Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s response to Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, Director of the UCI Olive Tree Initiative

Dear Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig,

You did not write to me directly, though you did blind-copy me on your recent widely-circulated letter (forwarded below), in which you mentioned my name 18 times and attacked a letter I had sent to the heads of the Orange County Jewish Federation and Hillel.  My letter urged these Jewish communal organizations to withdraw their funding and promotion of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) because at least 15 of the OTI’s speakers are affiliated with organizations that have ties to terrorist groups that have murdered Jews, advocate the elimination of the Jewish state, and support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel.  I also pointed out to the OC Federation and Hillel that it is wrong for Jewish communal resources to be used for a trip that engages Jewish students in activities that desecrate Jewish holy days, such as the OTI trip in 2010, during which students spent the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the following Sabbath (and other Sabbaths) engaged in non-Jewish activity in Jordan and the disputed territories.

You fiercely criticized my letter, stating that I “made up facts” and that my analysis was “incomplete and misleading,” “completely inaccurate,” and filled with “wrong information and missing facts,” “a pattern of misinformation,” “erroneous statements,” and “distortion.”  I would like to reply to your charges, which I believe are wholly baseless, extremely disingenuous, and highly offense to the Jewish community in general, and to me personally as a UC faculty member, and as a Jew.

As I understand them, your primary charges against me are the following:

  • I based my analysis of the OTI 2010 trip on a preliminary version of the itinerary and not on the final version.
  • The speakers, whom I researched and linked directly to their own or their affiliated organization’s on-line statements and actions seeking to destroy or harm the Jewish state, never communicated these virulently anti-Israel ideas to the students on the OTI trip. But even if they had, these were only 15 of the over 70 speakers with whom students met.
  • I neglected to acknowledge the pro-Israel speakers with whom students met, and whom you claim provided balance to the program.
  • I neglected to acknowledge the many Jewish activities in which the students on the 2010 OTI trip participated, as well as to mention that Jewish students had the option to not join the group if an activity conflicted with their religious observance.

I would like to respond to each of your points in turn:

1) You attempt to discredit my serious concerns about many of the OTI speakers by claiming that my analysis was “completely inaccurate” and “misleading” because it was based on an earlier version of the 2010 itinerary, implying that this earlier version was radically different from the final one.  But this is simply not so.  In fact, of the 15 speakers and organizations whose efforts to harm Israel I documented in my letter, all but two appeared in the final version of the itinerary.  Furthermore, of the few speakers who did not appear in the earlier draft but were added to the final version, at least one would certainly have been included in my letter because of his expression of profound anti-Jewish animus: Xavier Abu Eid, the communication advisor for the PLO Negotiation Support Unit, with whom students met in Ramallah on Saturday afternoon September 4th, was one of a number of Christian Palestinian leaders who in 2009 signed Kairos Palestine, a document which applies anti-Semitic supersessionist theology to deny the historic and religious right of the Jews to their homeland, supports BDS efforts, and advocates the elimination of the Jewish state.

However, even if the two versions of the itinerary were substantially different, as you had falsely implied, it still does not deny the accuracy of my analysis.  For the on-line version I accessed represents a document of intent, i.e., it indicates the speakers and activities that program organizers like yourself intended to offer students on the 2010 OTI trip, whether or not these were part of the actual itinerary. Therefore, it is arguably an even better indicator of the mission and goals of the OTI’s organizers, which clearly included offering as legitimate perspectives (according to your “philosophy of 360-degree education”) the views of numerous individuals who have supported efforts to harm the Jewish state and have advocated its elimination, views which our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic.

So I hope you can see that whether I base my analysis on the earlier version of the itinerary or on the final one, my conclusion will remain the same, namely, that it is unconscionable for Jewish communal funds to be used to support a program that includes anti-Semitic speakers and organizations.


