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Ahmed Mousa grew up hearing about Palestine every day. The soft-spoken second-year religious studies major is a half-Palestinian Muslim who, until recently, had never set foot in his father’s home country.
“Growing up as a Palestinian living in Diaspora, the idea of Palestine and its meaning is embedded in you,” Mousa said. “I hadn’t been there until this summer, but it is still referred to as home. It is just always around you.”
On August 29, 2011, Mousa and his friends Timna Medovoy, Rojon Atapour, and Mike Schwartz left Los Angeles International Airport with the Olive Tree Initiative — an organization devoted to establishing a student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the 18 days they spent in Washington D.C., Israel and Jordan the delegation of 29 students and six faculty members and administrators met with over 80 speakers, interacting with government officials and taking tours of sacred sites for all three of the region’s major religions.
At the end of each day, the group came together for “Reflections,” an open discussion of the ideas and points of view they had seen. For many students, this was one of the most educational parts of the day.
Rojon Atapour, a fifth-year political science major and current co-president of OTI, said the diversity of perspectives in the group made for enlightening discussions.
“Even though as a group we all sat down with the very same speakers, it is amazing the interpretation people got of what was being said or the message that a certain speaker was giving, in even understanding overall what they were trying to convey to us,” Atapour said. “It is amazing how you could just be sitting with the same people and completely get a different interpretation of what was being said.”
Atapour said the environments and communities in which students were raised had direct effects on their perceptions of the trip’s experiences.
“The best way to put it is because of our backgrounds, be it our major or our religious beliefs or our family or our community or whatever it is, these are like certain lenses we see things through, so when the speakers are talking to us we will see things through lenses we are familiar with seeing,” Atapour said. “But by going through Reflections we get to see it through other peoples’ lenses and gain a much bigger understanding of how different people interpret and analyze information.”
The open narrative promoted by the Olive Tree Initiative has drawn criticism from some viewpoints advocating strongly for one side or the other. Ha-Emet — a student, faculty and community organization concerned with the effects of OTI on the Jewish community — has taken issue with several aspects of the program, including their meetings and association with individuals who have expressed anti-Israeli views.
Co-President Timna Medovoy, a second-year global and international studies major, said the gulf between extreme views can make OTI an easy target for either side.
“The problem is that this is a very, very polarized conflict,” Medovoy. “We kind of try to be this neutral position and we try hard to be bipartisan and to be non-biased on all these things, but when two sides are so polarized it is very easy for either side to claim that we have bias. A lot of people who are on either side do not necessarily want the sides talking.”
Graduate advisor Mike Schwartz, a second-year graduate student in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, agreed with Medovoy and said extreme viewpoints could be uncomfortable with any organization that listens to the other side.
“Everyone wants to tell their stories if it is the truth,” Schwartz said. “When you tell a story where it is less clear where the blame falls … both sides will be uncomfortable with you saying anything other than ‘my version is right.’”
However, Medovoy — a citizen of both Israel and the U.S. — said local reactions to the program were overwhelmingly positive, albeit surprised. Medovoy said several shopkeepers were particularly shocked to see the easygoing relationships between students from disparate backgrounds.
“Every time we walked into a store, the store owners were like ‘Wait, what are you doing together?’” Medovoy said. “Because I would speak Hebrew and she would speak Arabic … every time people would hear us speaking two different languages and walking together they would say, ‘What are you doing together, how do you know each other?’”
In a region defined by conflict for over 60 years, religious and cultural differences can become ingrained into the identities of the groups involved. According to Atapour, the Olive Tree Initiative brings students connected to or interested in the conflict to the center of the issues at hand, providing a unique perspective and forum for all points of view.
“I think we have a virtue as California students being detached from the region and our political disposition does not necessarily correlate with a religious or ethnic identity; oftentimes it does influence it, but the conflict is not a daily thing for us,” Atapour said. “For me it’s just normal to have many Jewish and Muslim friends growing up in LA … We live in California — it is a very diverse community. This is what is normal. In the Middle East or in other parts of the world — but especially in Israel and Palestine, as a whole — communities usually stick with each other. To have this level of diversity is not common, especially where these communities more often than not are at odds with one another.”
Atapour said this gap between cultures, often given tangible form by physical barricades separating groups, is a major obstacle for peace.
According to Atapour, “[The problem] is the lack of positive exposure and the lack of inter-faith, inter-ethnic groups studying together at school or living among each other and yielding a positive thing as opposed to a conflicting environment.”