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Saturday, October 25, 2008

UCI's Olive Tree Initiative Channels Conflict

Channeling conflict

Omar Bustami, left, of the Muslim Student Union, talks about his experiences in Israel and Palestine as part of the Olive Tree Initiative at Thursday night's Beyond Stereotypes presentation at UCI.

UCI students of various ethnic and religious backgrounds discuss their experiences from trip to Israel and Palestine.

Isaac Yerushalmi wasn’t quite sure what he would find on his trip to Israel and Palestine, but the moment that burned its way into the president of Anteaters for Israel’s brain was an encounter with a soldier who went to Lebanon in war and wished it had been in peace.

“His job was to find where Hezbollah was shooting missiles from,” he said. “He talked about how Lebanon, in those hills, it was such a beautiful country. He wished he was there not to be fighting this war but to see the country and appreciate its beauty.”

Yerushalmi was just one of 14 Muslims, Jews, Christians, Druze and otherwise-affiliated students who took part in the Olive Tree Initiative, a joint trip to the conflict-torn regions in September.

They spent equal amounts of time in Israel and Palestine and met with people from all persuasions and walks of life.

Thursday night, they shared their experiences to hundreds in a campus forum titled “Beyond Stereotypes: Faces and Voices of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

UCI has had a history of tension between Jewish and Islamic groups on campus, including allegations of anti-Semitism from speakers and threats to student safety.

But the members of the Muslim Student Union, Anteaters for Israel, Hillel, Society of Arab Students, Middle Eastern Studies Initiative and other groups didn’t raise the $60,000 for the trip just to trade accusations; they were changing their lives together.

From sitting in a cab and hearing the driver speak “Ara-Hebrew,” to going to the city of Hebron and seeing Jews and Muslims praying separately at the tomb of Abraham across a barred window, students poured out anecdotes that had shocked and surprised them.

One remembered seeing two roads splitting off in the same spot: one for Jews, and one for Muslims. Another, however, remembered a famous restaurant owned by a Jew and a Muslim that had outlasted being bombed and kept bringing people together.

The students, who on their own asked questions of business leaders and politicians and other residents, made an impression wherever they went, professor Manuel Gomez said.

Most memorable to him was the mayor of an Israeli settlement who said: “I’m impressed with you guys. I invited Condoleeza Rice here and she was afraid to come here. You guys had the courage to come here and look with your own eyes.” (perhaps she didn't visit Ariel because the US is "officially on record" against ILLEGAL settlements!-MAYBE since I am quite sure fear wasn't the issue but political correctness certainly plays a part in Ms. Rice's agenda)

Several students talked about a moment that crystallized the whole trip for them. On a rooftop in Jerusalem, the whole group sat down on a Friday night for Jewish Shabbat dinner.

For Shahrooz Shahandeh, who went unaffiliated with any campus group, it was his first.

“It was in the old city, in between the Christian and the Armenian and the Muslim and the Jewish quarters, on a rooftop,” Shahandeh said. “Up on this rooftop you had Muslims and Jews and Druze and Christians, sitting there and breaking bread and laughing and singing. It was incredible. I would never have thought that this would have been possible in a city with this history of turmoil and conflict. I thought, ‘This is what it could be like.’”

Not every moment was a hopeful one, but even those brought forth a kind of urgency, students said. Former Society of Arab Students president Amanda Naoufal got an earful from the group’s own bus driver.

“He tells me in Arabic, ‘You know you guys are just wasting your time,’” she said. “‘I’ve been doing this for 15 years: brought people from the United States, taken them all over Israel, all over Palestine, and they’ve cried for Israeli children, cried for Palestinian children, and then they go home and forget, and nothing changes.’”

But Naoufal said she took it as a challenge, not a reason to give up, and students had plenty of ideas on things to do back stateside.

One student had ideas about a radio show on KUCI to debate the issues in a civil setting, while many others called for the Olive Tree Initiative to happen over and over, bringing as many people as possible to the experiences they had had.

But in a way, graduate student Daniel Wehrenfennig said, the very fact they had gone sent a message. He recalled a Palestinian who was shocked to see that any place in the world could produce a group of people from so many conflicting backgrounds working on a common goal.

“For us the chance is, the mission is, to maybe be the broken link,” he said. “A lot of people here have friends and family one side or another. Some of them, they cannot talk to each other, for physical reasons or maybe emotional reasons, but maybe they can talk to us.”

For more photos, click here.


UCI's Olive Tree Initiative WEBSITE

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