2) The fact that the preliminary itinerary for the 2010 OTI trip represents a document of intent also speaks to your second point, that although they may have previously expressed their virulent opposition to the Jewish State, none of the speakers communicated such sentiments to the students on the OTI trip.  Even if you are correct about the content of the speakers’ communication with students — though you bring not one shred of evidence to support your claim — it does not change the fact that these speakers were chosen by OTI organizers like yourself before you knew what they would say to students! Indeed, some of the most virulently anti-Israel speakers, such as Mazin Qumsiyeh and George N. Rishmawi, were selected to speak to students on the very first OTI trip to Israel in 2008.  Surely you could not have known beforehand what these individuals would say to students, and yet you chose them to be part of the OTI trip.

Moreoever if, as I suspect, you did your due diligence before asking these individuals to speak to students, you undoubtedly accessed the very same information about them as I did.  I can only surmise, therefore, that not only did you know about the anti-Semitic views of these speakers when you chose them, but you had every reason to believe that they would communicate their views to OTI students.

As for your contention that only 15 of the 70 speakers had known anti-Semitic views, it is hard to fathom why you would think this statistic is at all comforting to the Jewish community.  According to my calculations, 15 speakers in 70 means that over 20% of the people who addressed the students on the recent OTI trip had themselves expressed anti-Semitic views or behaviors, or were speaking on behalf of anti-Semitic organizations.

Please understand that after the Nazis slaughtered one-third of my people during the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, I and my co-religionists are understandably skittish about individuals or organizations that engage in, or call for, harming the Jewish State or the Jewish people. For many of us, having even one anti-semitic speaker, in a program that presents such a view as a legitimate perspective, is one too many! Twenty percent is an obscenity!

I hope you are beginning to understand why for many in the Jewish community, asking us to contribute Jewish communal funds in order to expose Jewish and non-Jewish students to such speakers is extremely offensive.


3) Although I did notice the pro-Israel speakers with whom the OTI students met, the presence of such speakers on the itinerary did nothing to improve my opinion of the program, and in fact made me even more concerned about it.  That is because I believe these pro-Israel speakers are being unwittingly used to provide a fig leaf of “balance” for the OTI and to give the false impression that pro-Israel and anti-Israel speakers are not only equally represented numerically, but that these two perspectives are somehow objectively equal — simply two different but equally legitimate narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this is the kind of thinking that underlies your philosophy of “360-degree education.”   However, I find such thinking to be both logically and morally flawed.

Do you honestly believe that the argument in favor of BDS is equal and opposite to the argument against it, or that advocating for the elimination of the Jewish state and against the elimination of the Jewish state are equally legitimate positions?? For me as a Jew, and, I would wager, for every other Jew who identifies himself or herself with the mainstream Jewish community, advocating for BDS or the elimination of the Jewish State, perspectives which, as I have noted above, our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic, are wholly illegitimate.  However, by pairing them as you have with legitimate arguments made in defense of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people, you have given respectability and legitimacy to illegitimate, anti-Semitic perspectives.  In my opinion, it is despicable that you have used Jewish communal funds for this morally reprehensible purpose.


4) In case you do not know, Jewish religious observance is more than just eating a meal, saying some prayers, or hearing a lecture on an occasional Sabbath or festival evening.   It is a commitment to living a Jewish life according to G-d’s will, and it involves full observance of all of the designated holy days.  So while I appreciate the educational value of sharing certain Jewish traditions with all of the students on the OTI trip, Jews and non-Jews alike, this in no way “cancels out” or mitigates those aspects of Jewish faith and tradition that were egregiously violated by bringing Jewish students to Ramallah for their first Sabbath in the country, or by taking them to Jordan for two of the holiest days of the Jewish year.  And even though I appreciate the fact that Jewish students were given the option of not joining the group in order to observe their religious practice, what about those Jewish students who had no family or friends in Israel with whom to observe the holy days, or who did not feel comfortable separating themselves from the group, or who did not want to miss out on an important part of the OTI trip?

Undoubtedly there are Jewishly-identified students who are not fully observant and do not mind violating the Sabbath or other holy days.  Nevertheless, as the director of a program that targets Jewish students and accepts money from Jewish communal organizations representing Jews who care deeply about Jewish faith and tradition, it was the height of religious insensitivity for you to create and/or approve an itinerary that planned for Jewish students who did not opt out of the program on the Jewish holy days, to violate the basic tenets of their faith.

