In March 2007, a religiously and politically diverse group of students with different perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, assisted by faculty and community supporters, founded the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus. Like many universities in the world, University of California campuses experience tensions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups on campus which contribute to a lack of educated discourse around the issue. OTI’s founding mission was to respond to the situation on campus with firsthand knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gained through visiting the region and hearing the diverse views and experiences of academics, politicians, religious authorities, community leaders and activists. They would then share their own learning experience with students and the off-campus communities and beyond.
In September 2008, the founding students and faculty members made an inaugural two-week educational trip to the Middle East. After cooperatively raising the money for their own travel and unanimously deciding on a balanced itinerary, they visited nearly every corner of the region, spending half their time in Israel proper and half their time in Palestinian territory. Crossing physical and mental borders daily, they were constantly confronted with diverging impressions, narratives and perspectives. Each night the group gathered to discuss and reflect on the day’s experiences and to explore the reactions among the group members. While students come from all different religious and cultural backgrounds, which makes their interaction so valuable, the goal of the trip is not to change their allegiances. The students returned to campus much more educated, nuanced and open in their thinking, empowered to catalyze change through education and action.