The Olive Tree Initiative: A Fig Leaf for Anti-Semitism?

A fig leaf is a device intended to conceal something regarded as shameful or indecent.  At the University of California at Irvine (UCI), the administration uses the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) to provide an illusory cover for the administration's unwillingness to address the existence of anti-Semitism on its campus, its lack of resoluteness in condemning anti-Semitism when it occurs, and its laxity about enforcing University of California policies to combat anti-Semitism.   But for those with a discerning eye, the fig leaf actually reveals the shame it was intended to conceal.

As described in "A Blind Eye to Campus Anti-Semitism" by Kenneth Marcus (September 2010):

[D]uring the first years of the 21st century, the virus of anti-Semitism was unleashed with a vengeance in Irvine, California. There, on the campus of the University of California at Irvine, Jewish students were physically and verbally harassed, threatened, shoved, stalked, and targeted by rock-throwing groups and individuals. Jewish property was defaced with swastikas, and a Holocaust memorial was vandalized. Signs were posted on campus showing a Star of David dripping with blood. Jews ... were called "dirty Jew" and "fucking Jew," told to "go back to Russia" and "burn in hell."

Many of the incidents during the period described by Marcus began in an anti-Israel guise.

In 2007, in an effort to ameliorate this intolerable situation, a small group of students of different ethnic and religious identities formed the Olive Tree Initiative.  Its stated goal was "to promote dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict."  The initiative became an integral part of the UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, with a salaried director and faculty from the School of Social Sciences.  Under OTI auspices, there have been three trips to Israel and the West Bank, as well as more than seventy forums on and off campus.

Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, the Director of the program, has asserted that the OTI has "become an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue[,] and cooperation between students and student groups."  UCI has touted the OTI as "sowing the seeds of peace," and Chancellor Drake has given its founders an award for "Living Our Values."  When the Regents of the University of California held a special meeting March 24, 2010 to address a rash of incidents of bigotry that included the mocking of Black History Month at a fraternity party and nooses at UCSD, swastikas and anti-gay graffiti at UC Davis, and the disruption at UCI of the speech of the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Chancellor Drake acclaimed the OTI as proof that students on his campus "live and practice tolerance."  In May 2010, the Orange County Human Rights Commission commended the OTI , and later that month, President Yudof publicly congratulated the OTI and two of its student leaders with a first-ever President's Award for Outstanding Leadership.

However, despite the praise and accolades -- and the investment of significant university resources -- the OTI has received, the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI has not improved since the establishment of this program.  In some ways, it has deteriorated.  The Muslim Student Union (MSU), the major perpetrator of the anti-Semitic actions and harassment of Jews at UCI, has not become more moderate.

If anything, the opposite is true.  For instance, in February 2010, the MSU, in an organized campaign (as revealed by e-mails and minutes of an MSU meeting anonymously sent to the university administration), deliberately disrupted the lecture by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.  MSU members screamed slogans such as "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech," "killer," and "how many Palestinians did you kill?"  The dean of political science and the chancellor himself pleaded with the audience to be polite and courteous, but to no avail.

In March 2010, the UCI student council passed a resolution condoning the disrupters' behavior.  Jewish student leaders, including those who founded and were involved in the OTI, appeared before the UCI student council and asked, "When will the student government stand up for me?"

And in May 2010, in solidarity with the campaign initiated by Muslim and pro-Palestinian students on UC campuses to promote anti-Israel divestment resolutions in their student senates, the MSU hosted a week-long event entitled "Israel Apartheid Week: A Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel."  The event featured anti-Semitic imagery and virulently anti-Israel rhetoric from seven speakers well-known for their animus of Israel, including Imam Abdul Malik Ali, a favorite invitee of the MSU.  Abdul Malik Ali compared the Jews in the audience to Nazis; expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic jihad (all listed by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations); and called for the destruction of the "apartheid state of Israel."

Indeed, the campus climate had become so oppressive for Jewish students at UCI that over a hundred Jewish UCI students, including the heads of all of the Jewish student groups and even some students who participated on OTI trips to Israel, signed the following statement in June 2010:

We are Jewish students at the University of California and we are outraged and deeply offended by the behavior of some student groups on campus who sponsor speakers, films and exhibits that use hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery and openly support terrorism against Israel and the Jewish people.  As Jewish students, we are also deeply disturbed by student initiated boycott and divestment campaigns which falsely accuse the Jewish state of crimes against humanity.  Please understand that these speakers, exhibits, events and campaigns are as offensive and hurtful to Jewish students as a "Compton cookout" or noose are to African-American students.  We demand that the UC administrators recognize and address the concerns of Jewish students in the same way as they respond to those of all other minority groups.  

At about the same time, over sixty UCI faculty members published an open letter in the campus newspaper stating that they were deeply disturbed about activities on their campus that fomented hatred against Jews and Israelis and that many faculty and students felt intimidated and even unsafe at UCI.  

