In May 2007, former President Jimmy Carter came to speak at UC Irvine, a campus known for its strife between pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian students. Telling students to judge conditions in both Israel and Palestinian territories for themselves, rather than relying on news or secondhand reports, he offered his foundation’s assistance in helping them raise the money to go.
At first, the students most directly involved in the campus strife were skeptical of Carter’s travel idea. UCI sophomore Emily Shaaya, then a leader of Anteaters for Israel (the anteater is the UCI mascot), told a reporter afterward that Carter’s offer had been “slightly disturbing…Personally, I would be interested in going to Israel, not to…occupied lands.”
But the idea resonated on campus, initially with students interested in international relations.
People on campus who studied the Middle East convinced students involved in the fray, some only grudgingly at first, to join forces to help make the trip happen. Both camps agreed not to take any money from Carter, because he was such a polarizing figure; instead, they would raise the funds themselves. The UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding also got involved, along with doctoral student Daniel Wehrenfennig, whose many research contacts in Israel would be instrumental in planning the itinerary.
Then the bad news hit: the University of California would not officially sanction the student trip to Israel because of State Department travel warnings.
But by then, the students were so committed to the idea of the trip, eighteen of them decided to go, without official approval. Calling their project the “Olive Tree Initiative,” they raised the $60,000 needed from organizations, parents, and fundraising events.
From September 2 to September 14, 2007, the group visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Ramallah, Hebron, Gush Etzion, Qalquilyah, Ariel, Nazareth, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. Accompanied by one professor and one administrator who was traveling unofficially, they talked to politicians, soldiers, and families of people killed on both sides of the conflict. They also visited synagogues and mosques.
It was a life-altering experience for students who’d been using bullhorns to shout at one another and now found themselves sharing a room.
One of the most important aspects of the trip, Wehrenfennig reflects, was sitting in a circle every night and discussing the day’s events. Before the trip, the students had agreed to ask questions of the people they visited, but not get into debates with them. Heated exchanges were left for the nightly discussion circles—after each individual had had a chance to absorb what he/she had seen and heard that day and formulate personal impressions.The students came to see that while they might never agree on a solution to the conflict, it’s okay to respect someone else’s opposing opinion.
After returning to California, the eighteen participants produced an “Olive Tree Initiative” video and memoir, and began holding meetings to describe the experience—how they came to see that virtually everyone living in the region, no matter the side, wants to find a peaceful solution; the disagreements arise over what will lead to the peaceful solution. The students say that they have learned to respect each other’s rights to have opinions, while continuing to disagree, and that it’s possible to like someone as a person, even while differing with his/her politics.
“We’ve had thirty community events so far, in temples, mosques, churches, high schools, and retirement communities,” Wehrenfennig says. “The discussions usually go on for hours afterward. Even some people who show up just to be critical afterward come up and shake hands.”
“Also,” Wehrenfennig adds, “for some people, it’s really unusual to see a young woman in a head scarf in their temple, or a Jewish student in their mosque. Sometimes they come up afterward and ask questions like, ‘Can I even go into a mosque?’”
The most contentious factions continue to demonstrate against each other on the UCI campus and to invite inflammatory speakers. At the same time, plans are in the works for a second trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in September. Half the prospective travelers are from Jewish and Muslim groups on campus, and half are either unaffiliated with a religious group or involved in international relations.
In support of the effort, the university has released its ban on student travel to Israel, partly because Mark Yudof, president of the whole UC system, is an observant Jew who believes that students should have the opportunity to visit Israel despite State Department warnings.
– Marla Fisher, staff writer at the Orange County Register