Founded in 2007 by a small group of University of California-Irvine (UCI) students of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) describes itself as an “educational student-led” movement that aims to “promote dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.” As of July 2011, OTI had active chapters at UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, and UCLA.
OTI was initially formed as a response to escalating anti-Semitism on the UC Irvine campus, where Jewish students were frequently victimized by physical and verbal assaults; where Jewish property was commonly defaced with swastikas; where a Holocaust memorial was vandalized; and where signs were posted showing a Star of David dripping with blood. Largely responsible for creating this toxic atmosphere was UCI’s Muslim Student Union, which had sponsored numerous events featuring incendiary anti-Semitic speakers.
Once established, OTI became an integral part of the UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, with a salaried director and faculty from the School of Social Sciences. In its first three years of operation, the Initiative sponsored scores of forums, both on and off campus. Moreover, by January 2011 OTI had organized three trips to Israel and the West Bank, where participating students could “learn about the conflict from a personal perspective, independent of the media.”
But according to faculty members and Jewish students alike, the organization abetted rather than reduced anti-Semitism on the UCI campus. In September 2009, for instance, OTI members met secretly with Aziz Duwaik, a prominent Hamas leader who also served as speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, just months after he had been released from an Israeli prison. Though OTI attempted to conceal evidence that this meeting had taken place, the truth was ultimately exposed in early 2011.
At least twelve of the seventy OTI guest speakers who addressed student audiences in 2010 had clear track records of seeking to demonize and undermine the Jewish state. A number of them were involved in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international campaign aiming to delegitimize and destroy Israel by likening it to apartheid South Africa and punishing it economically. Among OTI’s presenters were:
OTI director Daniel Wehrenfennig — who has called his organization “an important hub for bridge-building, dialogue and cooperation between students and student groups” — justifies OTI’s affiliation with such individuals by citing his aim to provide students with “an experiential learning initiative that shows both, or even multiple[,] sides and narratives of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.”
In the summer of 2011, two OTI members participated in a “Welcome to Palestine” campaign whose objective was to inundate the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv with foreign political agitators who would subsequently travel to Palestinian villages to ply their craft. This so-called “flytilla,” of which Mazin Qumsiyeh was a key organizer, was intended to coincide with the Free Gaza Movement‘s scheduled (but aborted) multinational sea flotilla to the Gaza Strip. Thanks in large part to cooperation from airport personnel in other countries, who disallowed hundreds of known activists from boarding flights to the Jewish state, Israel was able to minimize the impact of “Welcome to Palestine.”
Notwithstanding OTI’s involvement in anti-Israel activities and its affiliation with anti-Israel activists, UC Irvine continues to sponsor it. Moreover, OTI remains a favored project of University of California president Mark Yudof. Its largest funder is the Orange County Jewish Federation, which, through its Rose Project, has furnished the group with tens of thousands of dollars.