I hope you can appreciate that not one of the hundreds of observant Jews who will read this letter believes that Jewish communal funds should be used to support a program that knowingly violates Jewish faith and tradition in the way that the OTI has.


I would like to make a few final remarks about your letter.

You assert that the OTI has “become an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue and cooperation between individual students and student groups,” although you have produced no evidence of this being the case.  

In fact, the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI has not improved since the establishment of the OTI, and in some ways it has significantly deteriorated.


 

For instance, in February 2010 members of the Muslim Student Union disgracefully disrupted a talk by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.  And just this past May, the MSU hosted a week-long event entitled Israel Apartheid Week: A Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel, that featured anti-Semitic imagery and virulently anti-Israel rhetoric from 7 speakers well-known for their animus of Israel, including Imam Abdul Malik Ali, who compared the Jews to Nazis, expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and called for the destruction of the “apartheid state of Israel.”

 


 

Indeed, the campus climate had become so oppressive for Jewish students at UCI last spring that over 100 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 60 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.

So not only has the OTI program not ameliorated the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI, it is my belief that some of the OTI speakers who have met with students have even contributed to the anti-Semitic BDS campaigns at our university, which in turn has led to an increase in anti-Semitic harassment on UC campuses, including at UCI.  Consider the following three examples:

 

  •  

    Prof. Mazim Qumsiyeh co-founded both the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign and  Al-Awda, an organization which opposes Israel’s right to exist, has links to Hamas and Hezbollah, and is a leader in the BDS movement. Al-Awda works closely with Muslim and pro-Palestinian student groups, including the MSU at UCI, to promote anti-Israel divestment campaigns and co-sponsor anti-Semitic events on California campuses. (For more information about Al-Awda’s insidious influence on UC campuses, including at UCI, see an article I co-authored entitled “Are Jewish Students Safe on California Campuses?“)


  • George N. Rishmawi co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and is the current director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement (PCR), which is under the auspices of the ISM.  The ISM has links to terrorist organizations, openly advocates the destruction of the Jewish State, and sends activists and unsuspecting volunteers — students like Rachel Corrie — into life-threatening situations in order to protect known terrorists. The ISM has endorsed and promoted BDS campaigns globally, including at the University of California.

  • Sam Bahour is one of the original endorsers of the recent California Divestment from Israel Initiative, which calls on the State of California to force two enormous public employee pension funds to divest from Israel. Signatures to qualify this initiative for the California state ballot are being collected on campuses across the state, including at UCI.



I would like to end this letter on a personal note.  I am deeply offended that in your email, which you distributed quite widely, you wrongfully attacked my academic integrity and dismissed my legitimate concerns about the OTI’s value to the Jewish community. I believe your behavior in this regard is yet one further indication of the unworthiness of the program you direct for Jewish communal funds.


Sincerely,

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin


CC:

UCI Chancellor Drake
UC President Yudof
Shalom Elcott, President and CEO of the Orange County Jewish Federation
Jay S. Feldman, Director of Leadership Development & Rose Project Manager at OC Jewish Federation
Jordan Fruchtman,  Executive Director UC Irvine Hillel
Organizations that have expressed concern about anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on UC campuses:
Americans for a Safe Israel
American Freedom Alliance
American Jewish Committee
Anti-Defamation League
CAMERA
Chabad Student Centers on UC Campuses
Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors
David Project
Hasbara Fellows
Hillels on UC campuses
International Hillel
Israel on Campus Coalition
Israel Peace Initiative
Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco the Peninsula, Marina and Sonoma Counties
Jewish Community Relations Council
Jewish Federation of the East Bay
Jewish National Fund
Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)
National Council of Young Israel
Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism
Orthodox Union
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Stand With Us
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
USD/Hagshama World Zionist Organization
Zionist Organization of America
Begin forwarded message:

