Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Olive Tree Initiative For Dummies

The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) was created in 2007 at the University of California at Irvine by a then-graduate student from Germany named Daniel Wehrenfennig. One of the stated reasons was the tension existing on campus between Jewish and Muslim students over the Israel-Palestinian conflict. During the past decade, UCI's Muslim Student Union has sponsored a week of events every May to coincide with the establishment of the Israeli state, which to Arabs, is called the Nakba (catastrophe).  The events, which feature many radical speakers, some of whom have uttered anti-Semitic statements, has given UCI a black eye, both nationally and internationally.

It was hoped that the OTI would alleviate that situation. Every September, a group of students from all religions is escorted to Israel and the disputed territories of the West Bank to meet with spokespersons and leaders on both sides of the conflict. It was hoped that this would give both Jewish and Muslim students both perspectives of the issue. The venture has been strongly endorsed by UCI and is currently run out of the Department of Social Sciences under Professor Paula Garb. In addition, OTI has spread to other UC campuses like UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Aside from the university, OTI is supported by the Orange County Jewish Federation through its Rose Project, which also provides funding.

However, after four trips to the Middle East, there are troubling signs that the OTI is anything but balanced, rather that it is heavily tilted toward the Palestinian narrative. It has been revealed that students have been meeting with anti-Israel operatives with links to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).  One of these activists,  George S. Rishmawi, a co-founder of ISM, even spoke at an OTI event at UCI on November 22, 2010. In addition, there is George N. Rishmawi and Mazin Qumsiyeh, a leader of the Boycott effort against Israel. All three of these men are based in the West Bank and involved with several "alternative tour" agencies, which take Western tourists, largely college-age, and indoctrinate them to the Palestinian cause.

Then in September 2009, OTI students met with Aziz Dweik (aka Duwaik), the highest-ranking Hamas official in the West Bank, who had recently been released by the Israelis. (He has recently been arrested again.). The meeting with Dweik was not publicly disclosed. Indeed, it has been reported that the students were told not to say anything about the meeting since it might make their crossing back into Israel difficult.

When the Jewish Federation learned of the meeting, they wrote a letter to UCI expressing dismay. Yet, there was no disclosure made to the Jewish community of Orange County, which gives donations to the Federation for projects like the OTI. Only through a California freedom of information request, was the letter unearthed from UCI. There is no record of a response to the Federation, nor is there any evidence of any disciplinary measures taken. In spite of this revelation of a meeting with a Hamas official, the Federation continues to support OTI in spite of continuing complaints and revelations. The Federation argues that Jewish students return from their trips more experienced and able to debate with the pro-Palestinian supporters. Some have stated that some Muslim students have returned with a more understanding attitude toward Israel, but there is no empirical evidence for this claim that the author is aware of. What I am aware of is that at least three Jewish participants at two different UC campuses are members of Students for Justice in Palestine. Some OTI defenders insist that the "situation" has improved at UCI since OTI started. However, last month, UCI  endured yet another "Israel Apartheid" week of events hosted by the Muslim Student Union featuring Amir Abdel Malik Ali, the firebrand imam from Oakland, who, as he does always, added another name to his "list" of "Zionist Jews', this time UC president Mark Yudof, "Zionist Jew".

Then there is the involvement of a young lady named Shannon Shibata, who is one of the OTI guides. She has an interesting resume, having traveled around the Middle East and being apparently concerned about the plight of Israeli victims of terror. She worked a stint with Stand With Us, a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, as their representative in Israel. Shibata left SWU in January 2008 under circumstances that are murky. She then established a Swedish NGO she founded called Centre for New Diplomacy. If you looked at their website, it was quite vanilla, simply stating that they are interested in bringing peace to the Middle East. However, when I checked deeper into the site, I found that almost all of their governing board was made up of Swedish and Swiss anti-Israel activists. Also listed as part of their organization in the West Bank was none other than George S. Rishmawi. (Details are contained in the below posting in Fousesquawk.)

(Shibata responded in the comment thread, but when I asked her a couple of specific questions, failed to further respond. Since then, the site for the CND has disappeared.)

Finally, the above-mentioned freedom of information request still has not yet been fully complied with . At issue are the expense ledgers showing how OTI is spending its money.  To date, though specifically requested, they have not been turned over. What is particularly troubling is that a public state university and a 501c3 that solicits donations, are unable to account for money they have spent in the Middle East.

At this point the University of California continues to support the Olive Tree Initiative as does the Orange County Jewish Federation, in spite of numerous complaints from the local Jewish community, which has been bitterly divided over this issue. Indeed, the local Jewish person who initially raised the concerns was vilified within the local community by the Federation, its defenders and the UCI-Hillel.  In the case of Hillel, a letter was produced criticizing the person, a letter which was supposedly signed by some 100 Hillel members, who actually had not given their consent to be included in the letter.

What is noteworthy here is that the Olive Tree Initiative and its sponsors have not been transparent. Is this a venture really created by citizen peace-builders, who think they can actually bring peace to the Middle East,? Or is it something else, part of a stealth movement to swing public opinion to the Palestinian side and further isolate the Jewish state?

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