ZOA: OC Federation “Should Disassociate From Olive Tree Initiative; Take The Necessary Steps To Restore The Community’s Faith In Its Words And Action”

ZOA Urges UC Irvine To Terminate Olive Tree Initiative, And Federation To Stop Funding It, After Students Secretly Meet With Hamas Leader

Courtesy of the Zionist Organization of America ( ZOA)

In letters sent on April 1, 2011, 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 on the Jewish Federation of Orange County (the “Federation”) 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 revelation about the secret meeting was made in a letter dated October 8, 2009, from leaders of the Federation – Jeffrey H. Margolis, Co-Chair, Rose Project; Dr. James Weiss, Co-Chair, Rose Project; and Shalom C. Elcott,  President & CEO of the Federation – to UCI Chancellor Michael Drake.

In their letter, Federation leaders notified Chancellor Drake that the students who went on the OTI trip in 2009 met with Aziz Duwaik, a top leader of Hamas, and that the students had been instructed not to tell anyone about the meeting.  The students were reportedly given two reasons to keep the meeting a secret:  first, “to avoid being detained upon reentering Israel from the West Bank or being held at the airport before leaving the country”; and second, to avoid being confronted “with anyone who would have disagreed with this meeting had they known about it in advance – namely, Orange County Jewish community and leadership, and UCI administration.”

Federation leaders noted that one UCI faculty member and two UCI doctoral candidates were on the trip and “in charge of arrangements on the ground.”  The Federation asked UCI to investigate the planning and execution of the meeting with Duwaik, as well as the alleged directive to keep the meeting a secret.  They also asked that “proper disciplinary measures be enforced as appropriate.”

Of primary concern to the Federation in this letter was the negative publicity that disclosure of the students’ meeting with a leader of the terrorist group Hamas could bring to the Federation and to UCI.  The Federation leaders noted that the students’ secret meeting with Duwaik “occur[ed] on the heels of learning that the ZOA has written a letter to UCI concerning the Muslim Student Union-sponsored George Galloway program/fundraiser that took place on campus in May 2009.  The ZOA has reason to believe that this fundraiser may have provided material support to Hamas in July 2009.  While this is an entirely separate issue from the OTI concerns, you should take into account the possibility that both issues involve Hamas and could be linked in any media story.”

On information and belief, the Chancellor did not respond in writing to the Federation’s letter.  But according to information from the Federation, UCI did not sanction or censure any of the UCI officials involved in the 2009 OTI trip.  The director of the OTI remains in his position.  And in an article in the Orange County Register on March 31, 2011, UCI spokesperson Cathy Lawhon not only failed to apologize for the fact that a secret meeting took place between students and a top leader of the terrorist group Hamas, but Ms. Lawhon also actually and shockingly justified the meeting, stating that “meeting with people of many different points of view is consistent with [the OTI’s] mission.”  Ms. Lawhon also left open the possibility that such a meeting may have occurred on other occasions.

In its letter to the chancellor, the ZOA called the secret meeting “an outrage.”  Noting that the OTI was set up in response to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel campus hostility, and to promote constructive dialogue among students about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the ZOA asked the Chancellor:  “If you were trying to address racism against blacks and improve black-white relations at UCI, and the university sponsored a program to teach racial harmony and promote tolerance among blacks and whites, would UCI ever even consider exposing students to David Duke, head of the Ku Klux Klan, who doesn’t even publicly call for the murder of blacks as Hamas does toward Jews?  Never.  You’d be horrified if UCI officials invited Klan representatives to meet with students, because students could very well end up learning the racist lies of Duke and the Klan and learn to hate blacks based on those lies.”

The ZOA noted that the secret meeting with the Hamas leader had not been authorized or approved in advance of the trip, and it might even be illegal.  The ZOA told the Chancellor that “it is a crime under U.S. law to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization like Hamas.”

The ZOA criticized UCI “for dedicating resources to the OTI and touting it to the public as an effective means for building bridges, encouraging dialogue and prompting tolerance among students and student groups.”  The ZOA cited detailed evidence that the OTI has not stopped the promotion of anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing on the UCI campus.  The Muslim Student Union has continued to sponsor programs and speakers that incite hatred of Jews and Israel.  The group even tried to squelch the expression of views it disagrees with when members of the Muslim Student Union shouted down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during his February 2010 lecture at UCI, and then lied to university officials afterwards about the fact that they had orchestrated the repeated disruptions in advance.

The ZOA informed the Chancellor that “the OTI has not been a solution to the anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel that plagues the UCI campuses.  If anything, the OTI has been part of the problem.”  The ZOA cited Jewish community concerns that the OTI trips include speakers who demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State of Israel, who have supported anti-Israel boycott and divestment efforts, and who are allied with groups that have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

In addition, on last year’s OTI trip, the Jewish holy days of Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah were treated insensitively and with disrespect, particularly as compared to the sensitivity and respect accorded to the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

The ZOA called on the Chancellor to sanction and censure the UCI officials involved in the 2009 OTI trip who knew or should have known that students met with a leader of the terrorist group Hamas and may have been involved in ensuring that students kept the meeting a secret.  In addition, the ZOA urged the Chancellor to issue a statement clarifying whether it is UCI’s position that the meeting with a Hamas leader was acceptable, as the article in the Orange County Register states; whether such a meeting has occurred on other OTI trips, and whether the Chancellor is guaranteeing that such a meeting will never happen again.  Finally, the ZOA called on the Chancellor to discontinue the OTI program, “until the Orange County community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, can be assured that the program will be carried out ethically and responsibly, and that it will no longer give a platform to any speakers who promote the murder of Jews or seek to harm or destroy the Jewish State of Israel.”