Subject: Response to Tammi Rossman-Benjamin (UC Santa Cruz) by Daniel
Wehrenfennig, Ph.D. (Director, Olive Tree Initiative, UC Irvine)
From: oti@uci.edu
Date: Wed, December 08, 2010 1:17 pm
To:

Dear Reader,

Below please find my response to an email/letter circulated by Tammi
Rossman-Benjamin (UC Santa Cruz) criticizing the Olive Tree Initiative
Program at the University of California, Irvine. My response and critique
of her letter is not of a personal nature as I do not know her and do not
have a problem with her personally. It is however a critique of her
incomplete and misleading analysis.

The original letter by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin with my response as well as
the actual itinerary of the Olive Tree Initiative trip in September 2010
is attached.

I am looking forward to you response and questions.

Sincerely,
Daniel Wehrenfennig
Director, Olive Tree Initiative, UC Irvine

________________________________

To Whom It May Concern,

Given Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s critical analysis of the Olive Tree
Initiative (OTI) program I am compelled to respond to this critique and
invite everyone who has questions to engage with me and others involved in
the OTI program to make the program better (something we continually
strive for).

I want to demonstrate why funding for the OTI program from the Jewish
community is worthwhile and important.

I also want to mention that till this point neither I nor other faculty
and community members involved in OTI have been contacted by people
criticizing the program, Including Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, to get our
feedback and respond to the criticism. This is disappointing. We always
want open channels of communication around the sensitive issues we are
dealing with. Also (to my knowledge), none of the many Jewish students who
have been involved with OTI and participated on the trips and who have
been indirectly criticized by Tammi Benjamin were contacted or asked to
clarify issues before the letter was published. Since the letter was
circulated some Jewish students have written responses, which can be
viewed at http://ocjewishexperience.wordpress.com/
<http://ocjewishexperience.wordpress.com/&gt;

I hope that in the future those who criticize the Olive Tree Initiative,
which is the right of anyone and is absolutely legitimate, will first
verify the information before immediately sending out mass emails with
wrong information and missing facts.

One example of wrong information is that the itinerary of the last OTI
trip in September 2010 that Tammi Benjamin and other people in blogs and
emails criticized was not the final itinerary of the trip. It is an early
draft created before the trip. Hence, some of the people criticized were
not even visited by the OTI group. I have attached the final OTI itinerary
to this email so we can discuss the actual trip we took in September 2010,
not an early draft schedule.

I will, however, respond to the criticism even though some of it is not
based on factual information. First, I disagree with the conclusion by
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin that “overall, there is a clear anti-Israel
pro-Palestinian tilt to the OTI.”

Her analysis is purely based on looking at an earlier draft of our
itinerary, looking at a blog of one of the OTI students (but not
mentioning or studying the blogs of other (e.g. the Jewish) students and
their statements expressing opposite opinions). Furthermore, her criticism
reveals that she did not research the backgrounds of all the speakers and
organizations they represented who we visited with on our recent trip and
even the once she did research were only presented by very selective
information, nor did she know what the speakers actually communicated to
the group. She completely ignores mentioning all of the pro-Israel
(including anti-BDS) speakers on the itinerary. This approach is
problematic; it gives a distorted view that does not begin to take into
account the vast majority of the over 70 speakers we talked to on our trip
in September 2010, and the numerous informal contacts students made with
people in their spare time.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin states “of the Palestinian speakers and groups who
addressed the students on the most recent OTI trip (Sept. 2010), the
overwhelming majority have expressed an overt animus towards the Jewish
state, including by advocating for its elimination or for measures to harm
her, or by allying with terrorist groups that perpetrate violence against
Jews.”

First, the author never inquired what the speakers really communicated to
the group or why the group decided to meet with them, but only researched
them online. In some cases it is even apparent that she knew nothing about
the speaker, only the organization they worked with. This again, is very
problematic as it assumes that each speaker communicated to the group what
the author assumes from very basic internet research on the speakers and
the organizations found online. Reviewing the actual content of all the
talks by Palestinian speakers shows that it is absolutely wrong to state
that the overwhelming majority expressed an anti-Israel bias.

