Monday, December 20, 2010

Open Letter to a Jewish Student re the Olive Tree Initiative

Dear Friend,

You have written several people to explain the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) to them. I have read your words, and I share some thoughts.

1. You are active in something you cannot control. You will not always be at UCI. Not everyone thinks like you. With each ensuing year, the OTI becomes something that less-devoted Jews will choose to do also. Some will do it because they hear it is “awesome.” Cool foods, cool music, and you get to meet people who even know terrorists. (But don’t worry – Gomez will be there, so it’s safe.) Some will hear that it is fabulous on a resumé if you want to apply to a major law school or MBA program. Little by little, the founding generation and its successor passes, and what is left is an institutional protoplasm that takes on a life of its own, which you no longer can control. Not every trip to Jenin will be met with responses by Jews who understand why Israel had to smash through those alleys and kill terrorists, in the aftermath of an interminable series of suicide bombings emanating specifically from Jenin-trained suicide terrorists. They will see the propaganda movie that is shown to UCI Olive Tree Initiative students in Jenin, with the Arab body parts, and they will wonder why Israel had to be so cruel. They will hear about Jenin as a “Palestinian Refugee Camp” and will not even have the presence of mind to ask how the people in Jenin can call themselves “refugees” if they now supposedly are repatriated and live in the land from which they supposedly fled, “Palestine.” They will hear the George Rishmawis telling them at OTI programs about how Israelis literally shoot live ammunition randomly at Arabs. They will see the Israeli military checkpoints at the Security Fence, and it will lack context. It would be like someone who died in the 1990s coming back to life and seeing the TSA security lines at the airport. If people do not like the long oines and invasive body searches with context, imagine the impact of seeing it without context. Maybe there will be one or two Jews on the trip who know a bit, although definitely not what you know. But you will not be there. Who will be there to ask the Arab Palestine propagandist – who bemoans the “Israeli occupation” and says “all we ever wanted was our land” – the obvious question: “You had the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip before June 1967, so what were you trying to accomplish when you founded the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964? What were you trying to liberate when the anti-Israel Arab terrorist movement formally began in 1964?” Instead, the least-ignorant-Jew on the trip – a far cry from the most knowledgeable Jew – will become the Zionist voice: “Well, East Jerusalem. I guess Israel should let that be the capital of Arab Palestine, but Israel also should be allowed to have some of Jerusalem. And Israel should not have cut so deeply into the Arab West Bank – “Palestine” – with that fence just to protect a few settlers who probably don’t belong there. OK, guys, that’s my compromise, what’s yours?” Yes, there will be OTI visits with the Israel side, too, for “balance.” But, unlike the monolithic Palestine side that does not accept a permanent Jewish-sovereign polity anywhere in the Middle East, the Israel side will be diverse. There will even be the retired Israeli general who looks back on the 1967 liberation of Jerusalem – “haKotel b’yadeinu!” – and will apologize to the UCI students on the OTI adventure for his having been caught in the same "mindless euphoria” back then that caused Israelis to lose sight of the big picture. But he will assure his UCI OTI audience that he has atoned over the years and has been active in several “peace” campaigns in recent years, even writing the Israeli Prime Minister that Israel has it all wrong – and, after all, he knows because he served under the Prime Minister’s brother.

2. You continually are under the misapprehension that Daniel Wehrenfennig is something more than a grad student who just got a Ph.D. a year ago. Despite what has been conveyed to you, which you have conveyed to me, he is not a world-famous nor even a significant peace maker. He has some publications. I have publications, too. I published a law review study that was cited by at least nine different prominent federal judges in handing down significant multi-million-dollar federal decisions. That does not make me a Supreme Court justice. This fellow is not Richard Holbrooke. He is not Henry Kissinger. He is a fellow with some publications on ideas for citizen involvement in peacemaking, from Northern Ireland to “Occupied Palestine.” It is like a lovely slim blonde woman or a great-looking hunk of a guy coming to Hollywood and expecting to be hired immediately for a starring role in the first movie for which she or he auditions. In time, she or he is waiting tables. At a seedy bar. You see, the problem is that I come at it from the perspective of someone who not only loves all of Israel, including the communities of Yehuda and Shomron, including the Neve Aliza community I helped establish in 1985 in Karnei Shomron, but also from the perspective of a rabbi. I am a rabbi who cares about Jews. This is not a good program for Jews, and it does not bring Jewish students an inch closer to Judaism, to Torah, to Shabbat, to mitzvot. An OTI Friday night at Aish HaTorah with a group that is 80 percent non-Jewish doesn’t cut it, particularly when the program spends Shabbat Day in “Arab Palestine.” A program that appallingly but predictably spends most of Rosh Hashanah in “Palestine” and Jordan doesn’t cut it – even if they tell the Jews that “Hey, if you want to leave the group for two days for your holiday, that’s OK.” I expect that from a law firm where I work. I expect that at a public school in Iowa. That does not cut it as a program for Jewish students to be spending two weeks in Israel.

