Monday, December 20, 2010

Supporting the Jewish Boycott of the Federation of O.C.

Sign the Petition at:

From the Desk of Rabbi Dov Fischer

I have just signed this petition, and I encourage you to sign it, too:
And please do not hesitate to circulate this far and wide.

I attach (below my signature block) my recent commentary on the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), along with those written by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and by Prof. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of UC Santa Cruz. You may also wish to visit any of these websites:

You may think to yourself: “I cannot believe that the Jewish Federation of Orange County really would support something so toxic with Jewish money, and that the UCI Hillel Organization would endorse something so toxic. There must be a mistake.” Please understand: I have been involved in Jewish community organizations for nearly forty years. I have seen the American Jewish Congress fight public menorah lightings, going to court to stop Chabad and others from lighting menorahs in public. I have lived through the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith giving a significant national award to Hugh Hefner for his “courage” in embodying the First Amendment and Free Press by publishing women’s naked photos. More recently, I have watched the George Soros-funded “J Street” work against the security of the State of Israel, arguing in so many words that, hey, we also are Jews, and we and George Soros only want what’s best. I have lived through it all and have seen it all. Well, not “all” – because only G-d knows what tomorrow may bring.

I am joined in my views on this matter by a wide range of Orthodox rabbis throughout the United States, as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center. If Jewish parents want their sons or daughters to travel to “Palestine” and Jordan on Rosh Hashanah to attend lectures by trained, professional Palestinian Arab propagandists devoted to destroying Israel as a Jewish state, let them do it on their own dime. It does not matter that the same “Olive Tree” (“OTI”) program also brings them to Israel to hear a wide range of Israeli views on the Israel/”Palestine” question. Rather, OTI simply is not a proper cause for the expenditure of Jewish Federation funds -- whether directly from one Federation account or through a “Rose Project” of Federation that assists Jewish students financially with tzedakah funds to help them pay for their airfare and tuition to attend such OTI programs – during this Great Recession when, everyday, rabbis like me are approached for assistance by Jews in need right here in Irvine and throughout Orange County. This is worse than odious and abhorrent. In a word, it is . . .

. . .Foolish.

In arriving at this moment, Orange County Jewry now joins other Jewish communities throughout America in formally beginning to ask: Who exactly are the people who run these “Jewish” community organizations that take our money supposedly to support “our” agenda? What exactly are their private agendas? Do these individuals share our core views? Our core values? Yes, we like their emailed newsletters, and we know they do some real good with some of our funds, for Jewish families, for Jewish singles – but what else are they doing with the rest of our tzedakah, besides the stuff we expect them to be doing? Who are they? Who elected them? What do they privately stand for? And when do we have a say?

This Petition begins a new chapter in Orange County Jewish history. It marks Jews in Orange County standing up and saying, “We want accountability for how our tzedakah is spent.” And if a kid wants to spend Rosh Hashanah in “Palestine,” learning why Israel should cease to exist, let him pay for it – not public tzedakah funds.

Rabbi Dov Fischer
Rav, Young Israel of Orange County

From the Desk of Rabbi Dov Fischer

Having read the letter of December 8, 2010 by Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, director of the UCI Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), responding to valid concerns raised by Prof. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, I now feel it is time for Jews in Orange County to withhold any further support for the Jewish Federation of Orange County until the Federation disassociates and withdraws from continuing to support the OTI, directly or indirectly, with Jewish charitable funds. I likewise will now urge all individuals of similar mind to mine to withhold support from the Jewish Federation of Orange County on those same terms. The notion that the Jewish Federation is taking Jewish charitable dollars and spending Jewish tzedakah funds to assist UCI Jewish students to participate in OTI is so profoundly disturbing that I cannot see how any Jewish philanthropist would want to know that her hard-won earnings during this Great Recession are being spent in this manner.

Jewish funds should not be expended on paying for Jewish students to travel throughout “Palestinian” towns and villages to hear lectures by trained anti-Israel propagandists from “Palestine,” as part of an OTI mission to expose Jewish students to a “balanced” understanding of narratives: (i) on the one hand, Israel’s unequivocal right to live, (ii) balanced on the other hand with the right of Palestinian Arabs to aspire towards absorbing and nullifying the only Jewish state in the world – the death of Israel. In the words of Dr. Wehrenfennig : “The Olive Tree Initiative is an experiential learning initiative that shows both, and even multiple sides and narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” My Young Israel synagogue does not bring Christian missionaries to our congregation so that our congregants can better receive a “balanced view” of theological narratives. Our “experiential learning initiative” is attained by educating our members by presenting information, including information believed by others – “and even multiple sides and narratives” – for their benefit. We educate expansively, beyond insularity. Yet, we do not need Christian missionaries to educate us. We do not bring Christian missionaries to teach their version of Torah, their version of Isaiah 7:14 or 53, to our teens and college students. We teach. Likewise, we do not need – and we certainly should not contribute towards such endeavor with Jewish tzedakah funds – Palestinians dedicated to the death of Israel to educate our Jewish college students for balance. There are ample Jewish educational programs, from a wide range of perspectives, that can educate ably, presenting multiple perspectives.

