The Olive Tree Initiative is a University of California based program with its headquarters at UC Irvine. UCI gives OTI institutional and academic support including office space, supplies and partnerships with various academic departments. Student trips are typically paid for as follows, (depending on the campus): One third is paid with funds raised from private donors through fundraising; one third is provided by the campus in support of experiential education; and a final third is covered by each student, who may do additional fundraising to raise their share. Grant monies from foundations, burden-sharing payments from other universities and general donations go to cover administrative and staff costs and to help with capacity building. OTI accepts no funds from foreign governments or political institutions.
OTI is grateful for the generosity of the institutions, foundations, individuals and university offices that support our work.
The yearly educational trips are just one little part of all the OTI chapter activities. Chapters hold political discussions, teach-ins, lectures, movie screenings, food sales, community presentations, etc. to educate and enrich the campus and surrounding community to become more knowledge about the international conflicts we study. It provides a safe space for students of different perspectives to come together and constructively interact with one another. While the trip only includes a small group of hand picked student-leaders, the group and organization remains an active and important space on campus that allows the larger student body to engage with the conflict constructively.
When working with conflicts, criticism is to be expected. The most common critique we get is from individuals who oppose our educational philosophy. It is difficult for some of them to understand that in order to be educated about a conflict situation and to work towards tangible solutions, one has to study its complexity first, including the voices and issues that one might personally disagree with. Excluding the uncomfortable voices and perspectives from our trips would present a misleading and inaccurate picture of the situation on the ground and would limit the participants’ ability to learn about the situation from a 360-degree perspective.
In order not to confront these various at times opposing narratives and perspectives on our trips naïvely we prepare the trip participants in multiple ways. Students attend 30+ weeks of educational sessions on the Middle East, including various classes on related issues (on their campuses), as well as a week-long intense preparation seminar with specific discussions about each speaker/place on the trips. Questions for speakers are pre-meditated by the students to keep our discussions very educational and informative.
People and organizations are entitled to their opinion, however, the majority of media (see list und media) and community organizations that engage with our program come out in favor of our educational efforts (see list of our awards and recognition). Furthermore, as history has shown, the people most involved in what we do – the students, faculty and community members of differing perspectives that participate in OTI – stand in strong support of the program.
Needless to say, however, working with conflict situations will continue to evoke criticism especially when critics are ideologically and politically motivated. We continue to invite all critics to speak with our organization and students directly and not to criticize them from afar.
The Olive Tree Initiative is and will remain non-partisan and a-political. The membership of the organization shall consist of those willing to challenge their biases and preconceptions in order to expand their point of view by gaining meaningful knowledge through experiential education. The membership tends to consist of those interested in a rigorous, academic study of conflicts in order to procure real change here and in the region. Membership is open to any and all members of the student body, regardless of race, gender, religion, political views, and sexual orientation. Diversity is encouraged.
The Olive Tree Initiative is an educational initiative that has a policy of not making any political comments, policy claims, statements, or directives. It is a student-directed initiative in such a manner that students of very differing biases get to express themselves and challenge others. We make every effort to address all student concerns and our trip itinerary is informed and developed by the students with the support of faculty and staff. We aim to communicate all narratives that make-up the current reality of the conflicts we study so that students can develop a complex knowledge-base and understanding of the nuances involved in solving them. As a purely educational initiative, OTI does not engage in advocacy or political activism, but we encourage our students to become active on their own or in the context of other organizations they maybe part of.
No – while our primary work is with students on various campuses, we also have a strong and growing community group. OTI community members meet on a regular basis for educational events, Women teas, film screenings, on-site visits (religious services, museums) and to plan the community trips. There have been two OTI community trips already in 2011 and 2010 and the next one is planned for Spring 2013. For more information on the OTI community activities please contact Susan Seely at email@example.com.
The Olive Tree Initiative actively recruits and selects student leaders who have shown strong leadership and academic excellence to participate in our annual diplomatic trips. OTI effectively prepares foreign policy experts for the future, sending many of our alumni onto scholarship study in international affairs at top universities (see list of our alumni), as well as onto careers in the government and international organization offices. Thus, we have a very selective application process for students who wish to apply for the trip. Faculty, alumni students and community members review student applications and interviews are conducted to ensure only the best and brightest student leaders are chosen.