3. Note that this issue never really energized me until the salaried Hillel director and the Hillel student president each opted to launch mass-distributed character-assassination letters against a member of my shul. Those letters were sent to me and thousands of other Jews on Shabbat. What Jewish organization publicly desecrates Shabbat so blithely? And they really calumniated her. Can you imagine? Based on the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of signatures to the letter defaming this woman, every single UCI Jewish student leader, every UCI Jewish student group president and vice-president, every last Jewish group on campus, and dozens other present and former UCI Jewish students all supposedly were so infuriated by her that they supposedly all signed onto a hate-filled letter within a day? In a lifetime, you will meet many Jewish leaders and even rabbis whom you will think have sold out a bit, slowed down a bit, lost whatever idealism or gleam in their eyes they may ever have had. You will hear them patronize you and talk to you about “life experience.” Well, let me tell you: I have been there, done that. I also am an activist. I still respect your fire without seeing you as “some stupid dopey kid who needs to grow up.” If I thought you were unworthy, I never would be devoting this kind of time and effort to write you as extensively as I am writing you here. I cherish and value student activists for Israel. But just as I do not superimpose on you a prejudice that you are too young for a serious discussion, don’t you superimpose on me a prejudice that I am too old. And, as a Jewish activist myself, I will tell you that in forty years of activism, going back to my first campaign – to convince NBC to renew “Star Trek” for another season – I never have gotten that many signatures onto a petition or a letter, that 100% a response, in less than a day. So there was something rotten immediately. I am telling you that the two letters that were mass-distributed that Shabbat bordered on legally actionable slander. More, the three separate letters were coordinated – a campaign coordinated among the Federation professional, the Hillel professional, and the Hillel student leader. And those letters not only were nasty, not only may have been legally actionable, but also included – in at least one case – significant forgery of names who did not sign onto it and even opposed it. Those letters attempted to a destroy a good woman over a possible scrivener’s error, but instead they opened huge new cans of worms, revealing far more than any of us had expected. That is what it took to wake up many people in this community that something here is not right. If they can defame and destroy this woman today, and we remain silent, what will stop them from defaming someone else next time? So those of us who never stopped being activists – just got detoured a few extra exits by the need to rear children, put them through high school and college, and earn income to pay bills for the kinds of personal needs (electric, gas, water) that are not funded by the Federation’s Rose Project – woke up. We found each other. We started doing some research. And we could not believe what we learned.

4. We found, as much to our shock as to our chagrin, that there is a cover-up in play. Suddenly UCI Hillel conveys that it never has supported or advocated or encouraged UCI Jewish student participation in the Olive Tree Initiative. First of all, that is a lie. It is not merely a fabrication, a falsification, or a mendacity. This is not Foggy Bottom nor “Cat on a Hit Tin Roof.” Here, we talk plainly. I am a congregational rabbi in Irvine, a member of the national executive committee of one national rabbinic body, a leader in another national rabbinic body, a former Chief Articles Editor of a prominent law review and former clerk to a nationally prominent federal appeals court judge, and I am saying it plainly: It is an outright lie by UCI Hillel. By contrast, the truth is that UCI Hillel actively advocated for and encouraged UCI Jewish student participation in the Olive Tree Initiative. I know what Tzvi Raviv told me, and I know what Bruce Manning told me. And I am a bit surprised that you seem unaware that Hillel encouraged the formation of OTI. So, as always happens in politics when the truth gets uncomfortable and difficult to answer, people give up on answering the truth and start creating “straw men” instead, knocking them down gleefully. So we now are being told by certain Hillel spokespeople that the activists are accusing Hillel of paying money towards OTI. Not true. That Hillel is accused of supporting OTI with money. Not true. Rather, Hillel stands accused of having been among those encouraging the formation and establishment of OTI, and it stands accused of having used its resources to encourage UCI Jewish students to go on OTI programs. And it is time for UCI Hillel to stop covering up and instead to admit the truth of its role in the formative year of Olive Tree Initiative. That – along with an apology to the Jewish community and to the Jewish students it misguided. Similarly, we now are being told that the activists accuse Federation of funding OTI. Not True. Of financially supporting OTI. Not true. Rather, Federation stands accused of taking Jewish charitable funds during this Great Recession, a time when Jewish Family Services of Orange County was forced to abandon its independence and to merge into Federation because there no longer was enough Jewish charitable money available to it, and giving those Jewish funds towards the airfare and tuition of Jewish students attending the Olive Tree Initiative program. Again, that Federation money made it possible for those UCI Jewish students to travel with OTI to “Palestine” to hear those terrible anti-Israel speeches in “Palestine,” to see that hateful movie in Jenin, to hear George Rishmawi threaten that, if the demands of the “Palestinian peacemakers” are not met this year, then the “peace activists” of “Palestine” may well have no alternative but to turn to violence next year.

