Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Olive Tree Initiative and the Jews: Travels and Travails:

How the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the UCI Hillel, and the Hillel Foundation of Orange County Softened the Pro-Israel Partisanship of Several UCI Jewish Students in 2008

The University of California at Irvine (UCI) published a book of approximately 112 pages in Spring 2009 as part of its “Expressions/ Impressions” series. It is volume 6 in the series and is subtitled “Special Edition: Olive Tree Initiative (OTI).” It contains personal memoirs, averaging 2-3 pages per author, by virtually every participant on the first OTI trip. The volume is instructive, beginning with information published at the end:

On pages 110-111, OTI formally lists with gratitude the institutions and individuals whom they acknowledge as their “partners”: the institutions and individuals that “Olive Tree Initiative would not have been possible without.” These include, inter alia, Rose Project of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Hillel Foundation of Orange County, Shalom Elcott, Jay Feldmann [sic], and Jordan Fruchtman. On Page 12, Daniel Wehrenfennig, the then-doctoral student who put together the program, writes: “The Jewish community through the Rose Project of the Jewish Federation in Orange County offered crucial financial support at just the right moment, as well as important contacts in the region.”

The faculty leaders’ theme of the trip was to convince students that they can be citizen peace builders and play a role in bringing peace by learning to refrain from taking sides and instead to listen and learn and communicate. Certainly, it is very important, and a central role of the liberal arts university, to educate students to listen respectfully to and learn from those with conflicting viewpoints. But there is no virtue, after listening and learning and understanding, in refraining from partisanship. It helps that the side is just. Sometimes it is righteous to take a side. The OTI trip did not soften the understandable partisanship of the trip’s Moslem Arab students, but its exceptional ideological tilt attenuated Jewish attitudes for Israel.

Other than a solid memoir by Isaac Yerushalmi, one of the OTI participants, virtually every other Jewish person’s memoir reflects a softening of position – not necessarily to pro-Palestinian, not necessarily to neutral in all cases, but to a greater sense that there needs to be a Palestine alongside Israel, augmented by a deep belief that the masses of Palestinians really sincerely want a peaceful coexistence with Israel, but are obstructed in their dream solely by their political leaders. Contrasted alongside the Jewish students’ softening, among the Palestinian and other Arab students there is an overarching sense that some may have evolved positively in viewing their fellow Jewish UCI students as humans, but that they also were traumatized by seeing in-person, and without meaningful context, the “suffering in Palestine,” the Israeli military checkpoints, the refugee camps. Although some of the Moslem students speak warmly of a Friday night Shabbat dinner the OTI group had on the terrace of a Canadian-Jewish family who recently had made aliyah to East Jerusalem, the Palestinians came out strongly, even strengthened, for Palestine. Two or three speak of their shock in viewing what they honestly saw as apartheid – military checkpoints at the security wall, the people in Qalqilya walled in except for a few hours each day, spiffy new superhighways for Jews to drive from one Judea-Samaria community to the next but barred to Palestinians who instead must use separate roads. Different color licensed plates. The students seem utterly unaware of context:

“I have heard people talk about Palestinian apartheid, and I dismissed this as an overstated comparison. . . . But it wasn’t until I visited the West Bank that I became keenly aware that this was an area inhabited by two groups who were nevertheless separated. I witnessed an elevated Israeli-built superhighway intended for settlers overlapping a narrow road mandated for Palestinian usage. . . . There is no point in building two roads over each other unless it is desired to prohibit at least one group of people from going to certain places.” (P. 54)

Daniel Wehrenfennig, the former UCI doctoral student who now directs OTI, was the central crafter of the itinerary. His own personal bias is that Judea and Samaria are “occupied Palestine.” He formally decided not to bring the students to Sderot or the Golan Heights. (P. 11) So, on a trip that relied heavily on perceptions at the hot spots, the students never saw the shell-shock impact of the unilateral Gaza disengagement, the resultant nightmare sustained in Sderot by those who took risks for peace. And they never saw the facts on the ground in the north, the hands-on actual stakes for Israel in holding the promontories of Golan. But they were brought to several Palestinian “refugee camps.” Those locations were deemed safe. One student came away from OTI’s visit to Bethlehem’s Kanistat al-Mahid (Christians call it “Church of the Nativity”) with an understanding that the site “is a focal point of Palestinian resistance. The nativity church is arguably one of the most abused and neglected holy Christian sites. In it you will find Israeli bullets that have damaged statues of saints only a few meters away from the birth spot of Jesus Christ.” (P. 56)