It is unconscionable that a Jewish Federation would expend even supplementary Jewish charitable funds to fly and transport Jewish UCI students on programs that compromise the Shabbat – and all the more so, incredibly so, that desecrate Rosh Hashanah. What Jewish philanthropist is so bereft of meaningful Jewish charitable choices for his philanthropic generosity that he must have his tzedakah employed for sending Jewish students to a program that spends part of Rosh Hashanah in a Jewish setting and part of Rosh Hashanah in “Palestine”? Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, director of the UCI Olive Tree Initiative, means well when he writes: “Again, if the Jewish students wanted to they could opt out of the Jordan trip or parts of it because of religious reasons,” but he does not realize how damning the statement is. I do not want my college Jewish son or daughter being flown or otherwise transported to “Palestine” and Jordan, along with Israel, during Rosh Hashanah, with some concession of “opting out” from the group dynamic “because of religious reasons.” I want my Jewish son or daughter, if spending time in Israel during the High Holy Day season, devoting that time to experiencing the Days of Awe with everyone else in the group, thus creating a reinforcing socializing and educating experience. The college years pass by so rapidly, and these moments must be cherished for the opportunities they offer us to educate and welcome Jewish students to the meaning of Jewish life.

Please do not misunderstand. Someday my son or daughter will find himself in situations that amply integrate him with the rest of the world. She will meet and encounter Palestinians. She will be on business travel as Shabbat draws near and may need to individuate herself from the mainstream to observe Shabbat. So it will be for them, as it has been for me. In ten years as an attorney with two of America’s most prominent law firms, I socialized and integrated with people of all backgrounds in my firms, and I arranged with judges and opposing counsel to calendar court days so that I would not be compelled to compromise Shabbat or Jewish holy festivals. Despite never having attended an OTI Rosh Hashanah program, I was thoroughly capable of socially integrating my lifestyle and religious beliefs with others, including Arab Moslem friends. But during my formative college years, my time in Israel was spent attending Jewish programs that did not divide Rosh Hashanah with Bethlehem, “Palestine” or trips to Jordan. Perhaps some parents (or college students) differ from me, and they respectively want their children (or for themselves) to attend programs that “balance” Israel’s right to live with a normative Palestinian perspective that Israel should be destroyed as a Jewish State, and perhaps they want to be on a program that gives them the option of spending half their Rosh Hashanah in Bethlehem under the aegis of anti-Israel Palestinian propagandists trained in reaching American youths, like Rachel Corrie, and sensitizing them to the “Palestinian narrative.” They have that right – but not to have it funded, directly or indirectly, with Jewish Federation charitable dollars.

Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, director of the UCI Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), has written his letter, in explicit pertinent part, to defend the practice of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, its Rose Project, and other of its funding channels to participate in allocating Jewish charitable funds towards OTI. That is Dr. Wehrenfennig’s right and institutional responsibility. I, too, am entitled to my right and responsibility to act in accordance with my free conscience. As a rabbi, a religious leader and teacher in the Jewish community of Irvine in Orange County, I also have a right and a responsibility. At this moment in time, in the face of this very unfortunate situation, my responsibility is to announce publicly that I believe it proper for Jews to withhold any further contributions from the Jewish Federation of Orange County until the Federation publicly and explicitly assures the Jewish community that it no longer will participate materially in supporting Jewish student participation at Olive Tree Institute programs that bring UCI Jewish students in part to “Palestine,” where those Jewish students are exposed to trained and skilled Palestinian Arab propagandists educating them with the “Palestinian narrative” that would mark the death of Israel as a Jewish state. I urge others to follow my lead, and I will encourage others whom I know to spread this call far and wide.

I am grateful to Prof. Rossman-Benjamin for her leadership in bringing to the surface truths that needed to be exposed.