Perversely, the Olive Tree Initiative has become part of the problem.  More than twelve of the seventy OTI speakers who met with students in 2010 have public records that demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state and have advocated for boycotts of Israeli academics, as well as its academic and cultural institutions, divestment from American and Israeli companies, and sanctions against Israel.  Some speakers are allied with U.S.-designated terrorist groups.  By including such people in an educational program under the auspices of the prestigious University of California, the OTI has bestowed legitimacy on these views, which have been identified as anti-Semitic by Western democracies, including the European Union, the Interparliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, and the U.S. State Department.  

Among the persons and organizations involved in the OTI were those who are foremost in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a systematic, multifaceted, international campaign based on hypocrisy and double-standards that aims to destroy Israel by callously using human rights language to make a false analogy between apartheid South Africa and Israel.

Consider, for instance, the following OTI presenters:

Sam Bahour, a signatory to the California Divestment from Israel Initiative, an organization that calls on the State of California to force two public-employee pension funds to divest from American and Israel companies involved in settlement activity or military defense of Israel.  Signatures for the initiative are being collected by California university students who have been cynically exploited and trained at sessions at the University of Southern California and at University of California at Berkeley.

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, Bir Zeit University, the co-founder of both the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign and Al-Awda, an organization, according to the Anti-Defamation League,, that opposes Israel's right to exist, supports Hamas and Hezbollah (designated by the U.S. as terrorist organizations), and actively promotes BDS.  Al-Awda made major inroads on California college and university campuses by collaborating with two student groups: Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association (at UCI named MSU).  At the Al-Awda regional conference in February 2010, UC students and faculty were prominent leaders in the campaign to force public universities in California to divest from Israel.  Qumsiyeh's virulent anti-Zionism is mixed with classical anti-Semitic tropes of Jews controlling the U.S. and Jewish scientists suppressing genetic research.    

George N. Rishmawi , co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization that has links to terrorist groups, advocates for the destruction of Israel, and sends unsuspecting volunteers (often university students like Rachel Corrie) into life-threatening situations in order to interfere with Israel security measures.  The ISM has endorsed and promoted BDS campaigns globally, including at the University of California.  George N. Rishmawi is currently the director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement (PCR), who, in 2008, in the name of PCR, called on activists to "initiate boycotts, divestments[,] and sanctions at all levels and including asking leaders to expel Israeli ambassadors."

Director Wehrefennig of the OTI justifies his inclusion of individuals and organizations whose aim is the destruction of Israel and who are involved in anti-Semitic actions by citing his aim at "an experiential learning initiative that shows both, or even multiple[,] sides and narratives of the Israeli-Palestine conflict."

Yet the University of California, in dealing with racism on its campuses, does not aim to give an equal platform to racists and to African-Americans.  The University of California, in dealing with gay-bashing, does not give an equal platform to those who consider homosexuality a moral sin and those who do not.  The University of California does not consider racism or homophobia a conflicting opinion in whose "frank expression ... lies the greatest promise of wisdom," as Chancellor Drake implied about incidents of anti-Semitism.  The University of California openly condemns racism and homophobia; it does not give a stage to persons like Bull Connor, or members of the Ku Klux Klan, or even Billy Graham.  Why is there a different response to bigotry against Jews?     

For eight years, the administration has refused to name, identify, or condemn anti-Semitism at UCI.  Even at the regents meeting to address bigotry, Chancellor Drake disregarded the evidence that the MSU, a student group on his own campus, was the perpetrator of the disorder against Ambassador Oren.  Instead, he spoke vaguely of some students and "external organizations or nonaffiliated individuals" as the cause of the intolerance.  Even when he broke his usual silence to condemn an endorsement of terrorism made by Imam Malik Ali during a speech sponsored by the MSU May 15, 2010, Chancellor Drake ignored Malik Ali's statement that "[y]ou Jews ... are the new Nazis" and ignored the MSU posters with clear anti-Semitic imagery.  In a bizarre identification of anti-Semitic speech and imagery as a benign interchange of beliefs, Chancellor Drake praised the MSU event as "the hallmark of an educational institution committed to an exchange of ideas."

So bigotry against Jews is a tolerant "exchange of ideas" according to the UC administration, whereas bigotry against other groups is forcibly condemned.  When UC President Yudof states that his administration has "a responsibility to speak out against activities that promote intolerance or undermine civil dialogue," he chooses to ignore the fact that accusing Jewish students of being Nazis is a promotion of intolerance.  Neither he nor any chancellor spoke out.  An egregious double-standard does exist at the University of California. 

The University of California flaunts the OTI as a fig leaf, but the OTI actually exemplifies the problem and does not provide a solution.  Turning a blind eye to the shame of anti-Semitism at UCI does not, has not, and will not diminish its expression.  The University of California must finally directly address its responsibility to ensure a non-hostile environment for Jewish students.  California taxpayers and the University of California should not fund or support the Olive Tree Initiative.  Terminating public funding for the OTI would be an important first step in the right direction.
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