They met a Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem who impacted them, but one of the Palestinian students writes in her memoir that, through the Yad Vashem experience, she now better understands why Israel essentially is xenophobic towards Palestinians:

“I understand that after two thousand years of persecution and then the Holocaust, the panic they felt and the sense of urgency to get out of Europe may explain that sometimes you don’t care whose land you’re in and whose farms you’re stepping on. You just want to get out and try and seize any opportunity to a life of security, free of fear and torture. . . .BUT . . . I hope future generations are less overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, and distrust of others, as I feel many Jews are. I hear Jews say Hamas, Iran or the Arabs want to wipe out the Jews, throw them into the sea, etc., etc. . . . These claims from Iran and Hamas are at their heart media stunts which in turn play into Israeli politicians’ rhetoric and instill even more fear and xenophobia in the people.” (Pages 38-39)

An Israeli soldier, Yuval, who had served in Lebanon in 2006 spoke apologetically to the group, saying “. . . I would always ask myself what I was doing, why we have wars, etc.” The UCI student continues: “He spoke of Lebanon’s beauty, the mountains, the sea, the nature. . . . This encounter, although unique, left me uneasy. The truth is, as he spoke of Lebanon’s beauty, I felt violated. As if my country is some protected jewel of mine and Yuval had snuck into my room and held that jewel, enjoyed its beauty, and then threw it on the floor and stepped on it. And although the jewel is still here and mine, it is tainted. He had come into Lebanon uninvited, admired its beauty yet contributed to its destruction.” (P. 42) Consistent with the OTI strategy of presenting Israeli speakers primarily left of the mainstream, the group also met with Yonatan Adiri, a former advisor to Shimon Peres. “He both praised and criticized Israel’s democracy,” (P. 46) complaining primarily about compromises that have to be made to form and maintain multi-party coalition governments in Israel. It is ironic that, in advocating compromise with Palestinian Arabs who are not motivated by Israel’s best interests, he lambasted compromise with Israeli Jews, his own people.

The students were afforded a presentation by an Israeli professor, Muli Peleg, a long-time far-Left “Peace Now” organizer and advisor to Yossi Beilin, formerly one of the Knesset’s most far-Left members and a key shaper of the now-discredited Oslo Accords. Peleg left an impression on many of them, with his basic narrative that Israeli and Palestinian leaders never will make peace, but that peace only will come via the “bottom-up process” – i.e., bypassing the established leadership and institutions, and instead starting with people like the students at UCI who then spread the word, build the momentum, mobilize NGOs, and create a movement from the bottom, working its way up until the leaders at the top have no choice but to make compromises for peace. “One of the speakers on our trip, Muli Peleg, a professor in Tel Aviv, believes that one of the main obstacles is convincing Israelis that Palestinians want peace . . . .” (P. 61) There seems no perception that Israel had disengaged unilaterally from South Lebanon and from Gaza, twice taking risks for peace, being punished brutally for having taken those risks. Southern Lebanon has been controlled by the Hezbollah and Gaza by Hamas ever since.

Most of the students come away with a sense that there is no discernible solution to intractable differences in the region, so there needs to be a two-state solution. Their model is the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, co-owned by an Israeli Jew and an Israeli Arab, where Israelis eat and Arabs eat. An Arab woman had come into this center for Jewish-Arab coexistence a few years ago, blew herself up, and thereby murdered 21 people and severely wounded 51 others. The Haifa community came together to restore the restaurant. That restaurant becomes the metaphor of the two-state. The OTI students learned from a Captain in the Israeli Defense Forces that 95% of the two populations want peace. “Unfortunately, it is the other five percent who are not willing to compromise.” (P. 26) It is noteworthy that, when UCI Olive Tree Initiative emphasizes that its program balances Palestinian Arab views and speakers with Israeli views and speakers, in order to provide UCI students a fair and balanced understanding, the selected Israeli presenters are disproportionately left of the mainstream of Israeli society, thus skewing the UCI students’ perceptions. The UCI OTI group did go to Ariel, a city of nearly 20,000 and capital of the Jewish communities in Samaria, where they heard Ron Nachman, the mayor. However, that session does not resonate in the students’ memoirs. Thus, the IDF captain and Prof. Peleg are misperceived as representing mainstream Israeli perspective as a normative counterweight to Palestinian Arab propagandists.

