestine and to embark on an educational trip to the region.”
Since that time there have been three trips to Israel and the West Bank, during which students and accompanying faculty met with academics, politicians, religious authorities, community leaders and activists and learned about their perspectives on the conflict. The participants have shared their experiences and insights in forums on and off campus and brought guest speakers to the UCI campus.
As Daniel Wehrenfennig, Ph.D., director of the Olive Tree Initiative, explained, “Polarized presentations that had been happening on the campus didn’t match up with realities. Most speakers who came to UCI were Americans with strong positions on one side or the other, but the points made were not necessarily important to the people on the ground living in the conflict. To start an effective engagement, it has to be non-partisan, and it has to come from the students, not outside organizations.”
Since the organization was student-run and not funded by the university, students needed to do fundraising for the trips. Jewish students approached Jewish Federation Orange County (now part of Jewish Federation & Family Services), while other students sought resources from other organizations.
Jewish Federation Orange County developed the Rose Project to address the challenging issues at UC Irvine and on other university campuses in Orange County. The purpose is to ensure that students on Orange County university campuses and community leaders are informed about issues of Jewish life and Israel, that they are deeply educated on the facts and the myths and that they are fully engaged in positive advocacy for Israel and in dealing with challenges that emerge. The Rose Project also seeks to facilitate respectful dialogue and shared learning amongst different constituents on campus and in the community.
“The Rose Project gets its funding from private donors who donate through Jewish Federation & Family Services, and none of the money comes through the general fund of Jewish Federation & Family Services,” explained Jeff Margolis, who serves on the Rose Project Advisory Council and the Hillel Advisory Board.
Margolis added, “The Rose Project provides scholarships or financial support for Jewish students participating in the Olive Tree Initiative. Because we contribute money to send students, we’re able to have a dialogue on the Olive Tree Initiative trip itinerary and make suggestions and adjustments.”
The idea behind the funding, according to Shalom Elcott, CEO of Jewish Federation & Family Services, was to be able to send “bright, capable students who could speak and hold their own” and to “open doors to movers and shakers in Israel who needed to meet with the group.” The Rose Project, he said, was created to organize, fund and support Jewish life on campus, to promote advocacy, bridge building and improved relations with the university. In addition to paying for student trips through the Olive Tree Initiative, the Rose Project funds student trips to AIPAC conferences and programs from Hasbara, Stand with Us, Israel Coalition on Campus and Birthright, brings lecturers and speakers to local campuses, funds a full-time Israeli professor on campus and pays for a full-time campus shaliach, or emissary to Israel.
According to Margolis, the Rose Council “respects all opinions” and wants to “read, listen, learn, adapt and consider constructive points of view. He said that the organization is based on “forceful equanimity,” and it does listen to all sides. On the other hand, it does not believe in “moral equivalency with those who seek Israel’s destruction, but we feel that it’s important for Jewish students to see how these points of view get set up and expressed and how they operate.”
Elcott added that the Olive Tree Initiative has served to “bring people of other faiths to the table.” It has provided perspective to people of all faiths, including Muslim students who said they had a better understanding of the Israeli point of view after the trips.
According to Isaac Yerushalmi, a UCI alumnus and one of the original student participants in the Olive Tree Initiative, the program is “one of the most exceptional educational initiatives around. Besides providing participants with an unparalleled first-hand understanding of the complexities and nuances that exist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the initiative is breaking positive ground on campus as well. For once, we are seeing positive relations between Jewish and Muslim students on campus. We are seeing a growth in the number of Jewish and Muslim students who apply pragmatism to the Israeli-Palestinian situation in their conversations on campus, and we are actually beginning to see Jewish and Muslim students work together on joint projects.”
Sometimes, the Olive Tree Initiative brings speakers from both sides of the issue to campus at the same time. Recently, David Makovsky, senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, and Ghaith Al-Omari, advocacy director at the American Task Force in Palestine (ATFP), joined forces to talk to UCI students. In Al-Omari’s words, they wanted to “bring a message of moderation to campus to counter the rhetoric,” while Makovsky said, “We’re both centrists but coming from different directions. When we take that message to students together, we have impact.”
The two men are “looking for synergies,” as Makovsky put it, while Al-Omari talked about Palestinians “taking a page from the Israelis and building hospitals and universities.” While both men acknowledged that it would be hard for both sides to agree on certain issues, it made sense for Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate on economic and infrastructure issues that benefit the whole region.
At other times, campus speakers sponsored by the Olive Tree Initiative have been less appealing to members of the Jewish community, and such an instance sparked the recent debate. In November International Solidarity Movement cofounder George Rishmawi spoke at UCI. While Rishmawi has allegedly broken his ties with that organization, which is said to be “vehemently anti-Israel,” community activists, including Dee Sterling, wrote letters to Jewish Federation & Family Services to ask for “due diligence.”
Sterling, who had been a board member of Hillel, expressed concerns that the Jewish community appeared to be sponsoring a speaker who was a founder of an anti-Israel organization that promotes violence. She raised the issues of Federation funding of students participating in the Olive Tree Initiative and of Hillel having a Facebook posting encouraging students to attend the lecture.
A response from Jewish Federation & Family Services claimed that the OTI speaker was George S. Rishmawi as opposed to a George N. Rishmawi, saying that the latter was a “despicable character,” and the former was someone who had recently cut ties with the ISM. However, Sterling said that the students who went on the Olive Tree Initiative trips met with both Rishmawis.
“I am concerned that the students are meeting with seasoned anti-Israel veterans,” Sterling said. “I have not seen peace break out in the Middle East, and I have not seen peace break out on campus.”
Sterling believes that funding for the Olive Tree Initiative should not come from Jewish philanthropic donors, although they are private donors. She insists that the Federation needs to do due diligence on speakers that students encounter. Finally, she thinks that “Jewish students should be taking a stand,” even if it just means waving Israeli flags when anti-Israel speakers are on campus.
While other organizations, including the Wiesenthal Center and Stand with Us, initially criticized the choice of Rishmawi as a speaker, Elcott said that most of the feedback he received on the Rose Project’s relationship with the Olive Tree Initiative was positive. Organizations, including the Israeli Consultate, expressed the belief that students need to learn as much as they can, he said, and he believes that the students are up to the challenge of distinguishing fact from propaganda. Furthermore, he said, “The Olive Tree Initiative understands that it needs the support of the Jewish community, and it may need to change the itinerary.”
“The Rose Project supports the concept of the Olive Tree Initiative with an eye toward continual improvement,” Margolis said. “We’re proud to have this kind of bridge-building program in our community.”
Olive Tree Initiative Guest Speakers, Fall 2010
October 12 – Professor Paul Arthur, director of the Graduate Program in Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Ulster in Northern Ireland
October 21 – Marquez Equalibria, Conciliation Specialist, Community Relations Service (CRS) at the U.S. Department of Justice
October 27 – Professor Menachem Hofnung, UCI visiting professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
November 9 – One Voice Student Activists from Israel/Palestine visited UCI Irvine and met with OTI group (and presented in classes)
November 22 – George S. Rishmawi, Coordinator, Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, Beit Sahur/Bethlehem
November 29 – Marcella Khelif, Director, Center for International Education, UCI
December 1 – David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Ghaith al-Omari, Advocacy Director at the American Task Force on Palestine
December 6 – Yuli Edelstein, Israeli Minister for Public Affairs and the Diaspora