Prompted by tensions between on campus groups over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a group of UC Irvine students wanted to learn about that region firsthand rather than accept what they read in books or saw in the media. Fifteen students of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other backgrounds raised some money then spent two weeks in 2008 visiting the Middle East to study the conflict.

That was the first class of The Olive Tree Initiative, a program founded at UC Irvine that allows students to visit Israel and Palestinian territories, meet the region’s community leaders and discuss what they learned in an academic setting. Since then, Olive Tree has spread to other California universities. The trips combine students of multiple universities and now include stops in Washington, D.C., and New York to meet with government officials and agencies.

“We are more than an international relations class that just visits an area,” said Daniel Wehrenfennig, the initiative’s executive director and co-founder. Students who visit these regions of political conflict “are (often) seen as direct representatives of the (U.S.) government.”

“We are representing America,” Wehrenfennig said. “We have to understand that for us to know who we are.”

Olive Tree recently expanded its areas of study to cover Turkey and Armenia and has plans to expand to India and Pakistan. When the students return from their trips, they share their ideas with local city and U.S. government officials, Wehrenfennig said. The UCI students also meet with university’s chancellor after each trip to talk about what they have learned. About 50 to 60 students from OTI’s chapter schools are selected for two annual Middle East student trips. About 15 others take the annual Turkey-Armenia trip. Once selected, students spend about 30 weeks preparing for their trip. Some students who have gone through the program wish to work or further their studies in international relations, meaning they could one day be in positions of power where they can help alleviate the conflicts they are learning about.

In 2011, UC Irvine began offering a certificate program in Conflict Analysis and Resolution that includes the OTI trip and its related coursework. The program has requirements that promote mentorship and leadership development, such as community service. Students with and without familial ties to Israel or the Palestinian territories are chosen in equal numbers for each trip. The same goes for the Turkey-Armenia visits. All OTI students must study the history and culture of their chosen region months before stepping foot there. Some students, already familiar with those issues because of their familial or cultural ties, said applying the coursework to their travel experiences enhanced their perception of those regions.

Timna Medovoy, a senior political science major at UC Irvine, is half-Israeli. She traveled to Israel about four times as a child before visiting the region twice with the Olive Tree Initiative. “In the previous trips I had taken to Israel, I had been between the ages of 1 and 8, and largely unaware of the conflict,” Medovoy, 21, said in an email. She said the first time she returned to Israel with her OTI group, signs of a conflicted region were much clearer to her. “As an 18-year-old with Israeli citizenship, I had received a draft notice and had to apply for a deferment,” Medovoy said. “While waiting to be interviewed, I was surrounded by kids my age and younger, all in fatigues, some with guns slung over their shoulders, and all conversing in Hebrew, my first language. It was a humbling experience to realize that had it not been for my parents deciding to leave Israel the year before I was born, I might have been one of them.”

Hassan Rassmy, 20, a sophomore and international studies major at UC Irvine, wanted to find a median between “two poles of extreme ideologies” through his studies with OTI. He was a part of the sixth cohort that traveled to Israel and Palestinian territories last year. While Rassmy, who is half-Arab, closely followed the region’s issues before his OTI trip, he said that when visiting the area he was surprised at the “detachment Israelis and Palestinians have” from one another, even if they lived just miles from one another. “I learned so much more in those three weeks than from a dozen political science classes that I’ve taken,” Rassmy said.

Claudia Cheffs, 22, graduated from UC Irvine last year with a political science degree, minor in conflict resolution and a certificate in Middle Eastern Studies. Cheffs, whose family background is not affiliated with either region, said that before joining the Olive Tree Initiative she was thinking about becoming a lawyer. After going on both the Israel-Palestine and Turkey-Armenia trips, she said she felt inspired to pursue a career in “peace building” instead.

Other students said they wish to work in international relations, particularly  positions that influence or analyze countries and situations with similar conflicted relationships. Medovoy plans to onduct research focusing on Egypt and wants to find work related to public policy and development. Rassmy said he would like to pursue a career that is “international in scope” as a professor or working within the United Nations. Cheffs recently started an internship with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. According to its website, the center is a nonprofit research organization that promotes peace efforts and arranges for experts to brief policy-makers, members of Congress and their staffs on national security issues. While Olive Tree Initiative students might not be producing immediate change in those regions, Cheffs said the program promotes peaceful discussion among related groups on UC Irvine’s campus – a step toward pushing that dialogue on a national and international scale.

“It’s not a mission to make peace. It’s not a mission to solve it. It’s just there to educate students to make their own decisions and make the experience their own,” Cheffs said. “Some of us choose careers based on those experiences.”

-courtesy of Kendra Ablaza, OC Register (online story requires subscription for viewing)


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