The UCI Hillel Shaliach, Tzvi Raviv, participated. His only memorable thought was his last sentence: “I believe the future of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state is tied with the creation of an independent prosperous Palestinian state.” (P. 44) That was the Zionist professional who served the Jewish students at UCI Hillel for the two or three years he was on shlichut, and who participated on this trip after helping with the creation of OTI in tandem with UCI Hillel and its director. Shannon Shibata, the tour guide, portrays herself as someone who came to the region as pro-Palestinian but changed to neutral, after getting to hear all sides’ narratives, and she echoes the OTI theme, repeatedly encouraging the students to go back as neutrals committed to peace. It is not clear how much Shibata is paid by OTI.

In summary, the publication confirms that the OTI program is not anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, but surely is deeply repugnant to an identifying Jewish community’s ideals for what a normative and healthy Jewish community should be supporting. There would not be Jews today if Judaism’s forebears had been neutrals. When the world was polytheistic, Jews were not neutral on the question of monotheism. When the ancient world worked seven days, Jews were not neutral on the question of a day’s Sabbath. Jews do not send children to Jewish day schools or Hebrew schools for Bar/Bat Mitzvah study to be neutral. Mainstream normative Jews are fair and honest, and also are not neutral. By contrast, while portraying neutrality, the Israeli portion of the two-week OTI trip is top-heavy with apologists from a distinctly Left orientation that minimizes context and Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria. One swallow does not a summer make, nor does Mayor Ron Nachman of Ariel counterbalance a program inexorably tilted, even if unintentionally, towards moral relativism. One student, a non-Jewish/ non-Arab/ non-Moslem lady, came away with this lesson from her OTI travels: “Both Jews and Palestinians have suffered. I cried for both fathers of suicide victims and for the Palestinians who face humiliating discrimination on a daily basis.” (P. 72) In the words of another OTI student upon her return from the trip, and back at her UCI classes:

“Recently we had an assignment on the Palestine-Israel conflict. Our group had to show the Israeli perspective. One person said, I’m so glad I’m in the Israel group because I’m so pro-Israel. That made me upset because I couldn’t figure out why he would be so one-sided. It doesn’t help that he is Asian, not Jewish, so I don’t know where he’s coming from with this. So even on a small level, [now that I have been on OTI]I can help people better understand [neutrality].” (P.93)

Clearly, the problem transcends OTI, which is an important focus, and the greater problem is that the Orange County Hillel is in the hands of people who are focused on raising money but who, among their critical decision makers, include inter alia individuals who have no vision of Jewish authenticity nor the capacity or depth of Jewish knowledge for having such vision. They run an annual Poker Game, which many of the Hillel directors deem the annual highlight of the UCI Hillel calendar year. Soon after the wrenching Moslem Student Union (MSU) annual Hate Israel Week, they do a reactive week of pro-Israel programming whose substance completely dilutes Israel and her character, so that students learn very little about Israel while watching various non-Jewish dance groups perform and while patronizing booths that mostly are substantively superficial, offering very little about Israel. (That week’s main value is that members of the local Jewish community come down to campus and mingle.) The UCI Hillel has moved away from meaningful weekly Shabbat programming to an occasional once-monthly TGIF dinner. Sukkot and Chanukah have passed by. Meanwhile, it is clear that the Federation is in terrible hands. They do a very good job for the community at the annual Lag B’Omer Israel Fest, and some of their agencies do good work, completely separate from affiliation. Thus, the staff of Federation does little by way of Family Services; rather, Jewish Family Services does its excellent work with its own people, even as that agency has been compelled by the economy to merge into the Federation tent. Perhaps most importantly for the job security of Federation professionals in a community whose lay leaders seem mostly to value superficial displays of wealth and substantively void edifices, they raise some good amounts of cash in a city where, as one rabbi of ten years’ pulpit experience explained, “The Jews here are committed a mile wide and one inch deep.”

So we have a Hillel Foundation of Orange County and a UCI Hillel that is rudderless, without a vision or the people in the critical roles capable of having a vision, and a Federation being guided by those with a vision inimical to ours supported by patrons who are pleased that their Jewish Community Center is 125,000 square feet with a gymnasium, health and fitness center, two basketball courts, pool and aquatics center, and a Holocaust memorial garden. And it was designated a “Facility of Merit” by Athletic Business Magazine, too. With that kind of wealth, it is easy to see how the community would not notice, below the radar, that the Federation has submitted the community’s name and reputation, and has devoted Jewish charitable funds, towards so deeply flawed and damaging a project as the UCI Olive Tree Initiative.

1 comment:

  1. OTI is a fraud and taking students to meet with a leader of HAMAS and being told not to discuss this is a violation of their human rights. Shame on you all!