Another erroneous statement Tammi Rossman-Benjamin makes is that “Over
one-third of the Palestinian speakers have advocated boycott, divestment,
and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.”

The author assumes that every speaker tried to convince the group to
support BDS. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only one of the over
30 Palestinian speakers even mentioned BDS on the trip. However, a number
of Israeli speakers spoke out against BDS (e.g. Gidi Grinstein, Mark
Regev) and even some Palestinian speakers (e.g. Abdul Malek Al-Jaber).

Tammi-Benjamin goes on to state that: “Moreover, at least two of the
Israeli speakers represent organizations which engage in relentless Israel
bashing, and several other speakers on the Israeli side have been harshly
critical of Israeli government policy. In addition, two of the four
supposedly neutral international organizations, whose representatives made
presentations to the OTI students, are well-known for their virulently
anti-Israel bias.”

It is true that we spoke to some Israeli speakers who were critical of
some Israeli policies and that some of the international organizations
criticized Israeli policies. But we also spoke to some Palestinian
speakers who were critical of Palestinian policies. The international
organizations criticizing Israel’s policies also criticized Palestinian
policies. Also, all organizations that were neither Israeli nor
Palestinian were not categorized as neutral but as international. Last but
not least, we spoke to more Israeli speakers than Palestinian speakers. So
again, the assumption that the overwhelming majority of speakers on the
recent OTI trip expressed anti-Israel tendencies is factually incorrect.

I will not discuss or challenge the information Tammi Rossman-Benjamin has
provided about 15 of the speakers and organizations we allegedly visited
with (some of which we didn’t meet with. Though others probably would
challenge her categorization and analysis of these speakers. Let’s assume,
however, for argument’s sake that it is true that these 15 organizations
and speakers expressed strong anti-Israel tendencies (which they did not
in their actual presentations). But they are still only 15 of the over 70
speakers we met with.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s biggest distortion of the OTI program is that she
does not even once acknowledge the many very pro-Israel and in some cases
even anti-Palestine speakers with whom the OTI group met. Following her
logic and way of argument I could easily pick out 15 anti-Palestine
speakers and conduct basic online research to find statements they made in
the past and their organizational affiliations, and present the OTI trip
as a very Zionist, right-wing pro-Israel and anti-Palestine trip.

Here is a review of some of the pro-Israel speakers on our 2010 itinerary.
We spoke with about 10 mostly very right-wing settlers: 5 settlers in a
panel discussion in Efrat, David Wilder in Hebron, Avi Zimmerman and a
settler who had been evacuated from Gaza in Ariel, Avihu Cohen who build
the outpost Karmei Zur as well as a spokes person of the neighboring
settlement. We did not just speak with them but visited them in four
settlements and outposts.

We spoke to 5 very outspoken pro-Israel politicians: Gidi Grinstein
(President and founder of the Reut Institute), Ashley Perry (Senior
Advisor, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister), Pini Meidan (former officer,
National Intelligence Agency of Israeli (Mossad) and former Foreign Policy
adviser), Mark Regev (spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister) and
Hamad Amar (Knesset Member Ysrael Beitenu).

We talked to a number of other very pro-Israeli speakers who are neither
settlers nor politicians, such as retired Colonel Danny Tirza, the
architect of the separation barrier, retired General Alik Ron (former head
of the Northern Command, Israeli Police), and very political pro-Israel
civilians like Yossi Zur and Ron Kehrmann, whose children died in a
suicide attack on a bus in Haifa.

I could add more to this list of speakers we spent time with, but I hope I
made my point that you could easily reverse the argument and portray OTI
as a very right-wing, pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian initiative, if you
leave out more than 2/3 of the speakers in your analysis. Furthermore,
many of the left-wing Israeli speakers on our trip gave strong pro-Israel
and Zionist messages to the students.