OTI is student-directed in partnership with faculties and does not preach top-down philosophies. Faculty and organization leadership are there to help empower the student leadership in their endeavors and to help ensure that the program continues to remain apolitical, nonpartisan, and unbiased. The students within the program come with their own perspectives, points of view, and arguments. They choose to work with one another, and directly affect what the group does on their campus. The leadership ensures that students of differing perspectives remain civil and that the make-up of the group remains balanced.
The Olive Tree Initiative meets with numerous high-ranking government officials and VIPs that often reserve their time for diplomats and other officials. OTI works with a variety of organizations and contacts in the regions. We have found some reliable partners in each of the regions we work in who share our vision and have become trusted partners on the ground.
OTI as an organization has no formal connection or partnership with any community, political or advocacy groups (this includes the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement, the Jewish Federation of North America or the Israeli and Palestinian government). We work with some local groups and individuals in each of the conflict regions we travel to to help us secure speakers on our trip. Some of the speakers may have affiliations to political or advocacy groups but they do not have a say in the OTI activities or program.
Middle East: One of our key partners in the Middle East is the Center for Regional Engagement. The Center (CRE) is a non-profit/non-governmental organization with offices in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, which brings groups to the region (mostly policy-makers and investors); they receive non-biased information and resources regarding the conflict through active field experience. Despite their concentration on international policy-makers and investors, the CRE has partnered with OTI, believing in the long-term effect of educating the future leaders about the situation on the ground (for more information please visit http://regionalengagement.org/).
In addition, the goodwill and reputation of our organization has attracted world-renown speakers who now reach out for a chance to speak with such a unique and engaging group of students.
Security is our primary concern and OTI does not put students in harm’s way. We work hard to produce a safe, secure and mutually respectful, educational setting. Creating a safe, secure and respectful environment is the cornerstone of the Olive Tree Initiative’s success. By collaborating with experienced guides, U.S. and local governments and agencies, politicians, religious leaders, legal experts and consulting cultural rules and protocols, OTI succeeds in creating a safe, secure and mutually respectful environment for OTI members to learn.
As a program comprised of a majority of U.S. citizens, and as a program sponsored by the public university systems, OTI is bound to adhere to all U.S. laws. This includes following all official U.S. policies regarding meeting with representatives of groups deemed as terrorist groups by U.S. law. Since 2010, the material support law under the U.S. patriot act makes meetings with people in any form related to groups deemed as terrorist groups by U.S. law virtually impossible. In one instance on the 2009 trip a scheduled appointment with a Palestinian Authority representative for the group was cancelled at the last minute, and the students were offered a substitute meeting with Dr. Aziz Duwaik in his capacity as the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) at the PLC office in Ramallah (very safe location next to UN offices). Dr. Duwaik is also a political representative of Hamas in the West Bank. As the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Aziz Duwaik holds an official position in the Palestinian governing structure and has been accessible in this capacity to many visiting groups. The on-site leadership and students agreed to the meeting, which was outside the planned itinerary. The meeting should not have happened. This was discussed at length with the Olive Tree Initiative leadership and board after returning to the United States, and scheduling policies were tightened to prevent this from happening during subsequent trips. The meeting was arranged though a local Palestinian contact (there was no previous contact between Aziz Duwaik and the OTI leadership) and was never kept secret. It was published in all itineraries about the 2009 OTI trip, including the Impression/Expression journal from 2010.
The Olive Tree Initiative has developed a comprehensive set of security procedures and will ensure that they are followed. OTI will always maintain a safe and secure location for its participants (please review our OTI standards, ethics and policies document). Olive Tree Initiative participants must sign a Safety Instruction and Risk Acknowledgement contract, a Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement as well as a health information document provided by the Olive Tree Initiative. Besides the mandatory university insurances, the Olive Tree Initiative also provides additional health and travel insurance for all participants if needed. The safety of the group will always be the first priority in all situations.
The Olive Tree Initiative is not a religious organization. The membership demographic of the group, however, is filled with students from all different religious backgrounds. The Olive Tree Initiative respects all religious practices, holidays, and customs of its participants and the countries to which we travel. All participants have the opportunity to observe their specific religious practices. The Olive Tree Initiative embraces the religious diversity of its participants and sees the learning about it as part of the cultural and educational experience OTI seeks to provide.