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Jewish Journal

Palestinian speaker at UCI event creates rift among local Jews

by Lisa Armony, Contributing Writer

December 8, 2010 | 9:45 am

George S. Rishmawi (far right) with students at UC Irvine. Photo by Matan Lurey, UC Irvine

George S. Rishmawi (far right) with students at UC Irvine. Photo by Matan Lurey, UC Irvine

On Nov. 22, on the campus of the University of California, Irvine (UCI), a Palestinian activist spoke at an event — not unusual for this school, which has engendered much debate between pro-Israel activists and critics of the Jewish state. But this speech, in particular, stands out, because it precipitated a row within the local Jewish community over Jewish communal support for a campus organization that was believed to be promoting harmony but now is seen by some as instead exposing students to anti-Israel views.

George S. Rishmawi addressed nearly 60 students and community members at the UCI Student Center, telling them of his family’s involvement in Palestinian nonviolent resistance against Israel and the current status of the nonviolent movement in the West Bank. Rishmawi organizes personal encounters between foreigners and Palestinians through tourism, and educational and ecumenical programs as co-founder and coordinator of the Bethlehem-based Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies.

His talk was sponsored by UCI’s Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a student program created to promote understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dialogue among Jewish, Muslim and other students. 

It is the association between Rishmawi and OTI that is drawing fire. In a Nov. 18 e-mail to Shalom Elcott and Jay Feldman — executives from the Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County — as well as to Orange County Hillel Executive Director Jordan Fruchtman, Deirdre Sterling, a resident of Irvine, protested these groups’ support for OTI in light of the group’s association with Rishmawi. Sterling objected to Rishmawi because he is a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian grass-roots group that claims to support nonviolent resistance and human rights. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that some ISM volunteers have said they recognize violence as a legitimate means of achieving Palestinian goals and reports they have associated with terrorist groups. ISM has also been linked to the Free Gaza Movement and is a key player in the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which uses anti-Israel rhetoric to delegitimize Israel.

Sterling sent copies of her e-mail to numerous Jewish community leaders and supporters, urged Federation and the campus Hillel to end their relationship with OTI and stated her intention to encourage donors to withhold financial support for Federation and Hillel until those ties are severed.

“The ISM is not a nonviolent organization as they’ve put out,” Sterling said. “Our students should not be meeting with the ISM.”

The Olive Tree Initiative was founded in March 2007 by a group of UCI students from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and nonreligious backgrounds with varying perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in order to discuss various views and to share an educational trip. In fall 2008, 16 students and two faculty members took a two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, where they met with academics, politicians, religious authorities, community leaders and activists. Those participants have spoken about their experiences in more than 40 forums, both on and off the UCI campus. In April 2009, OTI hosted a three-day UC Student Leadership Summit, which led to the creation of OTI groups on other UC campuses. Trips to Israel similar to the first followed in 2009 and 2010.

Now, Sterling described concerns for the students’ safety during such Middle East missions, due to the ISM’s alleged tactic of recruiting young people from outside the region to engage in confrontational actions against Israel’s military operations. Notably, in 2003, the American college student Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer during such an ISM operation when she tried to stop demolition of a Palestinian home. 

In her introduction of Rishmawi, OTI faculty adviser Paula Garb referred to him as an ISM co-founder and told the UCI audience that he had addressed OTI participants during the group’s interfaith student missions to Israel and the West Bank. Rishmawi told the gathering that he had severed his ties to ISM in 2004, due to personal differences with its leadership. He continues to facilitate dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians through the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between Peoples, which is associated with the ISM.

Garb said none of the three OTI student trips has included ISM speakers, nor has the ISM been brought up by any speaker or any student. She added that keeping the group safe is of paramount concern when devising the missions’ agendas. 

OTI has been recognized by the Orange County Human Rights Commission and the University of California for its role in improving dialogue about the Middle East conflict on a campus where anti-Israel activities and speakers have polarized Jewish and Muslim students. The program was honored by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy as a Top Citizen Diplomacy Program at a global summit in November.

Audience members asked Rishmawi questions about key issues that hamper Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, including whether he supports a one- or two-state solution, and his view on terrorism. 

“In the beginning of my life, I was resisting for a two-state solution, but I don’t believe in borders anymore,” Rishmawi said. “I don’t care.  I want to live like you. Anything that will give me a good life, I’ll take it. How can I make my life better? How can I live with dignity? I don’t advocate for a one- or two-state solution. I advocate for freedom and justice for all.

“Suicide bombing is a form of terrorism, and I don’t believe in it,” he continued, adding that he considers Israel to engage in terrorism as well. “Every day, I live under a structure of terrorism. For me, collective punishment is a form of terrorism. Anything that is a violation of international law is a form of terrorism.”

The debate over OTI within the Orange County Jewish community has been waged largely through e-mails and postings on the Web site ha-emet.com.

Several Jewish community leaders have weighed in to support Sterling, including Rabbi Aron Hier, campus outreach director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Hier urged the Federation to investigate OTI, which he called a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for exposing students to enemies of Israel.

“If you want to hear both sides of the conflict, you have to pick very carefully who will speak for the other side,” Hier said. “Are these students getting two versions of profound truth or are they getting a lot of lies and propaganda as part of their trip? That is part of our concern here.”

In addition, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew lecturer at University of California, Santa Cruz, raised concerns about speakers whom OTI mission participants have met with that support the BDS campaign and other anti-Israel activities.

Sterling’s e-mail sparked sharp responses from Elcott and Fruchtman, who said she confused the speaker, George S. Rishmawi, with his cousin, George N. Rishmawi, who remains active in ISM, a group both Jewish leaders denounced. Decrying the call to remove funding from the Federation and Hillel as “absurdly misguided,” Elcott said that the Federation would not allow members of the community to “push aside an honest agenda for true dialogue.”

He added that the Jewish Federation does not financially support OTI, but rather has provided scholarship funds for Jewish students to participate in OTI trips to the Middle East through earmarked donations to its Rose Project.

Hillel neither funds OTI nor co-sponsors any of its programs on campus, Fruchtman said.

“We absolutely listen to community input, but we are not going to abdicate Jewish participation in bridge-building programs because it’s important to have activated Jewish students who are educated, not just in things the Jewish community would like them to hear, but to become knowledgeable on other points of view,” said Jeffrey Margolis, co-chair of the Rose Project. 

“Rashmawi is an ideal way to engage Palestinian students in dialogue,” UCI Hillel president and OTI participant Matan Lurey said. “We want to talk to people on all sides of the issue.  Part of [OTI] is getting Muslim and independent students involved, and we won’t do that if we only bring in one side of the story.”

But Sterling believes there is an inherent problem when Jewish groups are associated with anti-Israel speakers.

“It’s not just about the speaker,” she said. “The issue is that [Federation and Hillel] have made a really big mistake regarding some of the things they’re doing. It’s not relevant what the speaker says. What’s relevant is what’s behind all of this.”

“I think everyone interested in constructive dialogue on this campus and a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should support OTI,” Garb said. “Students who have returned from the OTI experience are far better educated about the conflict. They have meaningful relationships on this campus with students across the divide, and have become leaders of constructive dialogue, not only on this campus, but also in the off-campus community, locally and abroad.”

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