Guest Post By UCI Alumnus
Guest Post by Oren Klein
Open Letter to the Jewish Community,
This is a genuine call for students to be seen as legitimate voices within the Orange County Jewish community. No one operates in a vacuum and, after all, any decisions the Jewish community makes directly affect us as well. UC Irvine’s Jewish students – and therefore residents of Orange County – also ask for transparency, and the right to know and be consulted when the community discusses issues surrounding their campus.
Our disagreement began with a simple misunderstanding, yet has ballooned into full-blown feud. One party is calling for the Jewish Federation of Orange County and Hillel Student Union to disassociate itself from the Olive Tree Initiative, its Jewish students, and repudiate it for showing the Palestinian perspective; the other is asking for solidarity
The main argument comes from local supporters of the Jewish Federation of Orange County voicing concerns that they may have indirectly funded an anti-Israel speaker through the Olive Tree Initiative. The reality is that a distinct group of private donors in the Rose Project are the ones supporting the initiative.
UC Irvine has a history of anti-Israel activism, as I am sure we all have witnessed; however as a direct result of private Jewish donations to the Rose Project, UCI’s Israel advocacy received national acclaim. In fact iFest was the creation of Anteater for Israel’s past President, and an Olive Tree Initiative co-founder, Isaac Yerushalmi. For the past few years Irvine’s leading pro-Israel organization on campus has been run by members of the Olive Tree Initiative. In the end, efforts to tar and feather Jewish community and student support for this initiative is an equally disturbing “character assassination” that should not be tolerated. The accusation that the Olive Tree Initiative fails to represent Jewish interests on campus, and is somehow a danger to the state of Israel, is a grave allegation and faulty misconception I wish to challenge.
Ultimately it is the Rose Project, and its Jewish donors, that have the choice whether to disassociate itself with the Olive Tree Initiative, however other Jewish donors who do not support the initiative can support other avenues for pro-Israel advocacy through the Jewish Federation of Orange County. I only ask that the Jewish community at least recognize the influence the imitative has on Israel advocacy.
First off, the Initiative demands respect for our first amendment freedom of speech, and if we as a community support this fundamental right, we are equally obliged to respect the right for any George Rishmawi to speak on campus. The initiative also respects our fundamental right to freely associate with whomever we wish, including the right for Jewish students and community members to support the Olive Tree Initiative and its presenters.
Secondly, the Israeli perspective was extensively covered by the trip’s itinerary, and is prominent within the Olive Tree Initiative community. We met with Danny Tirza, the IDF architect of the separation barrier; spoke with active soldiers, reservists, and even retired generals. We had a private meeting with a Holocaust survivor, and received a deeply moving tour of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; and to top it off we met with the spokesperson for the Jewish Community in Hebron, residents of Efrat, toured the city of Ariel and had the privilege of meeting with an Israeli evacuee from Gaza.
We swam the sea of coexistence and religious plurality throughout the corridors of Jerusalem’s Old City, and spoke with an Arab-Jewish co-owner of Maxim, who witnessed a suicide bomber disguised as a “pregnant” woman kill three generations of an Israeli family in his restaurant.
We met with Israelis and Palestinians working at Kerem Shalom crossing, and saw firsthand the process of moving humanitarian aid into Gaza. We even visited the rocket museum in Sderot, where only a fraction of our group made it to the nearest shelter in 15 seconds. We spoke to Gidi Greenstein on the nature and complexity of Zionism, spoke with Netanyahu’s chief spokesperson Mark Regev on Israel as the Jewish State, and yes even George Rishmawi.
I feel compelled to share with you that the initiative receives substantial criticism from Muslim and pro-Palestinian communities as well. The Olive Tree Initiative has been criticized for funding Israeli organizations, and acting contrary to the BDS movement by staying in Israeli hotels, and speaking with Israeli officials and IDF soldiers.
The Jewish community in Orange County has misunderstood supporters of the Olive Tree Initiative, its membership, and the organization’s values and approach. In addition, their claims misconstrue critical debate and dialogue for blind support and acquiescence, and underestimate the benefit this experience brings to the future of Israel advocacy. The original letter is further mistaken when it claims that “Jewish students are being sent right into the arms of anti-Israel activists with the full support of the Jewish Federation” when in fact Palestinian leaders and anti-Israel activists are being delivered right into the hands of Israel’s foremost student advocates.
Let me remind you that Students for Justice in Palestine’s inaugural meeting a few months ago, organized by many of last year’s MSU leadership, witnessed a group of Arab, Jewish, and non affiliated students standing up and criticizing the BDS movement and SJP’s tactics. When has UCI ever seen such strong unity among both Jewish and Arab students against misguided and destructive propaganda? More importantly why? The truth is that these students were all past and present members of the Olive Tree Initiative, which not only amplifies Israel’s concerns and perspectives, but has been tremendously effective at strengthening the moderate Palestinian voice on campus.
The Olive Tree Initiative should be applauded for its unique approach and contribution to UCI’s campus, as reflected by the UC Regent’s President Award for Outstanding Student Leadership, and the U.S. State Department Award for America’s top ten programs in Higher Education. The Rose Project deserves recognition for its contribution to Israel advocacy and support for UC Irvine’s Jewish students, and I further encourage the greater Jewish community to support the Olive Tree Initiative.
In conclusion we should shift the debate away from blaming individuals and organizations, and move towards our community’s right and historic duty to engage with individuals who challenge Israel. Let us set aside our differences regarding the Olive Tree Initiative, and remain united in our support for Israel’s right to exist, its historic message for peace, and one of Judaism’s most profound lessons, the golden rule: doing unto others what you would wish upon yourself.
To further clarify, this letter is written on behalf of no one but myself; a proud Israeli-American, member of the Olive Tree Initiative, and alumnus from the University of California at Irvine,
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