Daniel Wehrenfennig, Director of the Olive Tree Institute (OTI) at UCI
Rabbi Dov Fischer writes about Daniel Wehrenfennig
The Man Whose OTI Program Is Supported Partly by Jewish Federation Stipends to Take UCI Jewish Students, for Half the Program, to Palestinian Arab Villages and Towns Where They Attend Lectures by Trained, Professional Anti-Israel Propagandists
The Olive Tree Institute (OTI) at UCI is headed by Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig. Wehrenfennig is for peace. So are we all. Let us understand the unique concept of Middle East justice and peace that animates the vision of the OTI director at UCI, Daniel Wehrenfennig.
In National Security and Human Rights: Democracies Debate Counterterrorism (ed. Alison Brysk & Gershon Shafir), Wehrenfennig co-authors a chapter expressing some of his views on the Mideast. See, e.g., http://www.comw.org/tct/fulltext/07brysk.pdf
On page 184, Daniel Wehrenfennig refers to the lands of Judea and Samaria as the “occupied territories” and writes disparagingly of Israeli efforts to interrogate Palestinian terror suspects. Read his words to see whether you agree. I am a trained attorney, and I interpret this man’s written words as arguing that Israel engages in coercive interrogation of suspected terrorists, comprising a “colossal policy failure” of “torture.” Is this the Daniel Wehrenfennig with whom the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the UCI Hillel have established an alliance of mutual support? This man accuses Israel of leaving behind “bitterness and shame” in “the West Bank and Lebanon.” (Emphases added.)
Please read the words penned by Daniel Wehrenfennig. This man just mass-distributed a letter he wrote to the Orange County Jewish community and to Jewish leaders throughout America, buoyed by his and OTI’s supporters and backers on the paid professional staffs of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and within the Orange County Hillel Federation, to defend the Jewish Federation’s use of Jewish tzedakah funds to send Jewish UCI students to Palestinian villages and towns with his Olive Tree Institute. In those “Palestinian” communities, they and fellow Christian, Muslim, and Druze UCI college students hear lectures by trained, professional Palestinian Arab propagandists committed to the destruction of a Jewish state of Israel. For “balance,” the students also are brought to Israel, where they hear a range of Israelis from the right to the left, to share an alternative narrative. In his co-authored chapter, Daniel Wehrenfennig also quotes an “Egyptian sociologist and human rights activist” for the proposition that America also is a violator: “[E]very dictator in the world is using what the United States has done under the Patriot Act and other derivative measures to justify their past violations of human rights at present and in the future.”
It is not the only time that Daniel Wehrenfennig’s prejudiced perception against Israel has been displayed. Read here for Daniel Wehrenfennig’s effort to compare “the plight of the Palestinians” and “their struggle for national self-determination” (id. at page 11) to the troubles in Northern Ireland: Alison Brysk & Daniel Wehrenfennig,“‘My Brother’s Keeper’? Inter-Ethnic Solidarity and Human Rights,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism (June 15, 2010).
http://www.comw.org/tct/fulltext/07brysk.pdf and http://www.comw.org/tct/fulltext/07brysk.pdf
And yet the Orange County Hillel has been a friend of Wehrenfennig’s OTI, praising and encouraging the program.
The Jewish Federation of Orange County, its Rose Project, and its staff have employed Jewish community funds to send Jewish UCI students on OTI programs that split time between “Palestine” and Israel. The http://www.alisonbrysk.org/Research_files/SENA_1067.pdf study describes Wehrenfennig as a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UCI and states that, “[b]eyond his studies, he helped organi[z]e an education fact-finding trip with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian UCI students to Israel/Palestine (the Olive Tree Initiative).” In this study, he accuses American Jews of lagging behind other Jewish communities in opposing apartheid. He accuses us of relative silence on Rwanda. “And the American Jewish community has been notoriously reluctant to critici[z]e human rights abuses in Israel.” (Emphasis added.) He also accuses American Jews of silence regarding the Armenian genocide. (For at least one rabbi’s unequivocal stand on the Armenian genocide, please see: http://frontpagemag.com/2010/06/07/talking-turkey/)
With new information coming in daily, it is more clear than ever that the Jewish Federation of Orange County and its Rose Project have been acting irresponsibly by allocating Jewish tzedakah funds to assist UCI Jewish students to fly under OTI’s rubric to visit “Palestine” and Israel, in equal parts, attending lectures organized and arranged by OTI in Palestinian Arab towns and villages given by trained, professional Palestinian Arab propagandists dedicated to destroying the Jewish state of Israel, as part of a program aimed at exposing Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze students to a “balanced presentation” of the various “narratives.” This is not where Jewish community funds should be diverted during this Great Recession when every penny counts for Jewish families and individuals in need right here in Orange County. For Jewish students who want to travel to “Palestine” with Daniel Wehrenfennig, let their parents or them pay for it. Not the generous donors who believe that their gifts to the Jewish Federation of Orange County are being allocated with Jewish sensibilities at the fore.
