The psychological war against Israel is silently securing a foothold in the U.S. before our very eyes. The latest example is a controversial student program known as the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), which has bamboozled many peace-minded individuals, even those in the usually vigilant Jewish community. While masquerading as a “bridge-building” enterprise, the OTI’s history and ongoing activities show it to be closely affiliated with virulently anti-Israel activists, who openly condone violence and are devoted to the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish State. Controversy has mounted over the Jewish Federation of Orange County’s decision to give funding for Jewish students to participate in OTI programming, which, all reports suggest, it has no intention of discontinuing. This leaves many to worry about the inroads radical front groups have made into the mainstream, and the likelihood that such acceptance will spread.
Formed in 2007, the OTI claims to promote peace and a fair understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by providing a platform where both Israelis and Palestinians can engage in dialogue. It preforms information-sharing and awareness activities, often in the form of panel discussions and speaking events. It also organizes trips for students to visit Israel and disputed territories, one of its major “bridge-building” functions. Yet, many OTI speakers and organizers involved in the Israel trips show that the group’s interest in fairness and balance is extremely disingenuous.
In a December 2010 letter to the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the Hillel Foundation, Dr. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the University of California – Santa Cruz provided an assessment of groups and speakers involved in the OTI’s student trips. Of these parties, Dr. Rossman-Benjamin explained, “an overwhelming majority have expressed an overt animus towards the Jewish state.” According to Dr. Rossman-Benjamin, over a third of the speakers representing the Palestinian side promote boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) strategies against Israel, while others call for Israel’s elimination or are allied with violent, anti-Semitic terrorist groups.
The preponderance of BDS supporters involved with the OTI should not be overlooked. Central to BDS campaigns is the assumption that the country being inveighed against, in this case Israel, is so fundamentally oppressive toward marginalized groups, that the ordinary political process is ineffective. This assumption serves to delegitimize the authority of the oppressive state (think disobeying an “unjust” law) and to justify extreme measures taken by the oppressed group. For instance, many of the advocates of BDS strategies against Israel liken the Jewish State to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, a completely false imputation that recklessly demonizes the county. One such advocate and OTI speaker is Diana Buttu, a Canadian-Palestinian lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 2008, following the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip (initiated by Hamas rocket attacks against Israel) Buttu claimed in a Fox News interview that Israel used the inauguration of President Barack Obama as an opportunity to “go into the Gaza Strip and kill Palestinians.” When the interviewer, Greg Jarrett, asked Buttu if the terrorist group Hamas shared any culpability in the war’s bloodshed, she responded, “Absolutely not. You are blaming the victim.” She then went on to accuse Israel of “war crimes,” for which it should be prosecuted.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the OTI’s association with Palestinian extremism. Irvine community member Dee Sterling became embroiled in the situation when she discovered that the OTI had sponsored George S. Rishmawi to speak at the University of California – Irvine in November 2010 and that the event had been promoted by the Jewish student president of the university’s Hillel group. Rishmawi has been very active in the OTI and is the cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a very controversial and notoriously anti-Israel organization. It has long been known that the ISM approves of violence against Israel and cooperates with anti-Semitic terrorist organizations. Two of its other cofounders, Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, told the Palestinian Chronicle in 2002, “We accept that Palestinians have a right to resist with arms” and that resistance “must take on a variety of characteristics—both non-violent and violent.” The ISM’s own website states, “We recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggles.” The ISM has also admitted that it cooperates with terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as affirmed by the Washington Post in 2006.
Lee Kaplan, undercover investigative journalist with expertise in the ISM, says that the group was founded under the guidance of a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Kaplan has reported much of his research to the Israeli government, which has used the information to help develop ways of counteracting the ISM’s support of terrorism. Kaplan was also appalled to discover Rishmawi’s involvement in the OTI and his presence at UC Irvine. He, too, has documented Rishmawi’s extensive involvement with organizations, such as Al-Awda, which are animated by a desire to dismantle the Jewish State through violence and to demonize it into de-legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. In essence, as Kaplan aptly described, groups like Rishmawi’s ISM are not at all interested in dialogue, but in conducting “economic and propaganda warfare” against Israel. Likewise, BDS strategies, which the OTI has a pronounced association with, is no less a form of economic warfare.
The list of OTI’s despicable speakers and other associations extend well beyond Rishmawi. Dr. Rossman-Benjamin’s original letter to the Jewish Federation of Orange County lists a host of others — and these are only from the OTI’s trip to Israel in 2010. Sam Bahour, a well-known Palestinian activist, has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and supports BDS; the group Breaking the Silence promotes the libelous Israeli “war crimes” meme and has been criticized by the Israeli police for “antagoniz[ing]…settlers in the hope that the settlers will attack them.” Mazin Qumsiyeh, co-founder of Al-Awda (a Palestinian group that opposes Israel’s existence and supports the covert dismantling strategy known as the Palestinian “right of return”) and an early advocate of the BDS movement, is known for his interchangeable use of “Israel” with “apartheid South Africa” and “Nazi Germany.” He also promotes the well-worn anti-Semitic canard that “Zionists” control American foreign policy and he rejects the possibility of a two-state solution — extreme even in terms of extremists.
It is not uncommon for impressionable students who participate in OTI’s Israel trips to come back harboring radically negative views about the country because of the misinformation they have been exposed to. According to Dr. Rossman-Benjamin, after visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, one such student blogged: “I will never understand how Israel offers Jews from the diaspora a right of return from 4,000 years ago, and denies Palestinians the right of return from 60 years ago. The math feels racist.” Dee Sterling, who has set up the website www.ha-emet.com on the OTI controversy and has helped craft a petition demanding that the Jewish Federation stop supporting the OTI, has had similar experiences. One student related to Dee that he thought Mazin Qumsiyeh was a nice person and claimed Ms. Sterling would like Qumsiyeh if she knew him. Hearing this disturbed Dee a great deal, knowing the full extent of Qumsiyeh’s views; clearly something the student was not aware of.
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