5. More “straw men” ensued. We were told that, in our ignorance, we are calling OTI anti-Semitic. Not true. That we are calling Daniel Wehrenfennig anti-Semitic. Not true. That we oppose Wehrenfennig because he is a German. Not true. That we regard OTI as anti-Israel. Not true. That we regard Wehrenfennig as anti-Israel. Not true. Rather, what is true is that we regard the OTI as a terribly unfortunate and misguided initiative, clutched at by Dean Michael Drake and Vice President Gomez as a publicity bonanza to show their donors that, you see, we are doing something about the Muslim Student Union and its annual “Hate Israel Week” and its incessant disruptions of Jewish speakers ranging from Prof. Daniel Pipes to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. To paraphrase in common parlance, once we cut through the phraseology and rhetoric, we are hearing this: “Look, Jews, we have the Olive Tree Initiative. So stop bothering us. And stop telling Merage that, all because he is a Jew, he should stop giving us tens of millions of dollars. OK?” Likewise, originally, the Federation and Hillel proudly also bragged about their OTI involvement. It was once upon a time. Now, in the face of the revelations about what actually happens at OTI programs, they have reverted. Now they deny, and once we cut through the phraseology and rhetoric, we are hearing this: “We never said that. We don’t support it. We don’t fund it.” It is like Bill Clinton denying that he had sex with Monica Lewinsky. “I did not have sex with that woman.” Then they tell him she preserved a dress with his DNA on it. “Oh. Well, in that case . . . .” So now we are told that it is not Federation money; rather, it is Rose Project money. But the Federation is the Rose Project, and the Rose Project is the Federation. Let us hypothesize that Rose came and said to Federation “We want to donate money to start an Institute for Historical Review, to do research disproving that the Holocaust ever happened. We will fund research to prove the Holocaust is a hoax.” Would that project be accepted as an utterly independent “Rose Project of the Jewish Federation of Orange County for Denying the Holocaust”? Let us hypothesize, with greater warmth, that Rose came and said “We have met and tested Jewish kids in Orange County who go to TVT, and we are beyond-shocked at how little they know after twelve years at TVT, so we want to start a million-dollar-fund to start a Modern Orthodox Hebrew Academy in Irvine for grades 1-12.” Do you think – for a nano-second – that there would be a “Rose Project of the Jewish Federation of Orange County for Establishing an Orthodox Hebrew Academy in Irvine?” D’ya think so? The reality is that the Rose Project’s funding of those airfares and tuitions for the Olive Tree Initiative students is part-and-parcel of a project that the Jewish Federation of Orange County proudly has accepted under its wings, and Federation boastfully has bragged about that financial subventing of OTI whenever it has suited Federation’s public relations purposes.

6. More straw men: We are being told that activists have written that [student name withheld] is anti-Israel because he/ she supported OTI. Not true. Rather, we regret that the student or students, who care about Israel, have failed to see the longer-term consequences of their promoting OTI now. It is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. In the end, then, Jews are the losers – primarily Jewish students. Think about it: If this Olive Tree Initiative, which you tell us is so good for the Jews, really were so sound and worthwhile, why would UCI Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Orange County now, before your very eyes, be denying their demonstrable direct involvement in OTI? Alas, this misguided initiative now has spread to two other far-flung UC campuses where there are even fewer Jewish students like you who would know what to say in Jenin. This is not what may have been intended by those within the Jewish community who helped create it, but this is what has been created, a program that neither will bring peace to the region nor harm it, but will be used manipulatively by third-parties who were not on the original radar, including but not limited to: (i) the UCI Administration, manipulating this OTI program to excuse themselves for their abysmal record on protecting Jewish students walking along Ring Road during the worst moments of “Hate Israel Week” and failing to assure that the Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the State of Israel could speak with dignity to a UCI audience; and (ii) future Jewish students looking for something awesome for their resumes, while also enjoying an awesome Mideast experience in the hot spots like Jenin, in the company of people who count terrorists among their acquaintances, and maybe parlaying it to a great law or business graduate school – devoting their Mideast experience to “doing OTI” rather than, say, doing Birthright-Israel. And is it not ironic? The Olive Tree Initiative already was in full bloom, supposedly having peeled away layers of animosity and distrust that underlay prior Muslim Student Union (MSU) actions endangering UCI as a campus safe for Jews to hear Jewish speakers, when – nevertheless and despite OTI – the MSU still broke up Ambassador Oren’s appearance at UCI.