And take the pledge to withhold donations from the Jewish Federation of Orange County until a formal, written assurance is published that it and its agencies, projects, and related channels of funding will cease any further association with or material support for OTI.
Rabbi Dov Fischer
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"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act" George Orwell
Letter from Tammi Benjamin to Daniel Wehrenfenning
Dear Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig,
You did not write to me directly, though you did blind-copy me on your recent widely-circulated letter (forwarded below), in which you mentioned my name 18 times and attacked a letter I had sent to the heads of the Orange County Jewish Federation and Hillel. My letter urged these Jewish communal organizations to withdraw their funding and promotion of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) because at least 15 of the OTI's speakers are affiliated with organizations that have ties to terrorist groups that have murdered Jews, advocate the elimination of the Jewish state, and support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel. I also pointed out to the OC Federation and Hillel that it is wrong for Jewish communal resources to be used for a trip that engages Jewish students in activities that desecrate Jewish holy days, such as the OTI trip in 2010, during which students spent the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the following Sabbath (and other Sabbaths) engaged in non-Jewish activity in Jordan and the disputed territories.
You fiercely criticized my letter, stating that I "made up facts" and that my analysis was "incomplete and misleading," "completely inaccurate," and filled with "wrong information and missing facts," "a pattern of misinformation," "erroneous statements," and "distortion." I would like to reply to your charges, which I believe are wholly baseless, extremely disingenuous, and highly offense to the Jewish community in general, and to me personally as a UC faculty member, and as a Jew.
As I understand them, your primary charges against me are the following:
I based my analysis of the OTI 2010 trip on a preliminary version of the itinerary and not on the final version.
The speakers, whom I researched and linked directly to their own or their affiliated organization's on-line statements and actions seeking to destroy or harm the Jewish state, never communicated these virulently anti-Israel ideas to the students on the OTI trip. But even if they had, these were only 15 of the over 70 speakers with whom students met.
I neglected to acknowledge the pro-Israel speakers with whom students met, and whom you claim provided balance to the program.
I neglected to acknowledge the many Jewish activities in which the students on the 2010 OTI trip participated, as well as to mention that Jewish students had the option to not join the group if an activity conflicted with their religious observance.
I would like to respond to each of your points in turn:
1) You attempt to discredit my serious concerns about many of the OTI speakers by claiming that my analysis was "completely inaccurate" and "misleading" because it was based on an earlier version of the 2010 itinerary, implying that this earlier version was radically different from the final one. But this is simply not so. In fact, of the 15 speakers and organizations whose efforts to harm Israel I documented in my letter, all but two appeared in the final version of the itinerary. Furthermore, of the few speakers who did not appear in the earlier draft but were added to the final version, at least one would certainly have been included in my letter because of his expression of profound anti-Jewish animus: Xavier Abu Eid, the communication advisor for the PLO Negotiation Support Unit, with whom students met in Ramallah on Saturday afternoon September 4th, was one of a number of Christian Palestinian leaders who in 2009 signed Kairos Palestine, a document which applies anti-Semitic supersessionist theology to deny the historic and religious right of the Jews to their homeland, supports BDS efforts, and advocates the elimination of the Jewish state.
However, even if the two versions of the itinerary were substantially different, as you had falsely implied, it still does not deny the accuracy of my analysis. For the on-line version I accessed represents a document of intent, i.e., it indicates the speakers and activities that program organizers like yourself intended to offer students on the 2010 OTI trip, whether or not these were part of the actual itinerary. Therefore, it is arguably an even better indicator of the mission and goals of the OTI's organizers, which clearly included offering as legitimate perspectives (according to your "philosophy of 360-degree education") the views of numerous individuals who have supported efforts to harm the Jewish state and have advocated its elimination, views which our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic.