Rabbi Dov Fischer
Rav, Young Israel of Orange County


From the Simon Wiesenthal Center:

From: Rabbi Aron Hier
Campus Outreach
Simon Wiesenthal Center

Shalom Elcott
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Orange County

Dear Mr. Elcott,

I have become aware of an event on November 22, 2010, in which the Olive Tree Initiative will be providing a platform for anti-Israel activist and International Solidarity Movement cofounder George Rishmawi. Further, the Olive Tree Initiative that will be hosting him is funded in part by Jewish philanthropy, through your organization as well as Hillel at UC Irvine.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center urges the Jewish Federation to disassociate itself from an event that invites the leader of a group whose own website states the following:
“Apartheid is not going to be defeated by words alone; occupation, oppression and domination are going to be dismantled the same way they were erected — through people’s action. The Israeli army and apartheid in Palestine can be defeated by strategic, disciplined unarmed resistance, utilizing the effective resources Palestinians can mobilize — including international participation.”
We further urge the Jewish Federation to investigate the Olive Tree Initiative, which has selected a speaker who advocates overthrowing the Jewish State. What kind of group would funnel impressionable Jewish students into this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” program that aids and abets the enemies of Israel in their pernicious mission?

I look forward to hearing from you about this serious matter.

Rabbi Aron Hier
Campus Outreach

cc: Rabbi Marvin Hier
Rabbi Abraham Cooper
Rabbi Meyer May


From: Prof. Tammi Benjamin
Sent: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 5:30 AM

Dear Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig,

You did not write to me directly, though you did blind-copy me on your recent widely-circulated letter (forwarded below), in which you mentioned my name 18 times and attacked a letter I had sent to the heads of the Orange County Jewish Federation and Hillel. My letter urged these Jewish communal organizations to withdraw their funding and promotion of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) because at least 15 of the OTI's speakers are affiliated with organizations that have ties to terrorist groups that have murdered Jews, advocate the elimination of the Jewish state, and support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel. I also pointed out to the OC Federation and Hillel that it is wrong for Jewish communal resources to be used for a trip that engages Jewish students in activities that desecrate Jewish holy days, such as the OTI trip in 2010, during which students spent the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the following Sabbath (and other Sabbaths) engaged in non-Jewish activity in Jordan and the disputed territories.

You fiercely criticized my letter, stating that I "made up facts" and that my analysis was "incomplete and misleading," "completely inaccurate," and filled with "wrong information and missing facts," "a pattern of misinformation," "erroneous statements," and "distortion." I would like to reply to your charges, which I believe are wholly baseless, extremely disingenuous, and highly offense to the Jewish community in general, and to me personally as a UC faculty member, and as a Jew.

As I understand them, your primary charges against me are the following:

· I based my analysis of the OTI 2010 trip on a preliminary version of the itinerary and not on the final version.
· The speakers, whom I researched and linked directly to their own or their affiliated organization's on-line statements and actions seeking to destroy or harm the Jewish state, never communicated these virulently anti-Israel ideas to the students on the OTI trip. But even if they had, these were only 15 of the over 70 speakers with whom students met.
· I neglected to acknowledge the pro-Israel speakers with whom students met, and whom you claim provided balance to the program.
· I neglected to acknowledge the many Jewish activities in which the students on the 2010 OTI trip participated, as well as to mention that Jewish students had the option to not join the group if an activity conflicted with their religious observance.

I would like to respond to each of your points in turn:

1) You attempt to discredit my serious concerns about many of the OTI speakers by claiming that my analysis was "completely inaccurate" and "misleading" because it was based on an earlier version of the 2010 itinerary, implying that this earlier version was radically different from the final one. But this is simply not so. In fact, of the 15 speakers and organizations whose efforts to harm Israel I documented in my letter, all but two appeared in the final version of the itinerary. Furthermore, of the few speakers who did not appear in the earlier draft but were added to the final version, at least one would certainly have been included in my letter because of his expression of profound anti-Jewish animus: Xavier Abu Eid, the communication advisor for the PLO Negotiation Support Unit, with whom students met in Ramallah on Saturday afternoon September 4th, was one of a number of Christian Palestinian leaders who in 2009 signed Kairos Palestine, a document which applies anti-Semitic supersessionist theology to deny the historic and religious right of the Jews to their homeland, supports BDS efforts, and advocates the elimination of the Jewish state.

However, even if the two versions of the itinerary were substantially different, as you had falsely implied, it still does not deny the accuracy of my analysis. For the on-line version I accessed represents a document of intent, i.e., it indicates the speakers and activities that program organizers like yourself intended to offer students on the 2010 OTI trip, whether or not these were part of the actual itinerary. Therefore, it is arguably an even better indicator of the mission and goals of the OTI's organizers, which clearly included offering as legitimate perspectives (according to your "philosophy of 360-degree education") the views of numerous individuals who have supported efforts to harm the Jewish state and have advocated its elimination, views which our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic.

