Saturday, April 2, 2011

UC Irvine Students’ Secret Meeting with Hamas

by Nichole Hungerford and Richard Baehr

The University of California – Irvine (UCI) has some serious new problems on its hands. After a series of controversial incidents, including appearances by terrorist-supporting speakers and a raucous disruption of a talk by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, new information has come to light revealing that students participating in a student program known as the Olive Tree Initiative met with a prominent leader of the terrorist organization Hamas. More scandalously, the students were told — it is unclear by whom — to keep the meeting a secret.

A letter that can be viewed at records officials from the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) expressing distress to the chancellor of UCI, Michael Drake, over student participation in an unauthorized meeting with a prominent Hamas figure, Aziz Duwaik, in September of 2009. Students were participants in the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a part of the university’s Difficult Dialogues II program, which conducts trips to Israel and the West Bank for students to learn about the conflict in that region. Notably, OTI programing, associations, and student membership often overlap with other student organizations such as Hillel. Among other reasons, the released letter states that OTI participants were instructed not to tell anyone about the meeting to “avoid being detained…reentering Israel from the West Bank or being held at the airport before leaving the country” — this should give a clear idea about how serious such a meeting would be to Israeli and US officials. The JFOC’s letter requested that the university conduct an investigation into the incident and that disciplinary action be taken.

The OTI, which FrontPage has chronicled previously, is highly controversial due to its involvement with activists with untoward associations (including with the ISM, which supports Palestian terrorism) and those who promote extreme anti-Israel views, such as support for BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions), and accusations of Israeli apartheid and human rights abuses. Aziz Duwaik himself was arrested in Israel in 2006 during a crackdown on senior Hamas officials by the IDF following the abduction of still-captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Duwaik, who is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Hamas, was released in June 2009 — just three months before he met with students from the OTI.

Although Hamas works within the political process in the region, it is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and its charter is clear about its desire to “implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”

The letter documenting the OTI Hamas meeting, printed on Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) letterhead, was sent by Shalom Elcott, president of the federation, and two co-chairs of the Rose Project: Jeffrey Margolis and Dr. James Weiss. The Rose Project was developed by Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County, and it provides funding for the Olive Tree Initiative. The letter to Chancellor Drake identifies the JFOC as the “largest funder” of the OTI, although the Ford Foundation and UCI itself are also primary funders, according to university officials. The Rose Project reports that the OTI does not have a funding grant pending with the project at this time, however, this does not rule out the possibility that the Rose Project will fund the OTI in the future if a grant application is made.

According to an official with the Rose Project, an investigation into the Hamas meeting was conducted, revealing that the Duwaik meeting was the result of a last-minute schedule change made onsite without prior approval by either the university or JFOC. A prior-scheduled session was canceled, and a leading graduate student in the field helped arrange a meeting with Duwaik to replace the canceled event. The official went on to say that JFOC and Rose Project leadership believe that the decision was inappropriate and that the person responsible ensured that, facing the same situation, he or she would not make the decision again. Furthermore, the official said that any such spontaneous changes in the future would require approval by the university in consultation with the JFOC.

For its part, the University of California Irvine’s response to the controversy has been notably lackadaisical, bordering on reckless. According to the media relations director of UCI, an investigation had not been conducted through the university to her knowledge, and she was also not aware of disciplinary action. The director of OTI, to whom the media director referred further inquiry, did not respond to phone requests for comment. Serious questions hang in the balance: for instance, was the investigation alleged to have taken place conducted through the university or through the JFOC?

And what about disciplinary action? Were any changes made in the leadership or management of the program to prevent a recurrence of such an incident and coverup on subsequent trips? The Rose Project referred questions on the disciplinary action to the university, as UCI was said to be in charge of it. This implies that the investigation was indeed done by the university. Yet the university could not produce evidence of such an investigation upon request. Are we to believe that UCI takes students meeting with a leader of a U.S.-classified terrorist organization — whose charter promises to exterminate Jews — so lightly? UCI cannot produce any information on the incident for the public? And why is the record of disciplinary action so difficult to produce? It seems that either UCI does not care enough about the incident to be forthcoming with this information, or perhaps we should take the media director at her word.

It is possible that the investigation was conducted internally with JFOC — given that the Rose Project official said only that an investigation was conducted. However, if this is the case, it appears that no disciplinary action could be pointed to by the JFOC, or at the very least, none that would be made public. But why would the JFOC not want to publicize this information after such a scandal?

It is worth noting the second reason students were asked to keep quiet about the meeting:

(2) to avoid confrontation with anyone who would have disagreed with this meeting had they known about it in advance – namely Orange County Jewish community and leadership, and UCI administration.

This argument is of course the more interesting one: the threat of cutting off the hand that feeds the program. If the threat of a funding cutoff were the real danger, it appears these fears were overblown. We now know that both the UCI and JFOC learned of the Hamas meeting and the attempted coverup soon after it happened — and then chose to continue to host and/or fund the program.

Again, we do not know if there were any personnel changes made as a result of the Hamas official meeting and the instruction to students to keep quiet about it. We do not know how the university, or the chancellor, justifies continued faith in program leadership which, not only exercised such poor decision-making, but also such a stunning degree of deception. It is also of paramount importance to understand how officials associated with the university could arrange a spontaneous meeting with such a prominent Hamas official. The federation letter requested a full investigation into the planning and execution of the Duwaik meeting, and “that after the facts of this investigation are known….proper disciplinary measures be enforced as appropriate.” At this point, however, we do not even know if such an investigation has been conducted.

UCI has a long, inglorious record in recent years regarding this conflict, including the passivity it has shown in the face of intimidation of pro-Israel students, and the hate speech it has allowed onto campus. The UCI owes the public an account of the facts behind this latest scandal. To help ensure that such incidents do not happen in the future, has developed a pledge in memory of the Fogel family that establishes minimum protocol for activities suitable for Jewish Federation funding. The Freedom Center supports this pledge and encourages concerned individuals to petition their respective Jewish federations to adopt it.

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Nichole Hungerford and Richard Baehr

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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