Jewish Students Under Attack
Jewish students at the University of California, Irvine are under attack yet again — but this time, it is not by anti-Israel activists — it is by unhappy members of the Orange County Jewish community.
Last week, a small group of Jewish community members circulated an email calling for divestment and boycott of the primary backers of UCI’s Jewish students: Orange County’s Jewish Federation and Hillel. The call for boycott was on the basis of the organizations’ affiliation with the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI).
The Olive Tree Initiative is an organization founded by a number of Muslim, Christian, Arab, and Jewish students. We joined together because we felt that our campus lacked a socially-safe space for civil and constructive dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our unity came not through common ideology, but rather from a consensus on the indispensable value of understanding different narratives and opinions in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Being raised in an Iranian-Jewish household, I was always taught that inquiry and curiosity were core tenets of Judaism, and the essence of OTI seemed very much aligned with these two Jewish values.
In the early stages of founding the organization, I approached Jewish Federation & Family Services and Orange County Hillel to rally for their support, because I knew how important it was for them to improve the campus climate at UCI. They foresaw the positive impact of an initiative like this, and graciously offered their support.
As a recent alumnus, and as a veteran leader of UCI’s Jewish student community, I feel compelled today, to write in defense of Jewish students, whose voice has been smothered and ignored throughout this controversy, and in defense of Jewish Federation and Hillel, the two most significant organizations who have stood by the students’ side for years, through the tough times and the good, to keep our community alive and thriving.
As the past President of Anteaters for Israel (AFI), UCI’s pro-Israel student organization, I was active in leading the pro-Israel community at UCI for nearly half a decade, perhaps longer than any student leader in the history of UCI. I attended the University at a unique period of time; I was one of the few individuals who witnessed a once loosely connected group of Jewish students transform into the vibrant community that exists today.
I was the guy on the front lines. Every time an anti-Israel speaker came to campus, I rallied students together, grabbed the markers and poster boards, made signs, and headed out to protest. I was the one on Ring Road, the main quad on campus, debating face to face with those who sought to delegitimize Israel, when no one else would. I was the one who voluntarily spent my Saturday nights planning Israel festivals and speaking engagements with Israel’s Consul General, when all my other friends were out having fun, enjoying their college years as they should be. And I did all of this because I love Israel.
I was also the guy who helped start the Olive Tree Initiative, a student organization which is one of the victims of this unfair slanderous campaign today, by members of our very own community. Why is the group under attack? Because OTI recently chose to invite a Palestinian speaker to campus, whose message certain community members disapprove of.
I co-founded OTI to promote dialogue and understanding about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through experiential learning. Sometimes, this means hearing from people who possess different or even controversial perspectives. In the past, the group has hosted a plethora of other speakers, including Avihu Cohen, an Israeli who lost his father to Palestinian terror, and even controversial figures such as Ron Nachman, the Mayor of Ariel and a leader of the Judea and Samaria settler movement.
I am not one to demand that every person agree or support OTI. But when any member of my community expresses doubt in the organization, I share with them this: OTI has managed to convince members of the Muslim Student Union, a group whose leaders traditionally advocate against any recognition of Israel, to visit Israel, to meet with bereaved Israeli families, government spokesmen, and Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, to experience Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, to speak with Holocaust survivors, and to understand and hear first hand why comparing Gaza to the Holocaust is not only offensive, but also inaccurate. It’s managed to convince my Lebanese friend, a young Druze girl who lost innocent members of her family in the 2006 Lebanon war, and who once was okay with the idea of Israel not existing, that the Jewish people need a state. What more could we ask for? Arab students to sing the HaTikvah?
OTI students with Israeli Minister of Knesset Orit Zuaretz (Kadima)
It goes both ways. The initiative has also helped Jewish students develop a greater understanding of the challenges and hardships faced by the Palestinians, and this carries great value in itself.
OTI is remarkable because it has been the only successful attempt in developing relationships between members of Anteaters for Israel and the Muslim Student Union.
I personally have found the Olive Tree Initiative to be one of the most exceptional educational initiatives available to UCI students today. My experience with OTI is what inspired me to complete my graduate studies in Israel, and to dedicate my life in service to the Jewish people.
To be honest, I am embarrassed that members of the Jewish community would speak so negatively about an organization which encourages dialogue and conversation between Jewish and Muslim students. Rightfully so, these community members, along with most of us, are unhappy with many of the actions and speakers hosted by UCI’s Muslim Student Union. Yet they speak negatively about the efforts of Jewish students to befriend and engage Muslim students in an attempt to create change, and they are demanding that funding be cut off from the rest of Jewish students who are not even remotely involved in this situation. Does this sound rational to you?
For those in the community who initiated or support this boycott, I plea to you: take some time to speak to the Jewish student leaders at UCI. Ask them questions. See what they think about this boycott. If you are unable to ask the students these questions…then ask yourself a question: Do you truly have the students interests at heart?
A call to boycott and divest from the Jewish Federation of Orange County and Hillel would greatly impair Jewish student life on the campus, and is entirely contrary to the community’s needs.
The Jewish Federation and Hillel of Orange County are the organizations that continue to help the students create and grow the thriving community they enjoy today. Despite the demands of a small number of community members, and perhaps at times even some national groups, these two organizations have always stood by the side of students. They have been there for UCI’s Jewish community through the good times and the bad. I hope our Jewish students can continue to count on you for your support.
The writer has asked to remain anonymous.
This post is also listed at http://israelforliberals.com/uci-jewish-students-under-attack/
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