Oren Ofer and Timna Medovoy both carry dual citizenship to the United States and Israel. Rojon Atapour is a first-generation Iranian American; Ahmed Mousa is a half-Palestinian Muslim.
All five are alumni of The Olive Tree Initiative, an organization that sends UC students abroad to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The program strives to forego advocacy for either side, seeking only to provide civil discourse and education by encompassing a diverse group of students from many nationalities and backgrounds — something that some voices on either side of the conflict have seen as a threat to their viewpoints.
In the winter of 2004, Ofer, a dual American and Israeli citizen, left his studies in biochemistry behind and volunteered for the Israeli Defense Forces—spending the next next two-and-a-half years as a tank commander.
When he returned to campus in the fall of 2008, Ofer said he desperately wanted to find a way to allow students to establish an educational dialogue about the conflict.
“I had this really strong connection to Israel … What I saw in the region was not reflected in the attitudes that I saw on campus,” Ofer said. “It really made me want people to explore a culture to more depth, and I wanted to create something that would serve as that forum, to really learn about the issues.”
Ofer wrote a grant proposal to the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, a program that funds public service projects, in hopes of starting such an organization on campus. After learning about the OTI’s similar goals through a student leader summit on the issue, Ofer and fellow Gaucho Saleh Abdulla — at the time the co-president of the Muslim Student Association — helped bring OTI to the UCSB campus.
“When we presented our initial idea around the university, our kind of thing was: an ex-Israeli Defense Force soldier and a Yemeni Muslim … and co-president of the Muslim Student Association are trying to work together to bring this incredible experience to other UCSB students and to the UCSB community,” Ofer said.
According to Ofer, OTI stepped in to provide a “middle ground” between some of the viewpoints on campus.
“I didn’t want the conflict to be perpetuated on our campus,” Ofer said. “There’s enough conflict going around and as students, we are going to be making the policy in the future … It is really important that we are educated on these issues so we can make positive influences when we are in those positions.”
Over the summer of 2010, Ofer and fellow UCSB student Omer Harari traveled with OTI to the Middle East. Last summer, Co-Presidents Atapour and Medovoy, together with Mousa and graduate advisor Mike Schwartz, doubled the previous number of UCSB delegates to the Olive Tree Initiative and are currently active in the growing organization on campus.