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Tensions in Orange County Jewish Community Erupt

The cause? A UC Irvine talk by the co-founder of an anti-Israeli movement.

by
Reut Cohen

Bio

December 3, 2010 - 12:00 pm

Tensions in the Orange County Jewish community are high following a UC Irvine talk by George S. Rishmawi, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). The talk triggered a barrage of letters from various divisions of the Jewish community, which in turn lead to the unusually high internal fractiousness.

ISM is a well-organized anti-Israel movement purporting to be a non-violent initiative, despite demonstrated support for the late Yasser Arafat and ISM members’ assistance to known terrorists.

Israel banned ISM foreign activists in April of 2003, following a terror attack perpetrated by British Muslims at a pub in Tel Aviv.

Rishmawi, who spoke on November 22, was sponsored by the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) at UCI, whose stated goal is to “promote dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.” Moreover, the UCI Hillel president promoted the event on Facebook.

Some members in the community object to the mainstream Jewish organization’s association with OTI. They argue the ISM and its representatives harbor terrorist sympathies and claim this alone should make them unwelcome on any American campus.

“The Olive Tree Initiative is not an olive branch,” said Deirdre Sterling, a grassroots activists who drafted a letter on behalf of community members, in a phone interview.

Sterling’s letter noted concern over Rishmawi’s talk and the Orange County Jewish Federation’s alleged association with OTI. “I did some comprehensive research, which took me to calling people in Israel and all over the country. We have enough problems with the Muslim Student Union sponsoring hate speakers and don’t need our kids associating with such speakers.”

Sterling said that she was able to verify information about Rishmawi’s background and sent out a letter to the community, on the heels of an alleged similar letter that the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent. “I felt it was necessary to write the community about my concerns and what I had learned.”

But the consequences of Sterling’s letter have been grim, with many in the community upset and pointing fingers.

The Jewish Federation of Orange County sent a general letter asking the community to ignore calls for “removal of funding from the only Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus,” asserting these calls are “misguided.”

The Federation’s letter also suggests that individuals confused the activists, clarifying that the OTI speaker was George S. Rishmawi as opposed to a George N. Rishmawi. They characterized the latter individual as a “despicable character,” and the former as someone who had recently cut ties with the ISM.

Another letter, this time from Hillel, was far more critical of dissidents.

Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of Hillel, sent a letter that some in the community, including Rabbi Dov Fischer, have described as slanderous. Fisher noted in a response that Fruchtman’s letter contained an “explicit ad hominem character assassination” of Deirdre Sterling. The letter names Sterling explicitly and demands a retraction and apology.

Sterling, who said she never brought up George N. Rishmawi, argued that comments against her have been of a personal nature and ignore the issue of ISM speakers who she says can influence young Jewish students. She notes that a similar letter by the Simon Wiesenthal Center received no public response from the Jewish Federation or the executive director of Hillel.

“I see a theme of shooting the messenger. I have seen this happen when students, in the past, have been totally humiliated by Hillel for voicing different views,” Sterling contended. She added that the incident has prompted her to launch a website to respond to claims made against her.

In a statement, Fruchtman characterized the incident as unfortunate. “My wish and hope is that the Jewish community is able to come together on our campus and campuses across the country to fight anti-Israel activity,” he said, arguing that the recent fallout amongst the community is a setback to crucial campaigns.

To further exacerbate an already sensitive matter is a petition signed by 87 current and former UCI students. The student petition alleges that Sterling’s call to boycott the Federation and Hillel harms Jewish life on campus.

PJ Media has learned that many of the signatories had not seen the letter or were not aware their names had been included. But an official letter from the president of Hillel suggests the letter accidentally included names of people on a listserv.

Some, however, are alleging fraud.

“The student president of Hillel at UCI publicly admitted to a group of students and community members on Monday, November 22, that the majority of students who were listed were never shown the letter before it was sent out the afternoon of Friday, November 19,” said Joe Wolf, a PhD candidate at UCI.

Wolf argues that Sterling’s reputation was slandered in the letter that mischaracterized her intentions. He said he feels Sterling’s position needs to be heard and that vilification will fracture the community. Wolf has called upon the president of Hillel, Matan Lurey, to address the inclusion of students who had not seen the letter, suggesting that he believes Lurey acted intentionally.

Lurey, however, insists the inclusion of names was innocent and argues that the incident has been blown out of proportion.

“Using both the contact lists in my phone, and my friends, who run two other large Jewish groups at UC Irvine, we compiled a list of students we would contact to get their approval for the response letter,” said Lurey. “Unfortunately, due to the frenzied environment … the letter was accidentally sent out to the mailing list, where it was copied to a blog and forwarded along several other sources.”

Lurey adds that a few in the community have made inappropriate claims about his intentions and integrity, which he has found stressful.

Beyond the letter, the source of tension is the ostensible association of Hillel with the Olive Tree Initiative. Hillel denies granting any funding to the Olive Tree Initiative, but several Hillel students are involved with OTI. Further, the Rose Project, which is an initiative within the Jewish Federation of Orange County, provides funding to OTI. However, that funding is specifically for covering the trips of four to five students to Israel on the OTI trip each year.

“The Rose Project does in fact provide a nominal level of funding to support Jewish student participation in Olive Tree Initiative trips to Israel,” said Jeff Margolis, co-chair of the Rose Project. “We feel it’s important to have a Jewish presence in the OTI.”

Students involved with OTI and Hillel believe the trip is a positive, life-changing experience.

“Olive Tree is a diverse learning programming where we meet with hardcore advocates on both side of the political spectrum. I do not endorse Rishmawi personally [and] neither does the Jewish community,” said Matan Lurey. “That being said, he is still a voice, and we need to listen to all voices when forwarding our own education.”

Margolis argues that providing support to students who would go on the OTI trip with or without the Rose Project’s aid makes sense. “We have confidence that they emerge from these interactions not only with their Jewish identity intact, but they are far more capable of anticipating and forming types of arguments or debates that will be necessary to adult Jewish leaders,” said Margolis.

Sterling and others, however, argue that OTI’s involvement with the International Solidarity Movement is enough to warrant the Federation to cut ties with the organization. They argue an inordinate amount of time is spent in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Despite her opposition to OTI, Sterling said her intention is not to strip Hillel of funds or a boycott of the Jewish Federation.

“I was not asking people to take their money out of Hillel. I was clear that I expect the Federation to disassociate from the OTI,” she said.

Sterling argues that Hillel and the Jewish Federation, instead of looking into her concerns, have taken up a campaign against her while sweeping the issue of OTI’s connections to the ISM under the proverbial rug.

Wolf agrees and has aired his views in a meeting with the executive director of Hillel.

“I met with Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of OC Hillel, for over an hour on Tuesday afternoon to voice my frustration and other students’ frustrations with the outcome of the Monday night meeting,” said Wolf. “In this Tuesday meeting Mr. Fruchtman stated that although it would rectify the situation with the improper use of student names, sending out a retraction letter over the two listservs would hurt the credibility of the Federation and OC Hillel, and therefore it will not be done.”

In a series of private emails, individuals have suggested that the Federation and Hillel acted inappropriately with their email. Several, moreover, agree with Sterling that there is justification for cutting ties with OTI. Meanwhile, the Federation insists that it is impossible to remove students from anti-Semitic or anti-Israel points of views, and that their presence within OTI strengthens their own debate abilities and gives different sides of an argument a say within OTI.

Reut Cohen is a graduate student at the University of Southern California. She blogs at www.reutrcohen.com.
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