Olive Tree Initiative: Looking in the Mirror
Guest Blog: By Cathy Shutaya
All too often the media has defined the life of a Jewish student at UC Irvine, especially after controversial events that take place against Israel. This notion of such events negatively impacting Jewish life on campus is far from the reality. Although some adverse effects have come out of the tensions on campus, Jewish life at UCI is thriving—creating committed, passionate students and future leaders within a supportive community. For some, like myself, who have never had a strong association to Jewish life, UCI is the ideal place to get involved. This year, I was given the opportunity to work for Hillel’s Social Media team which allows me to show a new face of UC Irvine—one that has always existed, but has oftentimes gone unrecognized. My name is Cathy Shutaya, a second year Public Health Policy major involved in Jewish life on campus. This is my first blog, about the Olive Tree Initiative, a group with many accomplishments. OTI is one instance of the “bridging” that has been taking place between Jewish and Muslim students of different backgrounds and religious scope.
The Olive Tree Initiative, established at UC Irvine, seeks to promote peaceful dialogue on the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The program embarks on its third year of successful engagement of fellow Anteaters. OTI has been recognized both by Chancellor Drake and UC President, Mark Yudof at the May UC Regents meeting in San Francisco. Daniel Wehrenfennig, Director of OTI, also announced at the Welcome Back event that the program has most recently been recognized on state and national level with the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (in partnership with the U.S. Department of State) Award for most innovative program in higher education.
The religiously and ethnically diverse group of students returned from the region with first-hand experience of what the conflict truly entails— a conflict that is very different from the one we see portrayed by the media and especially on the UC Irvine campus. With the propaganda aside, the students noted that while there are hostile areas inhabited by Jews and Arabs there are also numerous regions where coexistence is flourishing and as a result, bringing many socio-economic benefits to all parties. The West Bank is perhaps one of the best examples of such success due to cooperation on both sides. “People are coexisting peacefully…makes you wonder ‘why hasn’t this been solved?’” asks Natasha Couts, a participant on the trip. The speeches given by each member provided evidence that these students were open-minded to seeing the struggle on both sides of the conflict, despite preconceived perspectives. “All perspectives have something important to teach” says Arturo Jimenez after the group met up with Israeli and Palestinian academics, government officials, civilians, etc. The goal of the returning group is to spread the knowledge they have acquired from traveling to Israel/Palestine in order to narrow the divide on the conflict and bring hope for peace and reconciliation.
After listening to each student present his or her personal story from their journey, I truly felt that, for once, we have acquired a pause on the “blame game”. These students recognize that too many innocent people have lost their lives on both sides. Although some problems may not have a precise solution, most of the population in the region ultimately seeks peace, whereas it appears that many people who have not even been to the region or those not currently living there just want to perpetuate the hate fueled by second hand media sources. This being said, I began to wonder as I sat in the audience…will this diverse student group, who has gained so much from their experience and who is affiliated to many groups on campus who deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actually bring peace to our own campus? Or will we continue to see the ever prolonging gap between Jewish and Arab/Muslim students, the bloody Israeli flags during “Hate Week”, and the infamous “Israeli Apartheid Wall”?
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