In this context, the conclusion Tammi Rossman-Benjamin draws is very
troubling. She states: “students who go on such a trip and hear such
speakers cannot help but return to their UC campuses with negative
feelings about the Jewish state.”

Besides the point that this statement belittles the students who
participated in the trip, it is again very misleading in the context of
only highlighting certain speakers. Given this logic you could also make
the argument that hearing all the right-wing Israeli speakers, students
cannot help but return to their UC campuses and want to support the
settlement enterprise in the West Bank.

Tammi Rossman-Banjamin then further concludes, based on a selectively
chosen statement from a blog of one of the non-Jewish OTI participants
from UCSC that she believes that “OTI will exacerbate the already serious
problems that Jewish students face on UC campuses.”

Again, she does not event highlight that the same blog also, for example,
talks about the terrible living conditions in Sderot or the tough
situation of young soldiers as well. The student’s blog’s final entry at
the end of the 18-day trip: At the end of the trip, we had a final group
reflection. Students were commenting that “The Jewish community thinks the
trip is pro-Palestinian, and the Arab-Muslim community thinks the trip is
pro-Israel.” … I don’t know how to give a justified conclusion to the
trip. I can’t really wrap up the 18 days in any way, other than I already
have in the blog. One speaker described the conflict as “in a state of
battle fatigue” and said “Your identity becomes your argument, your
argument becomes your identity”. Both sides are exhausted and entrenched
and determined and isolated. Both sides deserve peace. I asked one young
man from the group OneVoice why he bothered to flyer and organize his
community when he had told me he thought the current peace talks would
come to no avail. He said, essentially, “There’s always a chance. When
someone 30 years from now asks me, what were you doing then to help? I can
say I was doing something. I was working for peace.”

Again, selectively copying and reporting only part of the whole story
distorts the picture – not just about the feelings and intentions of the
blog writer. There are also other students who wrote blogs and came away
with a very pro-Israel analysis. If one were to only quote from one of
these pro-Israeli blogs then the perspective would be very different.

Does looking at some comments on a blog really qualify Tammi
Rossman-Benjamin to make such a strong statement that OTI will exacerbate
the already existing problems that Jewish students face on campus? Where
is the evidence for this serious accusation?

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin did not interacted with any Jewish students who
went on the trip in the past before writing her letter nor does she have
any proof that students participating in OTI have made conditions for
Jewish students on campus worse. This is a baseless and malicious
assumption. Especially in the context that the participating Jewish
students seemed to come to quite the opposite analysis
(http://ocjewishexperience.wordpress.com/
<http://ocjewishexperience.wordpress.com/&gt; ) that OTI actually has done
quite a bit to better the situation on campus.

This is not to say that because of OTI there will not be any more tensions
or challenges on campus. But one must acknowledge the positive merits of
the program exemplified by the participating students and their actions
and involvement. Claiming that OTI has made the campus climate worse is a
baseless accusation without merit and a distortion of reality.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s final criticism unfortunately follows the same
pattern of misinformation and misleading analysis. Having looked only at
an early draft of the itinerary she declares that there is a lack of
“sensitivity to Jewish faith and tradition shown on the recent OTI trip.”

This is another serious accusation. How can she know that this is true if
she not even once contacted any Jewish student on the trip?

She states that: “After arriving in Israel late Friday afternoon September
3rd, students were taken directly to the Old City for Shabbat dinner.
However immediately after that, at 9pm on Shabbat evening, they traveled
to Bethlehem, stayed in a hotel there, and spent all of Shabbat day
touring Bethlehem and Ramallah.”

It is correct that after landing in Israel we went to the Old City in
Jersualem with the whole group of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and
non-affiliated students. We met there with a representative of the Aish
HaTorah Yeshiva who lead us to the Western Wall and explained to us the
traditions and prayers before celebrating Shabbat together as a whole
group with him. Yes, we left later that night to our hotel of the first
days in Bethlehem. But at any time during the trip the Jewish students
had the option not to join the group and to take more time to observe
their religious practices. Given that we have had a mixed religious group,
we tried to be very respectful and inclusive to all faith traditions while
still having a trip with a program.