So I hope you can see that whether I base my analysis on the earlier version of the itinerary or on the final one, my conclusion will remain the same, namely, that it is unconscionable for Jewish communal funds to be used to support a program that includes anti-Semitic speakers and organizations.
2) The fact that the preliminary itinerary for the 2010 OTI trip represents a document of intent also speaks to your second point, that although they may have previously expressed their virulent opposition to the Jewish State, none of the speakers communicated such sentiments to the students on the OTI trip. Even if you are correct about the content of the speakers' communication with students -- though you bring not one shred of evidence to support your claim -- it does not change the fact that these speakers were chosen by OTI organizers like yourself before you knew what they would say to students! Indeed, some of the most virulently anti-Israel speakers, such as Mazin Qumsiyeh and George N. Rishmawi, were selected to speak to students on the very first OTI trip to Israel in 2008. Surely you could not have known beforehand what these individuals would say to students, and yet you chose them to be part of the OTI trip.
Moreoever if, as I suspect, you did your due diligence before asking these individuals to speak to students, you undoubtedly accessed the very same information about them as I did. I can only surmise, therefore, that not only did you know about the anti-Semitic views of these speakers when you chose them, but you had every reason to believe that they would communicate their views to OTI students.
As for your contention that only 15 of the 70 speakers had known anti-Semitic views, it is hard to fathom why you would think this statistic is at all comforting to the Jewish community. According to my calculations, 15 speakers in 70 means that over 20% of the people who addressed the students on the recent OTI trip had themselves expressed anti-Semitic views or behaviors, or were speaking on behalf of anti-Semitic organizations.
Please understand that after the Nazis slaughtered one-third of my people during the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, I and my co-religionists are understandably skittish about individuals or organizations that engage in, or call for, harming the Jewish State or the Jewish people. For many of us, having even one anti-semitic speaker, in a program that presents such a view as a legitimate perspective, is one too many! Twenty percent is an obscenity!
I hope you are beginning to understand why for many in the Jewish community, asking us to contribute Jewish communal funds in order to expose Jewish and non-Jewish students to such speakers is extremely offensive.
3) Although I did notice the pro-Israel speakers with whom the OTI students met, the presence of such speakers on the itinerary did nothing to improve my opinion of the program, and in fact made me even more concerned about it. That is because I believe these pro-Israel speakers are being unwittingly used to provide a fig leaf of "balance" for the OTI and to give the false impression that pro-Israel and anti-Israel speakers are not only equally represented numerically, but that these two perspectives are somehow objectively equal -- simply two different but equally legitimate narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, this is the kind of thinking that underlies your philosophy of "360-degree education." However, I find such thinking to be both logically and morally flawed.
Do you honestly believe that the argument in favor of BDS is equal and opposite to the argument against it, or that advocating for the elimination of the Jewish state and against the elimination of the Jewish state are equally legitimate positions?? For me as a Jew, and, I would wager, for every other Jew who identifies himself or herself with the mainstream Jewish community, advocating for BDS or the elimination of the Jewish State, perspectives which, as I have noted above, our own U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitic, are wholly illegitimate. However, by pairing them as you have with legitimate arguments made in defense of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people, you have given respectability and legitimacy to illegitimate, anti-Semitic perspectives. In my opinion, it is despicable that you have used Jewish communal funds for this morally reprehensible purpose.
4) In case you do not know, Jewish religious observance is more than just eating a meal, saying some prayers, or hearing a lecture on an occasional Sabbath or festival evening. It is a commitment to living a Jewish life according to G-d's will, and it involves full observance of all of the designated holy days. So while I appreciate the educational value of sharing certain Jewish traditions with all of the students on the OTI trip, Jews and non-Jews alike, this in no way "cancels out" or mitigates those aspects of Jewish faith and tradition that were egregiously violated by bringing Jewish students to Ramallah for their first Sabbath in the country, or by taking them to Jordan for two of the holiest days of the Jewish year. And even though I appreciate the fact that Jewish students were given the option of not joining the group in order to observe their religious practice, what about those Jewish students who had no family or friends in Israel with whom to observe the holy days, or who did not feel comfortable separating themselves from the group, or who did not want to miss out on an important part of the OTI trip?