So I hope you can see that whether I base my analysis on the earlier version of the itinerary or on the final one, my conclusion will remain the same, namely, that it is unconscionable for Jewish communal funds to be used to support a program that includes anti-Semitic speakers and organizations.

2) The fact that the preliminary itinerary for the 2010 OTI trip represents a document of intent also speaks to your second point, that although they may have previously expressed their virulent opposition to the Jewish State, none of the speakers communicated such sentiments to the students on the OTI trip. Even if you are correct about the content of the speakers' communication with students -- though you bring not one shred of evidence to support your claim -- it does not change the fact that these speakers were chosen by OTI organizers like yourself before you knew what they would say to students! Indeed, some of the most virulently anti-Israel speakers, such as Mazin Qumsiyeh and George N. Rishmawi, were selected to speak to students on the very first OTI trip to Israel in 2008. Surely you could not have known beforehand what these individuals would say to students, and yet you chose them to be part of the OTI trip.

Moreoever if, as I suspect, you did your due diligence before asking these individuals to speak to students, you undoubtedly accessed the very same information about them as I did. I can only surmise, therefore, that not only did you know about the anti-Semitic views of these speakers when you chose them, but you had every reason to believe that they would communicate their views to OTI students.

As for your contention that only 15 of the 70 speakers had known anti-Semitic views, it is hard to fathom why you would think this statistic is at all comforting to the Jewish community. According to my calculations, 15 speakers in 70 means that over 20% of the people who addressed the students on the recent OTI trip had themselves expressed anti-Semitic views or behaviors, or were speaking on behalf of anti-Semitic organizations.

Please understand that after the Nazis slaughtered one-third of my people during the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, I and my co-religionists are understandably skittish about individuals or organizations that engage in, or call for, harming the Jewish State or the Jewish people. For many of us, having even one anti-semitic speaker, in a program that presents such a view as a legitimate perspective, is one too many! Twenty percent is an obscenity!

I hope you are beginning to understand why for many in the Jewish community, asking us to contribute Jewish communal funds in order to expose Jewish and non-Jewish students to such speakers is extremely offensive.

3) Although I did notice the pro-Israel speakers with whom the OTI students met, the presence of such speakers on the itinerary did nothing to improve my opinion of the program, and in fact made me even more concerned about it. That is because I believe these pro-Israel speakers are being unwittingly used to provide a fig leaf of "balance" for the OTI and to give the false impression that pro-Israel and anti-Israel speakers are not only equally represented numerically, but that these two perspectives are somehow objectively equal -- simply two different but equally legitimate narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, this is the kind of thinking that underlies your philosophy of "360-degree education." However, I find such thinking to be both logically and morally flawed.

Do you honestly believe that the argument in favor of BDS is equal and opposite to the argument against it, or that advocating for the elimination of the Jewish state and against the elimination of the Jewish state are equally legitimate positions?? For me as a Jew, and, I would wager, for every other Jew who identifies himself or herself with the mainstream Jewish community, advocating for BDS or the elimination of the Jewish State, perspectives which, as I have noted above, our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic, are wholly illegitimate. However, by pairing them as you have with legitimate arguments made in defense of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people, you have given respectability and legitimacy to illegitimate, anti-Semitic perspectives. In my opinion, it is despicable that you have used Jewish communal funds for this morally reprehensible purpose.

4) In case you do not know, Jewish religious observance is more than just eating a meal, saying some prayers, or hearing a lecture on an occasional Sabbath or festival evening. It is a commitment to living a Jewish life according to G-d's will, and it involves full observance of all of the designated holy days. So while I appreciate the educational value of sharing certain Jewish traditions with all of the students on the OTI trip, Jews and non-Jews alike, this in no way "cancels out" or mitigates those aspects of Jewish faith and tradition that were egregiously violated by bringing Jewish students to Ramallah for their first Sabbath in the country, or by taking them to Jordan for two of the holiest days of the Jewish year. And even though I appreciate the fact that Jewish students were given the option of not joining the group in order to observe their religious practice, what about those Jewish students who had no family or friends in Israel with whom to observe the holy days, or who did not feel comfortable separating themselves from the group, or who did not want to miss out on an important part of the OTI trip?

Undoubtedly there are Jewishly-identified students who are not fully observant and do not mind violating the Sabbath or other holy days. Nevertheless, as the director of a program that targets Jewish students and accepts money from Jewish communal organizations representing Jews who care deeply about Jewish faith and tradition, it was the height of religious insensitivity for you to create and/or approve an itinerary that planned for Jewish students who did not opt out of the program on the Jewish holy days, to violate the basic tenets of their faith.

