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Olive Tree Branches Out, Initiates Dialogue

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On Tuesday Oct. 13, the Olive Tree Initiative, a grass-roots group, held a dialogue entitled “Appreciating Narratives: Discovering Dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” to share their recent experiences about their trip to the Middle East.

The Olive Tree Initiative comprises of student leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and other unaffiliated backgrounds. The students who participated in the event presented their voices and various opinions about their travels and intimately described their newfound perspectives of the political tensions between Israel and Palestine.

Daniel Wehrenfennig, a fourth year political science graduate student and board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding said, “The purpose of the Olive Tree Initiative is to encourage dialogue on the key issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provide different forums for discussion.”

The ongoing disputes between Israel and the Palestinians have created a violent region filled with ethnic turmoil and multiple perspectives on the whether or not there should be the development of two states. Several polls in 2009 indicate that both Israel and Palestine support a two-state, sovereign solution. However, there is still disagreement regarding the boundaries and where the land would be divided.

“The idea for our journey began during March of 2007 when UC Irvine was featured on the news because of various tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups on campus,” Wehrenfennig said. “Two young student activists came to visit the campus and challenged us to find out more about the conflict by personally visiting the region.”

“Former United States President Jimmy Carter visited our campus in May of that year and challenged UCI students to travel to the region to see it for themselves and offered the help of his center for the trip.”

The students began their two week trip to Israel in its capital Jerusalem and ended near Haifa and Herzliya. Their mission was to understand the conflict directly from Israelis and Palestinians rather than hearing secondhand information through the mainstream media.

“I was reminded of how special Israel is and how much meaning lies behind every part of it. I saw the urgent need to take back everything we were fortunate enough to see and hear and extend it to the greater community; to bring it back to UCI,” second-year business economics major Moran Cohen said.

Each individual took something different from their trip; whether it was a new point of view on the conflict or a sense of political activism, each member of the Olive Tree Initiative gained firsthand knowledge about the Middle Eastern conflict.

Sameera Ali, a fourth-year double major in biological science and global cultures, said, “Being part of the Olive Tree Initiative has been an amazing experience. It has been educational on many levels. I learned much more about Israel’s political system, its fragmented society and the situation in territories. Direct interaction, discussion among the group and the academic experience made this trip unique.”

“OTI continues to challenge the establishment and those leading in world politics to a new way of crossing boundaries, putting data into context for a new, more powerful framing process that allows us to be more responsible and realistic in our strategies,” Shannon Shibata, director of SWU (StandWithUS) said.

Both the trip and the dialogue reflect the multifaceted opinions UCI students have about Israel and the Palestinians. The dialogue was an opportunity for the students to reflect on their experiences. Wehrenfennig said the trip was the beginning of many robust dialogues about the situation in Israel and Palestine and that they are planning for a new set of students to embark on the next Olive Tree Initiative trip this school year.