The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) is in the news again, because a 2009 document indicating that students participating in the OTI program met with a Hamas leader came to light recently. The news about the discovery of the letter broke around the same time as Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS) unveiled its on-line publication of the Rose Report, citing the accomplishments of the Rose Project, which seeks to be “a community initiative to combat anti-Israel rhetoric on our local university campuses, and to educate and empower our students to become advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.”
In April the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called on the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to terminate a university program called the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) – set up to build understanding and dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict – and called upon JFFS to stop funding and supporting the program, after it was revealed that students who participated in an OTI trip to Israel, including Judea and Samaria, met with a top leader of Hamas and then were instructed to keep the meeting a secret. The 2009 letter from leaders of JFFS – Jeffrey H. Margolis, co-chair, Rose Project; Dr. James Weiss, co-chair, Rose Project; and Shalom C. Elcott, president and CEO of JFFS – to UCI Chancellor Michael Drake, expressed shock and concern about the secret meeting.
Orange County Jewish Life met with officials of Jewish Federation & Family Services for clarification on the matter.
Q: What is the role of JFFS in OTI?
A: JFFS is extensively involved in combating the campaign to delegitimize Israel, and have been working diligently with many strategic partners over the last several years to combat the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at the University of California, Irvine campus. The Olive Tree Initiative is not a JFFS program. The program was founded by a group of UCI students from a variety of backgrounds, including Jewish and Muslim students. It is a program of UCI that offers school credit.
Q: Does JFFS fund OTI?
A: Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County does not fund the trip or its speakers with community dollars. Instead, donor-designated giving has provided scholarships to a few Jewish student participants. Although at one time Rose Project funding represented the largest single contribution to the program, that has not been the case for quite some time. Funding sources for the program include UCI directly, many non-Jewish community philanthropists and the parents and family friends of the student participants. The students are responsible for raising the money themselves and hold several fundraisers throughout the year.
Q: How does the OTI trip affect students who participate in it?
A: One of the incorrect claims that has been perpetuated is that these Jewish students come back less pro-Israel. It is actually quite the opposite. Not a single Jewish student has ever come back less pro-Israel or returned ready to join the anti-Israel camp. Indeed, they come back as stronger advocates, more passionate about pro-Israel activism and express a greater connection with their Jewish identity. These particular Jewish students who participate on the program are recognized by several prominent U.S. pro-Israel organizations as the very best and brightest pro-Israel activists on campuses in America, and receive significant training before departing.
Q: How does Jewish student participation in the OTI trip affect the perceptions of other students?
A: The Jewish students have been quite successful during the trip, and then after, in helping their non-Jewish peers see through any anti-Israel rhetoric or propaganda. These Jewish students have many times offered and asked the critics who make this claim to meet in order to discuss their experiences from the trip. Ironically, those offers have all been turned down.
Q: Does OTI have an anti-Israel agenda?
A: The belief that the program is an anti-Israel body with an agenda to delegitimize Israel is incorrect. Indeed, the group has met with several speakers that we find problematic (and we have expressed this to the group leaders and the university administration), but that does not make the program itself anti-Israel.
Q: How does Rose Project participation in OTI help to ensure balance in the programming?
A: We have seen it as our responsibility to make sure that the student participants, Jewish and not Jewish, get the right information about Israel. We have helped coordinate many of their meetings with well-respected pro-Israel speakers, and have helped arrange their visits to Sderot, Yad Vashem, the Begin Center and the city of Ariel, to name a few. In coordination with Israel’s Foreign Ministry (LA Israeli Consulate) we work to ensure balanced perspective on the itinerary and that a strong Israel voice is presented.
Q: Have the leaders of the Rose Project considered terminating the organization’s involvement with OTI?
A: OTI will continue with or without us. Given the choice of having no involvement whatsoever, or having the opportunity to have influence over the itinerary and students, before and the trip, we have chosen the latter.
Q: How did JFFS respond to the OTI meeting with a Hamas leader?
A: The 2009 OTI trip had an unapproved, off itinerary meeting with Aziz Dwaik, a leader of Hamas’s political faction, and the disputed (and unrecognized) president of the Palestinian Authority. Upon the group’s return, JFFS learned of this meeting and met with Chancellor Drake to express our concern and disappointment for this meeting. JFFS requested an investigation be made into the decision by the UCI staff who were responsible for the group’s visit, and filed a letter on the record stating that OTI had crossed a red line.