Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Olive Tree Initiative -Was There a Meeting With Hamas in 2009?

Gary Fouse

I am cross-posting an article by the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism. This article reports that, pursuant to a California State Freedom of Information Act, a letter has been obtained from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) files. The letter was reportedly written in 2009 by the Orange County Jewish Federation to UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake and concerns a reported meeting between student participants in the 2009 Olive Tree Initiative trip to Israel and the West Bank with a reputed official of Hamas, one Aziz Duwaik (aka Dweik, Dwaik, aka Abdel Aziz Duwaik). This individual is identified as the speaker of the Palestinian Authority Legislature and the highest ranking member of Hamas in the West Bank.

Here is a report by JTA, which contains a statement by the OC Jewish Federation.

What is missing from the above report is the fact that while the Federation and Hillel were defending themselves from 2010 to the present from criticism over the OTI's alleged visits with ISM activists and criticizing the person who revealed these ties, they were apparently keeping this whole 2009 incident and their correspondance with UCI under wraps. Only a California Freedom of Information request has brought the letter and the alleged meeting to light. Also, it would be nice to know who exactly, if anyone, told students to keep silent about meeting with Duwaik.

It gets more interesting. Here is an article on the topic from the Orange County Register on 3-31-11:

"Cathy Lawhon, spokeswoman for UCI, said 'meeting with people of many different points of view is consistent with (Olive Tree's) mission."

"Their stated mission is to hear varying points of view, and to take people of varying points of view over there," Lawhon said. "It's not a homogenous group at all."

"Lawhon said more trips to the Mideast have taken place since 2009, but that she is unaware if additional meetings with Duwaik or other Hamas officials were held."

I beg to differ. Meeting with people with varying points of view is one thing. Meeting with members of organizations designated by our government as terrorist organizations is quite another. In addition, the JTA article quotes a Federation spokesman as stating that the university assurred the Federation that such an incident would not happen again and that it has not. Yet, the university spokesperson seems to have no idea as to what happened on the subsequent 2010 trip, nor does she seem to have any problem with what happened in 2009.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Aziz Duwaik.

In way of background for those readers unfamiliar with the Olive Tree Initiative, it was formed in 2007 at UC-Irvine in order to send selected groups of Jewish, Muslim and other students to Israel and the West Bank to meet with various figures on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. To date, there have been three trips, 2008-2009-2010. In addition, the program has spread to other UC campuses. Funding for the travel of Jewish students is handled primarily by the Rose Project, which was established by the OC Jewish Federation. In addition the OTI, in its brochure, solicits public donations. Finally, it is known that the Federation and Hillel of UCI have supported OTI-the Federation monetarily. At the university, the program falls under the Dept of Social Sciences.

In the past few months, there has been an on-going controversy within the Jewish community concerning some of the Palestinian figures that the Jewish students have been meeting with in the Holy Land. They include figures who have been part of or even helped found the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an international organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

As stated, the OTI claims that it is exposing the students to both sides of the dispute. The Jewish Federation claims that this exposure makes the Jewish students better equipped to argue Israel's side. Yet, many members of the local Jewish community, including those who have donated money to the Federation, are questioning the wisdom of sending Jewish students to be influenced by older, experienced activists who are dedicated to deligitimizing Israel through so-called peaceful protests and the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement (BDS). The OTI-sponsored speaking appearance in November of 2010 of George S Rishmawi at UCI also sparked questions. Rishmawi, is a Christian Palestinian figure, who was a co-founder of ISM, with whom he claims not to be presently involved. He is one of the top OTI contacts in the Palestinian territories.

It should be pointed out here that if Jewish students want to travel to the Middle East and meet with such persons, that is their absolute right. However, this travel is funded by others. It is also true that donors have the absolute right to know how their money is being spent, and if they disagree, they have the right to stop donating.

When, several months ago, a local Jewish woman, who has been following events on the UCI campus for a couple of years, began to ask questions about the nature of the travel and the nature of the people involved, she was met with an avalanche of blow-back from the OC Jewish Federation and Hillel. Her claims about George S. Rishmawi were called false. She was accused of causing division within the Jewish community. She was called a liar. Past and present student participants of OTI trips contributed open letters to the OC Jewish Experience web site denouncing the complaints and defending the OTI. In addition, several dozen Jewish students' names were added to a Hillel letter of support, in which many of the students involved had not given their concurrence to have their names included. In the OC Jewish Life monthly publication, a rabbi, who writes regularly for the monthly, said that the woman should apologize to the Federation for speaking out without bringing her concerns to them first (which she, in fact, had done).

That brings us to the release of the aforementioned letter. If the statements in the letter are factual, then this OTI controversy goes far beyond the alleged involvement of the ISM et. al. It now involves Hamas. This organization is appropriately labeled as a terrorist organization by our government. It is an organization that refuses negotitions with Israel as a waste of time. Its charter calls for the elimination of every Jew and the elimination of the Jewish state. As we speak, Hamas, the government of Gaza, continues to lob missiles into southern Israel. The Federation letter, of course, shows appropriate concern that this meeting reportedly took place. Unfortunately, what should have happened in 2009 and in 2010 in the middle of the controversy within the Jewish community, apparently did not happen. There was apparently no notification publicly that a major problem reportedly had occurred during the 2009 trip. While the Federation and Hillel were defending themselves on the OTI issue, this Duwaik matter was apparently kept under wraps-as they were criticizing the lady who was trying to bring light to the very questions surrounding the OTI. All the while, this letter was sitting in someone's files, out of public view. It took a Freedom of Information request to bring this all to light.

It should also be noted that both the 2008 and 2010 itineraries for the OTI trips have been posted on the OTI websites and thus, posted on this blog. What cannot be found on the OTI website is the 2009 itinerary. Now we can only wonder why.

It is now time for the OC Jewish Federation, Hillel, the university, and the Olive Tree Initiative to come clean on this matter and explain exactly what happened in September of 2009 during the OTI trip-and why the information remained out of the public domain while they (UCI excepted) were, in effect, shooting the messenger, the one woman who questioned what this Olive Trip Initiative is all about.

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