In a separate letter to Federation leaders Jeffrey Margolis, James Weiss and Shalom Elcott, the ZOA acknowledged that the “Federation did the right thing by notifying UCI when it learned that students had met with a Hamas leader.  But that wasn’t enough.”  The Federation should have disclosed the fact of this meeting to the Jewish community, particularly since so many members of the community had raised concerns about the OTI and whether the Jewish community should be funding and supporting it.  The ZOA criticized the Federation for keeping the information a secret and continuing “to tout the OTI program as a positive and effective response to the anti-Semitism and Israel-basing at UCI.”

The ZOA also criticized the Federation for the way it is representing to the community its role in funding and supporting the OTI.  Even if, as the Federation has claimed, the funding comes from a donor to the Federation who specifically designates the donation for the OTI, “the bottom line is that a donation was made to the Federation,” which the Federation then gave to fund and support the OTI.  The Federation would not have accepted the donation if it didn’t believe in and support the OTI.  Indeed, the Federation’s letter to Chancellor Drake about the students’ clandestine meeting with a Hamas leader specifically states that the Federation is the OTI’s “largest funder.”  A flyer for an OTI program at UCI specifically lists the Rose Project of Jewish Federation of Orange County and Shalom Elcott himself, the Federation’s President and CEO, as supporters.   The Federation also reviews the itineraries for the OTI trips, it reviews the speakers and site visits that student participants will be exposed to, and it communicates with the OTI program’s leadership, according to the Federation’s letter to the Chancellor.  The ZOA wrote:  “If the Federation expects community support for its endeavors, it must be open and truthful about exactly what it is doing and why.  It should also go without saying that if the Federation expects community support, it should not be keeping important information from the Jewish community.”

In addition, the ZOA criticized the Federation for focusing on how disclosure of the secret meeting with a leader of the terrorist group Hamas could harm the Federation and UCI, rather than on the students who were placed in “a precarious situation.”   There was no guarantee that the UCI students would be safe sitting in a room with a top leader of a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group that has murdered Jews and Americans.  Also, “when UCI exposed its students to a top Hamas terrorist leader, the university essentially allowed students to learn the ugly lies and venom that Hamas promotes about Jews and Israel; students’ own belief could have been twisted to learn to hate Jews and Israel.”  The ZOA noted that “when Jewish students and their families agreed to participate in the OTI trips, they relied on the Federation’s assurances that the trip would be safe, well-supervised, adhere to a carefully conceived and pre-approved itinerary, and promote the interests of Israel and the Jewish community. . . . Your private letter to the Chancellor focuses on preserving the Federation’s close relationship with UCI and avoiding damage to the Federation and to UCI.  Where was the regard for Jewish students, their families, and the rest of the Jewish community to whom you’re accountable?”

The ZOA urged the Federation to “completely disassociate itself from the OTI, and make it clear to UCI and the Orange County community exactly why it is doing so.”  In addition, the ZOA called on the Federation to participate in a community forum about the OTI, sponsored by the ZOA’s Orange County chapter, so that the community’s questions and concerns can finally be addressed.

Morton A. Klein, the ZOA’s National President, called on UCI Chancellor Michael Drake to conduct a full investigation into how the OTI trip has been administered, and to terminate the program until the honesty and integrity of the OTI is assured.  Mr. Klein also called on the Jewish Federation of Orange County to finally terminate all funding and support for the OTI:  “For years, we’ve been complaining to Chancellor Drake about the hostile campus environment for Jewish students at UCI, which led the ZOA to file the first complaint alleging campus anti-Semitism that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ever agreed to investigate under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Although OCR dismissed the case because it had interpreted Title VI not to protect Jewish students, recent disclosures by the former head of OCR about the ZOA’s case have revealed the truth about the UCI investigation:  that OCR investigators had actually concluded that there was a hostile environment for Jewish students at UCI and that UCI had violated Title VI.

“But Chancellor Drake has continued to close his eyes to the problems on his campus.  He continues to claim that his campus is one of tolerance and respect, and he attributes those attributes in part to the Olive Tree Initiative – even though after the OTI was implemented, the anti-Semitic and hateful anti-Israel rhetoric continued, the Muslim Student Union tried to shut down the speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, and the campus may have been used as a base for fundraising for the terrorist group Hamas when the Muslim Student Union sponsored a campus speech by George Galloway.  It’s time for the Chancellor to start confronting the problem of anti-Semitic bigotry that plagues his campus.  While the Olive Tree Initiative may have been well-intentioned when it was conceived, it hasn’t fixed the problems.  The program has not been implemented ethically and responsibly, and it should be terminated until we are assured that it will be.

“We at the ZOA regret to state that the Federation has been complicit in the difficulties at UCI.  It took years for the Federation to even acknowledge that anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing are problems at UCI.  Even now, the Federation minimizes the problems or pretends that they are being effectively addressed by efforts like the Federation-supported OTI.

“The Federation’s October 8, 2009 letter to Chancellor Drake unfortunately shows that the Federation has been more concerned with preserving its relationship with UCI, and with avoiding damage to the university and to its own reputation, than with the Jewish community.  The Federation should have gone to the authorities immediately, once its leaders learned that students were taken to a secret meeting with a top leader of Hamas.  This was particularly important given that the Federation knew about the possibility that funds may have been raised on the campus for Hamas only months before.

“We urge the Federation to take the necessary steps to restore the community’s faith in its words and actions.  As a first step, the Federation should stop supporting and funding the OTI or any other program that promotes anti-Semitism or demonizes or undermines the State of Israel.  The Federation should insist that UCI sanction or censure the university officials involved in arranging and authorizing the secret meeting and instructing students to hide it.  In addition, the Federation should make it clear to UCI and the entire community why it is cutting all ties to the OTI.”

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