Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Recently, a small group of members of the Jewish community circulated an e-mail calling for the divestment and boycott of Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Orange County. This was a call based on these organizations’ affiliation with the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), an organization on campus whose mission is to promote constructive dialogue and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through experiential learning.

On Monday, Nov. 22, the Olive Tree Initiative invited George S. Rishmawi, a Palestinian non-violence peace activist from Beit Sahour, to come to UC Irvine and speak about his involvement in non-violent resistance. Mr. Rishmawi was the cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement, an organization he has not been affiliated with for the past six years, and is currently serving as the director for the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies and the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People. Before Mr. Rishmawi even took one step on campus, hate mail and online articles were shared throughout the Jewish community, condemning the Olive Tree Initiative for hosting the event and Hillel for supporting George S. Rishmawi’s visit to UCI. Apparently, encouraging dialogue and understanding of all sides of the conflict is not something that some members of the Jewish community support.

At last week’s event, Rishmawi talked about non-violent resistance, poor water sanitation and water shortages in the Palestinian territories, as well as the difficulties he faced growing up under a military occupation. In no way did he mention anything remotely damaging to the Jewish people.

Some of the ridiculous accusations stemming from some of these Jewish community members included statements like the following: “Groups such as the Olive Tree Initiative intend to destroy Israel, diplomatically and politically, and if all else fails, through terror.” It was also claimed that “our children are getting a burdensome dose of anti-Semitism on campus today, not just at UCI, but everywhere, and organizations (like OTI), on campus, and off, who pretend to be pro-peace and are spoon-feeding them propaganda and anti-Israel vitriol, with absolutely no parity for the pro-Jewish stance.”

Yup, this is exactly why an equal number of the students who were chosen to go on the OTI trip to Israel and Palestine were Jewish, Muslim, Christian and non-affiliates. This is also why the group met with the spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister, Mark Regev, heard from the Israeli architect who supervised the construction of the security fence, Danny Tirza, listened to the stories of Jewish families who lost their children to suicide bombs, as well as the numerous other exposures to the so-called “pro-Jewish” stance. It is also important to note that the OTI students were given a day off on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur to visit the Western Wall and participate in religious practices, but while on Eid, the most important Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, not one of the Muslim students were allowed to do so much as pray in a local mosque.

Finally, before criticizing organizations like OTI, one should consider looking over Hillel’s mission statement, which explicitly states its aim to “help students find a balance in being distinctively Jewish and universally human by encouraging them to pursue tzedek (social justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world), Jewish learning and to support Israel and the global Jewish peoplehood.” So I ask: is learning about non-violent resistance against unlawful occupation not an example of pursuing social justice? And is attempting to spread awareness on human rights issues — such as water shortages in the Palestinian territories — not a positive step towards “repairing the world”?

Having the courage to stand up and criticize policies of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-Semitic! This fact is emphasized time and time again, yet a sector of the Jewish community doesn’t seem to understand. To say that being critical of Israeli policies is the same as being anti-Semitic is just as extreme as claiming that all Muslims and Arabs in the world are cold-blooded terrorists — something we all know is far from the truth. Unfortunately, the prevalence of this black-and-white thinking among many people today is one of the many reasons why this conflict still exists.

Nesma Tawil is a first-year Biomedical Engineering major. She can be reached at ntawil@uci.edu.

NOTE: An editor’s note regarding this article has been published on the Opinioneater blog.