America's most renowned public university system is sinking deeper into a scandal over its treatment of antisemitism and even terror groups.
The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) at the Universityof California Irvine (UCI) is a fig leaf, a token gesture, used by the UC administration to cover up the shame of the existence of antisemitism at UCI and the administration's lack of resolve in identifying, condemning, and combatting it. But now the cover is blown. A letter, dated 10/08/2009, obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals the moral confusion of the OTI ideology and its staff. The letter indicates that the OTI is part of the problem of antisemitism at UCI and not the esteemed solution as proclaimed by the UCI administration.
Chancellor Michael V. Drake has been silent for years as his campus has been the scene of physical and verbal harassment of Jewish students, inversion of Holocaust imagery, in which Jews are the new Nazis, sponsorship of public speakers who accuse Jews of not being able to exist equally with other human beings, as well as accusations that Jews deliberately kill non-Jewish children for nefarious purposes. He was even silent when more than 60 UCI faculty issued a public statement, May 2010, stating that they "are deeply disturbed about activities on campus that foment hatred against Jews and Israelis. Some community members, students, and faculty indeed feel intimidated and at times even unsafe."
Instead of addressing the problem, Mark Yudof, President of the University of California, and Chancellor Drake have promoted the Olive Tree Initiative(OTI) at UCI as a sterling example of their efforts to combat bigotry. President Yudof in May 2010 gave the first-ever President's Award for Outstanding Leadership to the OTI student leaders, and Chancellor Drake awarded its founders as "Living Our Values." Moreover, on March 24, 2010, when asked to speak at a special meeting of the Regents of the University of California called specifically in response to an outbreak of bigotry at various University of California campuses, including UCI where the Muslim Student Union had disrupted an invited lecture from Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Chancellor Drake touted the OTI as evidence that students on his campus "live and practice tolerance."
The Olive Tree Initiative, begun by a group of UCI students of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, has as its mission to promote dialogue and discussion about the Israeli Arab conflict. The OTI is now an official part of the UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding and International Studies Program with salaried faculty, director, and staff. Three trips by students to Israel and the West Bank have been organized as part of the program, as well as more than 70 lectures off and on campus. There are efforts on other UC campuses to replicate the program.
Yet, the moral bankruptcy of the OTI as a solution for antisemitism in academia is revealed by the letter. Addressed to Michael V. Drake, Chancellor of UCI, written by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the letter divulges that UCI faculty and staff under OTI auspices, during the second trip to Israel in the fall of 2009, secretly arranged for students to meet with Hamas leader Aziz Duwaik. Hamas is virulently anti-Semitic; it is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.; its charter calls for the destruction of Israel (Article 15) and the murder of Jews (article 7). It is responsible for suicide terror attacks that murder Israeli civilians, and the firing of thousands of missiles into Israeli territory.
Combatting bigotry and promoting peacebuilding by meeting with Hamas is Orwellian. Would the University of California take students to meet and dialogue with the head of the Ku Klux Klan as a way to combat murderous racism? It would not.
Even the OTI faculty and staff realized that something was amiss in their plan. As exposed by the letter, Daniel Brunstetter, the faculty advisor, and Daniel Wehrenfennig , Ph.D candidate, who were the organizers on the ground, told students to conceal the fact of the meeting in order to thwart Israeli authorities, the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the chief funding organization, and the UCI administration itself.
How high up did their cover-up go? Once he was notified by the Jewish Federation of Orange County in October, 2009, it clearly included Chancellor Drake. He made no public statement about the event, nor any public condemnation of Brunstetter or Wehrenfennig. Brunstetter is still Assistant Professor of Political Science. Wehrenfennig now directs OTI as well as a new undergraduatecertificate program in conflict analysis and resolution. Rather than rebuke or punishment, Chancellor Drake colluded in awarding Wehrefennig a precious staff position.
Equally reprehensible, given that Chancellor Drake knew in the fall of 2009 about the infamous incident and its cover up, he glowingly advertised it six months later as the way in which he was combating antisemitismand protecting Jewish students on his campus.
Did the cover-up go further than Chancellor Drake? Is it possible that President Yudof was informed, but 6 months later, he gave a first-ever commendation to OTI, implicating himself in the cover-up? Or is it possible that Chancellor Drake did not notify President Yudof that UCI had involved students with a U.S. designated terrorist group, an incident that would at best deeply embarrass UC? Now that President Yudof has been apprised, what actions is he taking in regard to Chancellor Drake and the OTI?
After years of trying to get the University of California administration to take action, Jews have had to turn to federal law to combat antisemitism at UC. Jessica Felber, in a suit against President Yudof and the Regents of UC, charges that as a student at UC Berkeley she was physically assaulted by a member of the student group, Students for Justice in Palestine, an assault for which UC officials are partly responsible for ignoring the mounting evidence of anti-Jewish animus at their campus. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, has filed a Title VI complaint against UC Santa Cruz, presently being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint charges that "professors, academic departments and residential colleges at UC Santa Cruz promote and encourage anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behavior" creating a hostile environment for Jewish students. Although the OCR previously denied a complaint of the Zionist Organization of America against UCI, claiming that Jews were not a protected group under Title VI, that position is now changed. Jewish students, under federal law, must now receive the same civil rights protection in higher education as do other protected ethnic groups.
The legal suit and Title VI complaints charge that the University of California administration discriminates against Jewish students by allowing a hostile, antisemitic environment. President Yudof and Chancellor Drake can no longer hide under a fig leaf. That fig leaf, itself tainted, does not provide cover for such an abuse of decency and of the law.
Leila Beckwith is professor emeritus, UCLA.