Undoubtedly there are Jewishly-identified students who are not fully observant and do not mind violating the Sabbath or other holy days. Nevertheless, as the director of a program that targets Jewish students and accepts money from Jewish communal organizations representing Jews who care deeply about Jewish faith and tradition, it was the height of religious insensitivity for you to create and/or approve an itinerary that planned for Jewish students who did not opt out of the program on the Jewish holy days, to violate the basic tenets of their faith.
I hope you can appreciate that not one of the hundreds of observant Jews who will read this letter believes that Jewish communal funds should be used to support a program that knowingly violates Jewish faith and tradition in the way that the OTI has.
I would like to make a few final remarks about your letter.
You assert that the OTI has "become an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue and cooperation between individual students and student groups," although you have produced no evidence of this being the case. In fact, the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI has not improved since the establishment of the OTI, and in some ways it has significantly deteriorated.
For instance, in February 2010 members of the Muslim Student Union disgracefully disrupted a talk by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. And just this past May, the MSU hosted a week-long event entitled Israel Apartheid Week: A Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel, that featured anti-Semitic imagery and virulently anti-Israel rhetoric from 7 speakers well-known for their animus of Israel, including Imam Abdul Malik Ali, who compared the Jews to Nazis, expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and called for the destruction of the "apartheid state of Israel."
Indeed, the campus climate had become so oppressive for Jewish students at UCI last spring that over 100 Jewish UCI students, including the heads of all of the Jewish student groups and even some students who participated on OTI trips to Israel, signed the following statement in June 2010:
“We are Jewish students at the University of California and we are outraged and deeply offended by the behavior of some student groups on campus who sponsor speakers, films and exhibits that use hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery and openly support terrorism against Israel and the Jewish people. As Jewish students, we are also deeply disturbed by student initiated boycott and divestment campaigns which falsely accuse the Jewish state of crimes against humanity. Please understand that these speakers, exhibits, events and campaigns are as offensive and hurtful to Jewish students as a “Compton cookout” or noose are to African-American students. We demand that the UC administrators recognize and address the concerns of Jewish students in the same way as they respond to those of all other minority groups.”
At about the same time, over 60 UCI faculty members published an open letter in the campus newspaper stating that they were deeply disturbed about activities on their campus that fomented hatred against Jews and Israelis, and that many faculty and students felt intimidated, and even unsafe at UCI.
So not only has the OTI program not ameliorated the campus climate for Jewish students at UCI, it is my belief that some of the OTI speakers who have met with students have even contributed to the anti-Semitic BDS campaigns at our university, which in turn has led to an increase in anti-Semitic harassment on UC campuses, including at UCI. Consider the following three examples:
Prof. Mazim Qumsiyeh co-founded both the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign and Al-Awda, an organization which opposes Israel's right to exist, has links to Hamas and Hezbollah, and is a leader in the BDS movement. Al-Awda works closely with Muslim and pro-Palestinian student groups, including the MSU at UCI, to promote anti-Israel divestment campaigns and co-sponsor anti-Semitic events on California campuses. (For more information about Al-Awda's insidious influence on UC campuses, including at UCI, see an article I co-authored entitled "Are Jewish Students Safe on California Campuses?")
George N. Rishmawi co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and is the current director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement (PCR), which is under the auspices of the ISM. The ISM has links to terrorist organizations, openly advocates the destruction of the Jewish State, and sends activists and unsuspecting volunteers -- students like Rachel Corrie -- into life-threatening situations in order to protect known terrorists. The ISM has endorsed and promoted BDS campaigns globally, including at the University of California.
Sam Bahour is one of the original endorsers of the recent California Divestment from Israel Initiative, which calls on the State of California to force two enormous public employee pension funds to divest from Israel. Signatures to qualify this initiative for the California state ballot are being collected on campuses across the state, including at UCI.
I would like to end this letter on a personal note. I am deeply offended that in your email, which you distributed quite widely, you wrongfully attacked my academic integrity and dismissed my legitimate concerns about the OTI's value to the Jewish community. I believe your behavior in this regard is yet one further indication of the unworthiness of the program you direct for Jewish communal funds.