The Jewish students were an integral part of the planning for the trip and
actively helped devise the program. It was explicitly stated that anyone
could, at any time, opt-out of the program to observe his or her faith
(this of course applied to the Muslim and Christian students as well).

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin further criticizes that “Jewish students spent the
two days of Rosh Hashana and Shabbat evening and morning in Jordan,
touring the country and meeting with speakers, oblivious to the holiness
of these days. Instead of festive Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat meals,”

Again, this selective and limited reading of the itinerary is only
providing misleading information. The whole group celebrated the beginning
of Rosh Hashana together in Safed with teachings and explanations by an
Orthodox Rabbi. Jewish students had the option to leave and to spend the
time of Rosh Hashanah with their families or extended families in Israel.
Some of the students did this and rejoined the trip after the holiday.
Again, if the Jewish students wanted to they could opt out of the Jordan
trip or parts of it because of religious reasons.

Tammi Rossman-Bemjamin continues: “Jewish students participated in dinners
associated with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. And ironically, although
the schedule indicates that Muslim students were given the opportunity to
attend prayer services during their time in Jordan, no similar
opportunities were extended to Jewish students during Rosh Hashana and
Shabbat.”

Muslim and Christian students participated in Shabbat dinners, Rosh
Hashanah celebration and the whole Yom Kippur festivities. We took the
whole day off for Yom Kippur so that the whole group could participate in
the activities, something the author did not even mention. And just
because the schedule does not always spell out all the options give to
students, it does not mean they did not exist. To repeat: Jewish students
always had the option to follow their religious practices if they liked
(even during Shabbat in Jordan). Making up facts based on reading an
outdated itinerary and not talking to the participants is not a good
academic practice and does not result in a credible analysis of any
program.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin concludes her misleading, incomplete and faulty
analysis of the OTI program with the recommendation that resources from
the Jewish community not to be used to support the Olive Tree Initiative,
linking OTI again to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel tendencies, which is
far away from the truth.
Jewish organizations have the right and freedom to invest their money
wherever they like. But given my detailed response to Tammi
Rossman-Benjamin’s criticism of the Olive Tree Initiative, I believe that
her letter should not be the bases on which to make this decision because
it is completely inaccurate and shows faulty analysis.

The Olive Tree Initiative is an experiential learning initiative that
shows both, and even multiple sides and narratives of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, people are exposed to
narratives they may not like or support. But given the balanced approach
in selecting speakers on the trip and the reflection, debate and critical
analysis, all controversial perspectives are met with counter-arguments by
other speakers, and students within the group, and never stand on their
own.

I understand that some people do not like our philosophy of 360-degree
education and the need to listen to multiple perspectives to better
advocate and understand one’s own perspective. They only want people to
listen to their side. Other community members like and see the value and
impact of our work and have supported it since the beginning, including
through the channels of the Rose Project of the Jewish Federation of
Orange County. While everyone has the right to question and ask where
their support goes and to advocate for transparency, equally people have
the right to support programs they like and have their money used to
support the important work of OTI (which a good number of funders in the
Jewish community have done through the Rose Project and by directly giving
to OTI).

OTI has become an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue and
cooperation between individual students and student groups. We are
constantly improving the program and are open to criticism and
suggestions, but as much as Tammi Rossman-Benjamin advocates for
transparency we also have the right to be represented accurately. The
Truth (Ha’Emet) goes in both directions and is a mandate for everyone.

I hope this detailed email clarified the issues raised and I hope it leads
to more constructive dialogue.

All the best,

Daniel Wehrenfennig, Ph.D.
Director, Olive Tree Initiative
University of California, Irvine

oti@uci.edu
(949)824-3230
http://www.olivetreeinitiative.org

One Response

  1. […] Rossman – Benjamin, an adjunct member of the U.C. Santa Cruz faculty that was published by the OC Task Force on Antisemitism. Ms. Rossman-Benjamin had criticized the predominance of anti-Israel, alleged antisemitic […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: