OTI Fosters Open Dialogue

Marlin Agoub/Photography Intern

The Olive Tree Initiative hosted “Conflict and Identity”  a presentation delivered by UC Irvine students regarding their return from Israel, Jordan and Palestine, occurred on Tuesday night in the Crystal Cove Auditorium. A reception followed their messages allowing students the time to ask questions.

The Olive Tree Initiative began in March 2007 when a group of UCI students from different religious backgrounds came together to discuss the various perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The following year, 16 students and two faculty members embarked on a two-week trip to Israel/Palestine. They had the opportunity to talk to community leaders, activists, politicians and religious authorities. To this day, they continue to speak about their experiences.

Daniel Wehrenfennig, the Director of the program at UCI and founder of the movement as a whole, stressed the importance of listening and understanding. Every year after the trip, students are challenged by their peers to explain the complexities they witnessed.

“Before it’s always been [about] who can have the stronger argument to box out the other but having a conversation changes that,” said Wehrenfennig when asked about changes in the students’ perspectives after their trip.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Thomas Parham, introduced the event by expressing four key pillars demonstrated in these particular students — academic, research, leadership, character. He first became involved in their initiative when he helped them raise funds in the Student Center. He later joined them on the first part of their trip in Washington D.C.

“[The trip] require[s] a measure of risk taking — mental risk, verbal risk to question and behavior risk as well,” said Parham in regards to his journey with the students.

The first set of student speakers were Matan Lurey and Umer Waris under the topic “Peace Process.” A PowerPoint titled the “Rise and Fall of Hope: The 90s” displayed facts, images and videos pertaining to the ongoing violence and failed peace agreements. In 2003, the Geneva Accords unofficially ended dispute, but the people occupying the region continue to remain separate.

“We can solve the future, not the past,” said Umer Waris in his hope to end the common thread of disruption between the two nations.

Next, Syuzanna Petrosyan and Eric Mosinger discussed the “United Nations Bid.” Both  presenters expressed the necessity for further negotiations in order to move into a peaceful future.

According to Bianca Tellez, Nadia Rowther and Armaan Rowther, an individual’s “Identity” is defined by their community.  The Parents Circle, an organization that provides families with a support system helping them heal the loss of a loved one, was publicized. It serves as a way for grievers to identity their pain.

Jenny Ygual, Nuha Abusamra, Angelina Dayfallah, Corey Feinstein and Rebecca Cho, talk about “Grassroots Mobilization.” This idea revolves around people who represent the main body of an organization.

“[There should be] no shuffling of responsibility,” said Corey Feinstein reinforcing his thoughts on the purpose of nonviolent, direct action to release the tension.

“No matter what people believe in, people have to live with each other and have to find a way to communicate and I think that we inspire that,” said Wehrenfennig when asked to comment about his reasons why he became involved in the Olive Tree Initiative.

“What we say is not really heard, not because we are not speaking English very well, but because the way we communicate is not the way we will be understood.,” Wehrenfennig said.

OTI’s trips not only enrich students’ understandings of the situation in the Middle East, they also offer incredible life experience.  Jenny Lynn remembers swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at 3 a.m. as her favorite moment on her trip. However, her time there  led to her having an even greater level of frustration between the contrasting conditions in Israel and Palestine. According to Lynn, a sizeable disparity exists in infrastructure and quality of living between Israel and Palestine.

“[Olive Tree Initiative] is an education group, not an advocacy group,” said Wehrenfennig when describing the main goal of the movement.