“Our goal is to go on the trip and learn and meet people with different perspectives and open our own eyes,” graduate advisor for the Olive Tree Initiative, Mike Schwartz, said. “But we also can do a service for the people that we are meeting with just by showing that we come from such different backgrounds, but we can come together and learn together and be friends — like actually be friends.”

Crammed into a small room in the Daily Nexus office beside Schwartz were fellow UCSB students Rojon Atapour, Timna Medovoy and Ahmed Mousa, who flew from Washington, D.C. to Tel Aviv this summer and spent 18 days traveling across Israel, Palestine and Jordan listening to testimony on the current conflict from various points of view.

Schwartz, Atapour, Medovoy and Mousa are members of the Olive Tree Initiative, a program that sends UC students abroad to learn from and listen to every perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. OTI is hosting a “Welcome Back” event today at 3:30 p.m. in the MultiCultural Center, where the four most recent UCSB participants will recount their experiences abroad and discuss the program’s impact on its alumni.

In 2007, current OTI Director Daniel Wehrenfennig — then a graduate student at UC Irvine — proposed the idea of an educational trek to the region. One year later, Wehrenfennig and 15 fellow UCI students and two faculty members left the West Coast for the Middle East on OTI’s inaugural trip.

Upon his return from OTI’s maiden voyage, Wehrenfennig said the program’s feedback made it obvious that the Initiative had found a niche in the UC system.

“It very soon became clear that there is really a huge need to continue that kind of educational response to the questions that we have to deal with on campus when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Wehrenfennig said.

The program has since expanded to six UC campuses, but only Irvine, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz have sent students abroad. Two new chapters at Berkeley and San Diego are gearing up to send their first delegates this upcoming summer.

During the most recent expedition, the student diplomats spoke with royalty and servicemen, including a former Israel Defense Forces soldier on one day and the prince of Jordan on another — and often met with up to six or seven individuals each day, covering a wide range of opinions on the conflict.

Atapour, a fourth-year political science major and co-president of OTI, said that unlike many other campus groups that discuss contemporary Middle Eastern issues, the organization goes to great lengths to remain unbiased toward any single point of view or political opinion.

“Overall, the most important thing is to have this outlet on campus that people [can] go to that emphasizes education and not political advocacy,” Atapour said.

This is the first of three installments of the Olive Tree Initiative feature. To view the second installment, click here.  To view the third installment, click here.