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Why Students in Solidarity with Palestine Should Not Join The Olive Tree Initiative

[Logo of the Olive Tree Initiative.] [Logo of the Olive Tree Initiative.]

The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) calls itself a “conflict analysis” project. Started in 2007 at the University of California Irvine, it is now present at multiple UC campuses. OTI is often referred to as a “dialogue project,” and its mission statement reads as follows:

The mission of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) is to promote conflict analysis and resolution through Experiential Education by providing students and community with the education, training, and experiences needed to better negotiate and solve conflicts.

This might sound like an admirable venture at first. However, OTI’s “standards and ethics” indicate that the organization is adamant about remaining “apolitical” when approaching the “conflict.” Those of us who understand the realities on the ground know that this “conflict” is defined by the Israeli government’s discrimination, occupation, and displacement of Palestinians. OTI-affiliated groups pledge to remain “non-partisan and apolitical,” are not allowed to “engage in political activism,” and must be committed to providing “balanced and varied points of view.” In fact, these groups commit themselves to providing “perspectives and counter-perspectives on issues relevant to the same event or program when possible.”

Privileging Balance Over Truth

Nowhere in this mission statement is there any mention of the word “truth.” This is not a project aimed at determining the answer to a question, getting to a conclusion, or finding a solution to the problems of discrimination, occupation, and displacement. That is because OTI maintains an almost mechanical commitment to balance. In other words, no matter what perspective is offered, the organization is committed to the idea of balancing it with something, anything, else, no matter its legitimacy, factuality, or morality. In effect, OTI balances truths and solutions with confusion and excuses. For example, the perspective of a Palestinian in the West Bank whose home has been illegally demolished must be balanced by the perspective of the mayor of the settlement that has taken that land. One side offers the law, the other side offers justifications for breaking it, but both voices are given equal legitimacy. Seen against the backdrop of the recent 138-9 vote in favor of Palestinian rights at the United Nations, we should understand this forced balance as an effort to recast what is a global consensus as if it were an unsettled question.

While OTI claims that this effort to provide balance is aimed at educating students who will then go on to become advocates, presenting such a multitude of perspectives as if they were equal undermines that goal in two ways. On the one hand, the approach gives all perspectives presented equal credibility. It provides legitimacy to arguments that do not deserve it, and it makes it so that Palestinian and anti-occupation voices can never be heard alone, without the presence of an opposing pro-occupation voice. On the other hand, it gives the false impression of providing a safe space to advocate for Palestine—meaning, without the stigma of being “pro-Palestinian” or the pressure of openly hostile university administrators and outside groups. However, the reality is that any advocacy inside a closed dialogue is severely constrained—both in terms of reach and in terms of the rules regulating that dialogue—such that it can in no way, shape, or form serve as a substitute for public organizing similar to that done by SJP and other activist groups. Beyond the limited number of participants, there is the issue that committed Zionists are not the core target audience of Palestine solidarity activism—just as committed Republicans are not the core target audience of community organizing efforts in defense of social safety nets or the right of women to have control over their own bodies. Rather, it is everyone else.

It is also worth pointing out that an insistence on balance is not unique to OTI. One can find it in US politicians’ recent attacks on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) event at Brooklyn College, featured prominently in the recommendations made in this summer’s censorious UC Campus Climate Reports, and in the hasbara manuals offered by pro-Israel groups. For example, the Israel Action Network recommends emphasizing a diversity of perspectives in its report entitled, “Best Practices for Countering the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy.”

Violating the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)

In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for international supporters of Palestinian rights to use boycott, divestment, and sanctions tactics to pressure Israel into ending the occupation, granting its Palestinian citizens equality, and respecting the rights of refugees.

The BDS guidelines also specifically ask that people who are in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle cease to participate in normalization projects. Normalization generally occurs when an organization decides not to take a position against the multiple violations of Palestinian rights, and works instead to balance pro- and anti-Zionist perspectives. This false symmetry amounts to putting a finger on the scales of justice, portraying positions that seek to deny Palestinian rights and violate international law as equal to positions that seek to achieve Palestinian rights and international law. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has made it clear that:

[I]nternational supporters of BDS are asked to refrain from participating in any event that morally or politically equates the oppressor and oppressed, and presents the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis as symmetrical.  Such an event should be boycotted because it normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians and ignores the power structures and relations embedded in the oppression.” (See sixth point of PACBI’s BDS guidelines.)

OTI is quite transparent in that its purpose as an organization is not to further the cause of Palestinian rights. But by not working to challenge Israeli policies towards Palestinians, OTI violates BDS guidelines. As PACBI explains,

Such events and projects, often seeking to encourage dialogue or “reconciliation between the two sides” without addressing the requirements of justice, promote the normalization and perpetuation of oppression and injustice. All such events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless based on unambiguous recognition of Palestinian rights and framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott. (See sixth point of PACBI’s BDS guidelines)

These PACBI statements should not be treated like just one of many perspectives on the issue. Rather, they represent a call that we must respond to. Students who recognize that solidarity means respecting the guidance and strategy of Palestinian civil society should also recognize that normalization projects violate the requests made by over 170 Palestinian political parties, unions, refugee associations, women’s groups, and academic and cultural institutions that span across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian community in Israel, and the diaspora. Therefore, choosing to participate in a normalization project while claiming to be in solidarity with Palestinians is a contradiction.

Critical Perspectives on Dialogue

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Palestine solidarity organizations are often misrepresented as being categorically against dialogue. This is not true. Dialogue can be empowering and liberating when it recognizes the fundamental differences in power between the oppressor and the oppressed, and when it occurs between parties that share the same basic values. And it is not the case that dialogue can only be between pro and anti-occupation groups. At most universities, SJPs have the option to connect with other student groups who might not be aware of the Palestinian cause, but whose interest in social justice would lead them to support it. As long as our organizations share the same basic commitment to getting to truth and upholding shared principles of equal rights and international law, we can create meaningful bonds where none previously existed. The remarkable bonds created between SJP and MEChA at UCLA are a testament to this fact.

OTI could become a legitimate project by recognizing the power difference between oppressor and oppressed, as well as by orienting its work around a reasonable goal—such as supporting the pursuit of justice and respect for international law. This would offer a basis from which to discern between the arguments offered by the settler and the farmer who lost his land. It would mean figuring out the root causes of the current situation, and thinking about solutions that will protect fundamental rights and ensure equality for an oppressed people. Equal rights is not an extreme principle. It is not an idea that should alienate or offend people. Nor should it be balanced.  

So what does it mean when the Olive Tree Initiative refuses to commit itself to something so basic and un-offensive? What does it mean that the Olive Tree Initiative will not even oppose the uprooting and destruction of olive trees in the West Bank—the ultimate irony given the organization’s appropriation of such an important Palestinian symbol? To not take the side of the oppressed does not mean that OTI is being neutral. It means that OTI has become complicit in oppression. 


[The author thanks Tom Pessah for his advice and comments.]

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