On May 9th, the president of the Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County, California (JFOC), Shalom Elcott, was loitering on the plaza during the first day of anti-Israel “Apartheid Awareness Week,” organized by the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). There, he encountered Professor Amihai Glazer. Glazer is one of 60 faculty members who signed a letter expressing the view that anti-Semitism did indeed exist on the UCI campus — including Islamic anti-Semitism. The conversation got heated when Elcott hit Glazer with coiled-up flyers after Glazer told him he had “a credibility problem.”
One potential problem was the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), currently at UCI and spreading to other university campuses. The objective of the OTI program, sponsored by the JFOC Rose Project, was to send Jewish and non-Jewish students to Israel and the West Bank, exposing them to a variety of views from Israeli and Palestinian representatives and affording an understanding of all sides of the issues.
The problem was that some OTI students may have come back from encounters on the West Bank and Israel as converts to the Palestinian cause. Those Palestinian representatives included Aziz Duwaik, Hamas speaker in the Palestinian legislature; George Rishmawi, co-founder of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM); and Mazin Qumsiyeh, a leading architect of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Duwaik was recently arrested by the IDF for the third time. Qumsiyeh was arrested by the IDF during the May 15, 2011, Al Nakba day protest in Al Wajala on the West Bank, and had been involved in an anti-Semitic email incident at a university in the U.S. in 2003. Rishmawi spoke at a November, 2010, OTI event at UCI.
The JFOC vigorously denied that OTI students met with Rishmawi, the ISM co-founder, alleging confusion over two persons with the same name — one having an S and the other an N as their middle initial. But OTI materials containing the 2008 and 2009 itineraries expressly identify George Rishmawi as an ISM co-founder.
Some JFOC officials, campus Hillel leaders, and OTI students denied the existence of Islamic anti-Semitism on campus perpetrated by MSU speakers and others in Muslim advocacy groups. Eleven students from the UCI MSU and UC Riverside MSA chapters were indicted by the Orange County DA for conspiring to disturb a public meeting at UCI on February 8, 2010, featuring the Hon. Michael B. Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Oren, ironically, was delivering a speech underwritten by JFOC’s Rose Project.
The JFOC’s credibility problem surfaced with a response to a California Public Records Act request by local activists. That information uncovered a “smoking gun” letter sent by JFOC President Elcott to UCI Chancellor Drake in October 2009. It revealed a meeting between OTI students and Duwaik. The JFOC leaders seized upon this letter as evidence that they had brought this to the attention of UCI administrators seeking an investigation. But they never informed the community. It appears that JFOC donated nearly $60,000 to the OTI over the period from 2009 to the present.
There were allegations of fraud and character assassination perpetrated by the student president of UCI Hillel in a petition supporting OTI, purportedly containing 87 student signatures. It has been reported that there were fewer than six. The petition also attacked a local community activist, Dee Sterling of the Ha’Emet (The Truth) website, for “disrupting Jewish life on campus.” Sterling had organized two pro-Israel rallies by community members, including non-Jewish Zionists, opposing the MSU Apartheid Awareness Weeks in both 2010 and 2011.
Joe Wolf, a PhD candidate at UCI, described the Hillel student petition signature fraud at Pajamas Media. “Sterling’s reputation,” he said, “was slandered in a letter that mischaracterized her intentions.” These disclosures began unraveling a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the OTI. The 2011 OTI program is set to roll out this summer in the midst of roiling Palestinian protests, raising concerns about possible dangers to OTI students from kidnapping or worse.
The JFOC and Rose Project leaders might find themselves confronting an incensed Jewish community for creating the OTI credibility problem. As comments in the Jerusalem Post article titled “A Very Balanced Itinerary?” reveal, JFOC leaders persist in white-washing a malformed and dangerous program indeed.