Abandon the Olive Tree Initiative Before It's Too Late

The following headline is fictitious, but just imagine a story like this in your newspaper (or laptop) sometime in 2011 or later:

Bodies of 12 UC Students Found Headless in West Bank Town


An official of the Palestinian Authority announced today that 12 headless bodies, believed to be students from the University of California’s Olive Tree Initiative program, have been located in the town of Nablus in the West Bank.The students were kidnapped over one week ago by Hamas terrorists, and efforts to secure their release were apparently unsuccessful. Hamas has announced that the slain students admitted in the moments before their execution that they were  “Jewish,  Christian, or Hindu infidels.” Hamas has issued a statement claiming that they continue to hold the other 6 OTI students, believed to be Moslem,  as ransom for the release of several of their fighters who have been imprisoned by the Palestinian Fatah party. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has assured the university that its forces are looking for the 6 kidnapped students and will bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. He also stated that the actions of Hamas do not advance the goals of the Palestinian people.

Is this horrible imagined event improbable? Not when  you recall that, as has recently been disclosed pursuant to a California Public Records Act filing[1], UC Irvine’s Olive Tree Initiative students met with Aziz Duwaik during their 2009 trip.

Duwaik is a representative of Hamas who serves as speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.Hamas actually contends that he (and not Mahmoud Abbas) is the president of the Palestinian Authority.  The United States does not recognize his claim to the presidency, largely because Hamas is on the U.S.’s list of terrorist organizations.


In addition, Duwaik served time in Israeli prisons for almost 3 years, and was released only a few weeks before his meeting with the students. Hamas detests America and Americans, and has special antipathy towards Jews, whose genocide it calls for in the Hamas Charter. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that this group of unarmed students might quickly have found themselves surrounded and overwhelmed by terrorists who had decided to use them as pawns in the never-ending internecine warfare among Palestinian factions.

Nor is the imagined tragic event improbable when you consider that over the past few years, at least three European and American activists with the Palestinian International Solidarity Movement were murdered by Muslim terrorists or placed in situations leading to their deaths while engaging in violent activism against Israel[2]. Indeed, the OTI student itinerary in the West Bank includes many meetings and discussions with founders and leaders of the ISM. The murdered ISM activists were naive but sincere and earnest devotees of the Palestinian cause who had come to the West Bank and Gaza to help the Palestinians fight to eliminate Israel. All of them must believed that they were safe from harm. But they were dead wrong. In fact, they are all dead — murdered by the very people they thought they were helping.[3]


If activists who are allied with the ISM can be brazenly kidnapped and murdered, imagine the fates of innocent University of CA students who are just traveling around Israel and the West Bank to dialogue with diverse groups involved in the conflict and learn firsthand, with their own eyes, about the neighborhood and its problems. That is the mantra and mission of the OTI.[4]

Community activists like Ha-Emet have been warning the university, and the charities and individuals who support this program and others like it — including the Jewish Federation of Orange County — that they are taking on great risk in continuing to bring students to the West Bank. They are recklessly endangering the lives of these young people.

We wonder if they have thought through the consequences, and if they have undertaken the requisite risk assessment of these feckless projects. Have they purchased kidnap, ransom, and torture insurance? Have they obtained waivers and indemnification from the participants, and have they received written opinions from credible counsel that the waivers and indemnification will stand up in court? They may want to take a look at their directors and officers liability policies while they’re at it.  As a business attorney, I routinely advise clients to review their insurance coverages in light of their actual business operations. That is obviously an elementary and prudent step to take.


And, by the way, meeting with Hamas may have violated U.S. law. Not only that, but having the OTI faculty and advisors instruct the students to conceal the meeting, as disclosed in the October 2009 letter[5], may have violated U.S. and Israeli law, not to mention the university’s own policies of professorial conduct. Plus, it reeks of cover-up by all parties involved, including the Jewish Federation which failed to disclose this meeting with its own disgruntled community. The university, the Jewish Federation, and other supporters of OTI programs should be consulting with their compliance departments as well as with their risk managers.

If they haven’t assessed the risk and purchased enough coverage, which in and of itself is a very costly proposition, the taxpayers of California, as well as the generous donors to the Jewish Federation of Orange County, may be in for a great shock when they learn the extent of the multi-million dollar liabilities that these enterprises may someday face.

It is time to wise up, face reality, and act like adults. Abandon the Olive Tree Initiative before it is too late — before it spreads from UC Irvine to UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, and elsewhere. Or else, the University of California, and the organizations that fund ventures like the OTI, better use their hard-earned and scarce dollars to buy insurance and set aside the necessary reserves for when tragedy strikes.


And then explain to the taxpayers and benefactors why it is more worthwhile to spend their money on these programs rather than on advancing core programs. In the case of the university, for example, it might want to consider using state funds and student fees to offer more courses and class sections so that students can actually graduate in four years instead of the five or six that it now routinely takes. And the Jewish Federation might decide that it should focus on strengthening local synagogues and Hebrew schools, and helping community members facing economic hardship, rather than play-acting the diplomatic game with hardcore Palestinian propagandists.

It is time that the university and the Jewish Federation come to the proper conclusion. The  OTI and similar programs are not worth the risk. Indeed, they jeopardize the very ability of the university and the Jewish Federation to carry out their other fine work. It is all a question of priorities. Setting priorities is what administrators are paid and expected to do wisely. Let’s hope that wisdom prevails.

[1] http://www.ha-emet.com/oti_students_meet_hamas.html contains the text of  a letter written in October 2009 by the Jewish Federation of Orange County to UCI Chancellor Michael Drake,

[2] These include Vittorio Arrigoni, Rachel Corrie, and Angelo Frammartino.  You could add Juliano Mer-Khanis,  the Jewish-Arab Israeli citizen who founded a cultural theatre group in Jenin, to the list.


[3] For a revealing look at the brutal treatment often accorded to Western volunteers by the Palestinians, especially women, see  http://frontpagemag.com/2011/04/18/how-supporters-of-palestinian-terrorism-are-murdered-and-raped-by-their-palestinian-sponsors/

[4] http://www.olivetreeinitiative.org/

[5] http://www.ha-emet.com/oti_students_meet_hamas.html


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