Tensions in Orange County Jewish Community Erupt

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.

Pajamas 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.