I hope you can appreciate that not one of the hundreds of observant Jews who will read this letter believes that Jewish communal funds should be used to support a program that knowingly violates Jewish faith and tradition in the way that the OTI has.

I would like to make a few final remarks about your letter.

You assert that the OTI has "become an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue and cooperation between individual students and student groups," although you have produced no evidence of this being the case.
In fact, the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI has not improved since the establishment of the OTI, and in some ways it has significantly deteriorated.

For instance, in February 2010 members of the Muslim Student Union disgracefully disrupted a talk by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. And just this past May, the MSU hosted a week-long event entitled Israel Apartheid Week: A Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel, that featured anti-Semitic imagery and virulently anti-Israel rhetoric from 7 speakers well-known for their animus of Israel, including Imam Abdul Malik Ali, who compared the Jews to Nazis, expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and called for the destruction of the "apartheid state of Israel."

Indeed, the campus climate had become so oppressive for Jewish students at UCI last spring that over 100 Jewish UCI students,
including the heads of all of the Jewish student groups and even some students who participated on OTI trips to Israel, signed the following statement in June 2010:
“We are Jewish students at the University of California and we are outraged and deeply offended by the behavior of some student groups on campus who sponsor speakers, films and exhibits that use hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery and openly support terrorism against Israel and the Jewish people. As Jewish students, we are also deeply disturbed by student initiated boycott and divestment campaigns which falsely accuse the Jewish state of crimes against humanity. Please understand that these speakers, exhibits, events and campaigns are as offensive and hurtful to Jewish students as a “Compton cookout” or noose are to African-American students. We demand that the UC administrators recognize and address the concerns of Jewish students in the same way as they respond to those of all other minority groups.”
At about the same time, over 60 UCI faculty members published an open letter in the campus newspaper stating that they were deeply disturbed about activities on their campus that fomented hatred against Jews and Israelis, and that many faculty and students felt intimidated, and even unsafe at UCI.

So not only has the OTI program not ameliorated the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI, it is my belief that some of the OTI speakers who have met with students have even contributed to the anti-Semitic BDS campaigns at our university, which in turn has led to an increase in anti-Semitic harassment on UC campuses, including at UCI. Consider the following three examples:

· Prof. Mazim Qumsiyeh co-founded both the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign and Al-Awda, an organization which opposes Israel's right to exist, has links to Hamas and Hezbollah, and is a leader in the BDS movement. Al-Awda works closely with Muslim and pro-Palestinian student groups, including the MSU at UCI, to promote anti-Israel divestment campaigns and co-sponsor anti-Semitic events on California campuses. (For more information about Al-Awda's insidious influence on UC campuses, including at UCI, see an article I co-authored entitled "Are Jewish Students Safe on California Campuses?")

· George N. Rishmawi co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and is the current director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement (PCR), which is under the auspices of the ISM. The ISM has links to terrorist organizations, openly advocates the destruction of the Jewish State, and sends activists and unsuspecting volunteers -- students like Rachel Corrie -- into life-threatening situations in order to protect known terrorists. The ISM has endorsed and promoted BDS campaigns globally, including at the University of California.

· Sam Bahour is one of the original endorsers of the recent California Divestment from Israel Initiative, which calls on the State of California to force two enormous public employee pension funds to divest from Israel. Signatures to qualify this initiative for the California state ballot are being collected on campuses across the state, including at UCI.

I would like to end this letter on a personal note. I am deeply offended that in your email, which you distributed quite widely, you wrongfully attacked my academic integrity and dismissed my legitimate concerns about the OTI's value to the Jewish community. I believe your behavior in this regard is yet one further indication of the unworthiness of the program you direct for Jewish communal funds.


Tammi Rossman-Benjamin


UCI Chancellor Drake
UC President Yudof
Shalom Elcott, President and CEO of the Orange County Jewish Federation
Jay S. Feldman, Director of Leadership Development & Rose Project Manager at OC Jewish Federation
Jordan Fruchtman, Executive Director UC Irvine Hillel
Organizations that have expressed concern about anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on UC campuses:
Americans for a Safe Israel
American Freedom Alliance
American Jewish Committee
Anti-Defamation League
Chabad Student Centers on UC Campuses
Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors
David Project
Hasbara Fellows
Hillels on UC campuses
International Hillel
Israel on Campus Coalition
Israel Peace Initiative
Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco the Peninsula, Marina and Sonoma Counties
Jewish Community Relations Council
Jewish Federation of the East Bay
Jewish National Fund
Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)
National Council of Young Israel
Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism
Orthodox Union
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Stand With Us
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
USD/Hagshama World Zionist Organization
Zionist Organization of America

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