The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) presented “Beyond Stereotypes: Faces and Voices of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” at the Student Center’s Crystal Cove Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 23.
While the audience was pouring into the auditorium and choosing their seats, the screen at front showed a slideshow of the Olive Tree Initiative’s images from their trip. After calming down the audience, the moderator, Professor Wayne Sandholtz, welcomed everyone and briefed them about a video before introducing the panel of Olive Tree Initiative’s students and faculty.
The video detailed the Olive Tree Initiative’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and was accompanied with samples from the musical ensemble Knossos. In the film, Sally Mouakkad, a fourth-year student, stated that the group met with politicians, government officials and ordinary people affected by the conflict.
Professor Paula Garb, adjunct associate professor of anthropology and co-director and co-founder of the UC Irvine Center for Citizen Peace building, mentioned in the film that the students asked all the questions during meetings while in the Israel and Palestinian territories.
Isaac Yerushalmi, a fourth-year political science major and President of the Anteaters for Israel (AFI), brought up the purpose of the initiative.
“Initiatives like the Olive Tree Initiative are helping to bring back new ideas, new dialogue to campus,” Yerushalmi said. “I think the vast majority of the campus would fall within what we call moderate.”
After the video, Sandholtz introduced some special guests, including supporters of the initiative and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake.
The forum began with the panelists sharing their favorite moments from the experience. The first panel speaker was Omar Bustami, a civil engineering major. He mentioned Islamic history in his presentation, citing the numerous Arab conquests of Jerusalem.
“I just conquered Jerusalem … I just found the Dome of the Rock. It’s … mine now,” Bustami said.
UCI Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel Gomez thanked all the supporters for funding the trip during a time when the Olive Tree Initiative’s future was uncertain.
Evonne Liew, a third-year political science major and member of Model United Nations, explained that her best moment was having Shabbat dinner in the Old City sector of Jerusalem.
Paul Maguire, a fourth-year international studies major, recounted memories of meeting people, such as Israeli businessman Yitzhak Frankenthal.
Originally from Israel, Moran Cohen, a second-year business and economics major and member of Hillel-Jewish Student Union and Anteaters for Israel, told the audience that her best moment was her visit to Hebron, her first time in the largest city in the West Bank region.
Garb’s father is a Russian Jew who became a war refugee during the civil war in Russia and came to the United States at the age of 12. Garb explained that Israel felt like her father’s home, especially during the Shabbat dinner, despite him never having lived there.
After the panelists shared their moments, the audience asked questions. One attendee asked if there would be a second trip.
“Yes, yes, we definitely want to have a second trip,” answered Shahrooz Shahandeh. “We definitely can’t do it without your support.”
Once the question and answer session finished, the forum ended and the reception began. The reception had Knossos provide live music and tables of small, delicate Israeli appetizers and canisters of water and coffee.
Maguire commented on the forum during the reception.
“I realized Israel is a small body of land … per capita [it] has the most patents in the world … yet the area is very tense and hostile,” said Maguire. “Don’t be overly motivated by ideology … Don’t convince people that one viewpoint is correct; consider all aspects of an argument.”
Muslim Student Union member Ali Malik, a founder of the Olive Tree Initiative and a fourth-year history major, described his inspiration for founding the group.
“I wanted to give UCI a venue to harness energy in a constructive fashion and bring people together,” Malik said. “The trip exceeded my expectations. Initially, I wanted to see the situation and sympathize with the Palestinian people. Now, I saw that the conflict is a problem for both Israel and Palestine.”
Having moderated the discussion, Professor Sandholtz noted the diversity within the group.
“Not all Palestinians and Israelis think the same thing. There is a diversity of thought, including moderates. Not everyone has an extremist mindset,” Sandholtz said.
Gomez commented on the students that went on the trip.
“To me, the students reflected the true character of UCI. They are a reflection of the student body, not a distortion of the image made from the news,” Gomez said.
Geraldo Raygoza contributed to this article.