7. A final “straw,” perhaps better characterized as “the last straw.” One of the students would tell us that “We students are the new leaders of the American Jewish community. We are the future. We know best what is best for UCI. Your role in the community is to give us the funds. And otherwise – just butt out.” And so, a word to a friend. Irvine is our community, too. We, too, are its leaders. In the Irvine and greater Orange County Jewish community, there are nationally prominent experts on Israel and the Middle East, published authors, trained and experienced teachers, leaders capable of offering Israel advocacy training and teaching, Jewish leaders who actually fly across the country to teach and train others. There are Ph.D.s and scholars, scholarly researchers and exciting speakers. We are not called upon. Our offered services repeatedly are rejected. So be it. A $5,000 honorarium from an East Coast Jewish audience pays more than would the pro bono (free of charge) presentation that the same expert among us offers locally as a loving service to the community. But let us be clear: This issue transcends the students on campus. Perhaps you may have seen Breaking Away, an Academy Award®-winning flick. Its subplot is instructive. We the Jewish community live here in Irvine today, and we will be living here tomorrow, long after several of today’s UCI college and grad students have moved on. We have a long-term stake in the community, and we therefore have a stake in the neighborhood campus that brings occasional Jew-haters (including Jewish Jew-haters) out of their respective rat holes and into our midst. We are asked – even guilted – to contribute money to UCI Hillel, apprised that it is our obligation to do so because we have a stake. I personally have made such a donation to UCI Hillel. Some of us even have devoted hundreds of hours of our own personal time to students at UCI, even at the expense of personal family time, vacation time, and at the expense of money. We have seen students come into Irvine, then move on, much as I moved on in my life 35 years ago from the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, and subsequently from the Westwood campus of UCLA Law School. Thus, it is important to recognize that, in the course of a lifetime, many of our respective lives are intersecting concentric circles, elliptical encounters. The world does not revolve around me, and it does not revolve around this or that student. One day it is about mobilizing the Irvine and Orange County Jewish community to help the former salaried Hillel Director actualize his hopes and agenda, and then he is gone, forgotten, but we still are here. Jewish organizational professionals come and go. We have seen the revolving doors at the Irvine Bureau of Jewish Education, the American Jewish Committee, the Tarbut v’ Torah school, and yes at UCI Hillel. Through each of the transitions, we donate money and time, patience and passion and participation. One day it is the new Hillel Program Director arriving all excited with big plans, and another day it is someone else with a different program agenda. But we the Orange County Jewish community remain here, committed and devoted to this place and to our friends and families and dreams, realizing that our tzedakah dollars are being allocated in ways that we find objectionable. While phantom students’ names are signed to documents without the signatories’ knowledge, assent, authorization – and in some cases over their explicit objections – it is we, the community, that receive the defamatory letters, breaking the peaceful moment as the Shabbat ends. We do not heatedly return the letters with overheated, over-exercised verbiage, telling the senders: “The students on campus are the leaders of tomorrow, so solicit the Big Gifts and Major Donations from them. It is they, the students at UCI, who alone are impacted at UCI, so let them tend to themselves, and how dare you approach with a fundraiser’s solicitations those of us who are not on campus?”

But there is a time for everything under the heavens: A time to be still, and a time to speak. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. Among us as Jews there always is a time to love and a time for peace. But this also is a time to speak and time to refrain from embracing. There will be absolutely no support for the Federation of Orange County from this quarter, nor from those who share my concerns, until the Federation and Hillel publicly withdraw from their associations with the Olive Tree Initiative. Not one penny. My desk is loaded with ample Jewish charitable alternatives to support, and tzedakah never stops in my home. But tzedakah must be just. And there is never a shortage of worthy Jewish causes to support that never would spend a penny of Jewish tzedakah money to fly a local Jewish student to “Palestine” for a film viewing in Jenin depicting the Israeli people as barbaric and cruel murderers. No, not a charity for me.

-- Rabbi Dov Fischer

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