A very balanced itinerary?

Is the Olive Tree Initiative, an interfaith program that brings American students here to learn about the Israeli-Arab conflict, offering its participants the appropriate mosaic of views?

Shalom Elcott thinks you may have gotten the wrong idea.
In Israel this past week for Shavuot, the Orange County Jewish Federation president and CEO said that criticism of his group’s support for the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) was misplaced and not based on an honest examination of the program.
“We could all agree that we don’t love all the speakers, but we have to work with American Jews to develop a greater understanding about how important that diversity of opinions in Israel is. Our job is to work with OTI and open the door to the best possible teachers and people who know the facts on the ground and make sure they’re engaged on the trip,” he said.
According to the program’s website, the OTI, which operates trips to Israel for both Jewish and non-Jewish students from The University of California’s Irvine, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz campuses, “aims to promote dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
This educational student-led initiative is modeled after empiricism – gaining knowledge through experience.
Students travel to the region and learn about the conflict from a personal perspective, independent of the media.”
The OTI program, and by extension the Orange County federation, have come under fire from some in the Jewish community who highlight the presence of supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement among the program’s speakers and argue that it presents an unbalanced, fiercely anti-Israel point of view.
In a column this past April entitled “American Jewry’s Fight,” Jerusalem Post columnist and senior contributing editor Caroline Glick referred to Elcott and the OC federation as being among “anti- Zionist Jews” that are “hijacking communal funds and facilities to finance anti- Israel activities,” due to their support for the OTI.
Jeff Margolis, co-chair of the federation’s “Rose Project,” told the Post last week that the Olive Tree Initiative was just one program that fell under the project’s umbrella of operations, and that the Orange County Jewish Federation was only one of a number of sponsors.
“We do three things: [One,] we invest to improve Jewish life and Jewish programming on Orange County college campuses; two, we invest in developing self-sufficient Jewish leaders; and three, we communicate on important issues with the Jewish community, which in our community can often be difficult issues like the political discourse on campus,” Margolis said of the Rose Project.
He said the federation’s support for the Olive Tree Initiative, which is run by the University of California, Irvine, “falls under the rubric of the second part of the Rose Project, which funds a significant number of programs, including Hasbara fellowships, Taglit- Birthright Israel, Stand with Us, and Hillel.”
Margolis added that the federation saw the OTI as part of an effort to expose students to diverse opinions, and by no means as meant to “delegitimize” Israel.
“We feel [the program] is part of a mosaic of experiences, which obviously include Jewish education and other things we’ve mentioned. For young Jewish leaders to experience firsthand, on the ground in Israel, a dialogue with other Jewish children, Muslim children, Druse, and non-affiliated students is an important part of developing their capabilities to be Jewish leaders and confront difficult issues,” he said.
The fact that the OTI is run by UC-Irvine, where 11 students from the Muslim Student Association were arrested for shouting down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a February 2010 visit, is no coincidence for Margolis.
“On college campuses, in Orange County and throughout the country, there are messages about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, including the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state, claims of human rights abuses, the use of the term ‘occupation’... and of course, if our students don’t understand how these messages are being formulated and if they’re not intelligent in terms of hearing them and seeing them firsthand, we think it can be very difficult for them to develop effective dialogue methods for coping with these challenges,” he explained.
“The OTI understands that people are unlikely to change their points of view on these trips, but our experience is that the people who go on these trips pro-Israel come back even more so, and the people who go anti-Israel, come back more moderate and able to engage in a dialogue – and this dialogue never existed before on campus,” he noted.
A look at a video about the OTI on the organization’s website shows students from Hillel and the Muslim Student Union, among other organizations, meeting with settler leaders like Ariel Mayor Ran Nahman and Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein, as well as Palestinian officials in the West Bank.
As the strumming of an oud plays in the background, Jewish, Muslim and Christian students from UCI describe a trip they say was devoted to spending equal time in “Israel and Palestine in the West Bank,” with a number of those interviewed saying that the trip exceeded all their expectations.
Elcott said an aspect of the program missed by critics was the year-long study process before the trip, that prepares participants for “two-and-ahalf weeks on the ground with more than 60 encounters across the country with people from Ron Nahman in Ariel, to [government spokesman] Mark Regev speaking to them on behalf of the prime minister, to visiting Sderot and the northern border, as well as a whole range of academics.
They really get to the nittygritty on the ground in an extensive way.”
Having said that, Elcott and Margolis do admit that students meet with speakers who support BDS and the branding of Israel as an apartheid state.
“There are people who do support BDS or calling Israel an apartheid state,” Margolis said, adding that “giving students the ability to understand how they construct these messages is important for the development of their leadership abilities and their ability to hold a dialogue.”
For his part, Elcott said, “We all wish that Israeli delegitimization tactics weren’t occurring or that BDS movements weren’t occurring. We all wish that criticism about how Israel handles things was not occurring in the vociferous way that it is, but that is not the reality that our students or young leaders face on campus.
And so we feel it’s really important to have involvement in a process in which it can be seen and understood firsthand.”
Both Margolis and Elcott clarified that they would draw the line at someone who represented an illegal or terrorist organization or advocated the use of terrorism against Israel.
SPEAKING TO the Post from Herzliya, where he is studying for an MA at the Interdisciplinary Center, OTI alum Isaac Yerushalmi said he had helped found the program with a poly-religious group of students because “there wasn’t really an environment that was conducive to constructive dialogue.”
When asked about criticism of the OTI, Yerushalmi, the former president of the UCI pro- Israel group “Anteaters for Israel,” said that “people who are accusing it of being an anti- Israel organization obviously haven’t looked at the itinerary.
Almost half of the speakers are Zionist or pro-Israel, some are in the middle and are not affiliated with the Palestinian or Israeli side, [working] with non-partisan NGOs or organizations.
It’s a very balanced itinerary, and we’ve always been open to hearing from people who have ideas and additional perspectives.”
According to Yerushalmi, “the people who are out criticizing the program are far- Right extremists who are unhappy with any sort of educational venture where you are listening to what the other has to say. And unfortunately for me and the majority of young Jewish students these days, we want nuance and we want a holistic approach.”
The 24-year-old Los Angeles resident, who has not made aliya but “maybe will in the future,” said that the motivation for a multifaceted view of the conflict was self-evident: “We live in a globalized world where there are so many ideas traveling around the world so quickly, and if we only want to explore one view, then we’re going to lose.”