Jewish Journal

Groups clash over public discussion of Olive Tree Initiative

by Lisa Armony, Contributing Writer

Posted on Mar. 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm

The Orange County chapter of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), after being denied a venue at two local synagogues, is claiming Jewish community leaders have sought to prevent ZOA from generating public discussion critical of a controversial student program. 

The events leading to the claim began in December 2010, when the Orange County ZOA, which was established in 2009, invited the Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County to present its perspective on the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), an interfaith student initiative at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).  When ZOA officials were told that Jewish Federation CEO Shalom Elcott would be out of town on the date scheduled for the event, Orange County ZOA President Jesse Rosenblum invited Irvine Rabbi Dov Fischer, an outspoken critic of OTI, to address the group.

OTI was developed in 2007 by students concerned about longstanding tensions between Muslim and Jewish students at UCI in the hope of improving Muslim-Jewish relations by promoting informed dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Jewish Federation and Orange County Hillel have supported OTI programs since the group’s inception. Federation has also provided scholarship funds for Jewish students to participate in OTI trips to Israel and the West Bank through earmarked donations to its Rose Project, a privately funded initiative to promote Jewish life at UCI, according to Elcott.

OTI came under attack last fall when critics, led by Irvine resident Dee Sterling, alleged that it exposes students to Palestinian activists, in both Israel and the United States, who support efforts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. The critics claimed students met with members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a grass-roots group alleged by the Anti-Defamation League and others to have ties to terrorist organizations. Sterling and others, including ZOA National President Morton A. Klein, have called on the Orange County Federation and Hillel to disassociate from OTI. Sterling has also stated in past correspondence to Federation executives that she would encourage donors to withhold financial support for Federation and Hillel until those ties are severed.

OTI faculty adviser Paula Garb said that none of the three OTI trips to Israel have included ISM speakers.

“The ISM has not been represented at all, and speakers haven’t brought up ISM,” Garb said. “At the end of each day [of the trip], we have a formal discussion about what we all heard. I don’t remember an occasion when the group got a different message than what we thought was going on.”

On Jan. 10, ZOA rented a room at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine in order to launch a forum to explore the issues surrounding OTI, Rosenblum said. The program was scheduled to take place on Jan. 25.

“OTI became something that many of our members and the community started to talk about,” Rosenblum said. “Our chapter hasn’t taken a position one way or the other, but our members are certainly skeptical of it and are asking critical questions.”

Rosenblum said he notified area rabbis of the upcoming program with Fischer, only to be informed several days later that the synagogue was canceling the room reservation.

In a letter to Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, which she provided to The Jewish Journal, Shir Ha-Ma’alot Rabbi Richard Steinberg cited a rabbinic protocol that a rabbi speaking at a synagogue not his own should do so only at the invitation of the host rabbi. He added that Fischer’s views on OTI were not consistent with his own or those of the synagogue’s lay leadership and that he wanted to avoid its appearance as such.

Rabbi Steinberg declined requests for further comment, stating that his letter had been intended as a private correspondence.

Rosenblum said the ZOA then booked a room at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach. Two days later, the group was told its reservation had been canceled.

Rosenblum calls the matter an attempt to stifle criticism of OTI, and Fischer points the finger directly at the Jewish Federation. 

“The amazing thing is how there has been a clamp-down by The Federation to prevent any speech or dissent in the community against The Federation’s program. The idea that two different temples in the community, who have all kinds of speakers, canceled this program is profoundly shocking.”

Jewish Federation officials have denied involvement in the synagogue’s actions. 

“Federation doesn’t have control over what decisions the synagogues make regarding what programs they host,” Federation CEO Elcott said.

Rosenblum said that the community’s concern over OTI makes it incumbent upon The Federation to explain its position on the program and how decisions regarding its role at UCI are being made.

For now, the ZOA has decided to host programs about OTI outside of the Jewish community. Fischer’s talk was rescheduled for March 22, after press time for this issue of The Journal, at the Irvine Ranch Water District, a public facility where the subject should prove less controversial. 

“Right now, we have moved on,” Rosenblum said. “That isn’t to say that there can’t be dialogue in the future. We would look forward to an opening where all sides can be heard.”

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