For three years, UC Irvine’s Olive Tree Initiative has provided a forum for open, respectful dialogue on the Middle East conflict among students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. OTI member Dana Aryan, a second-year biological sciences major, was reminded of the need for this last month during the organization’s third student trip to the region.

Aryan, a Palestinian American raised in Torrance, was walking through Jerusalem’s Old City with friend and fellow Anteater Ilana Zelener, who’s Jewish. It was the group’s final night in Jerusalem, and Aryan was hoping to do some last-minute shopping.

She entered an establishment and began to negotiate the price of a bracelet, as is the Middle East custom. Speaking in Arabic to the shopkeeper, Aryan figured she would get a good deal. What happened next was a shock.

“Ilana came into the shop and started looking around,” she says. “The shopkeeper glanced at her and said to me: ‘I can’t sell you this bracelet because you’re with a Jewish girl.’”

He proceeded to loudly lecture her on why Arabs and Jews should not socialize. The commotion attracted another Arab shopkeeper, who entered the store and – to Aryan’s relief – reprimanded the intolerant man.

“He basically defended me,” she relates, “saying that we need more open minded people like me and Ilana in this world.”

It was an experience Aryan says she’ll never forget – one made possible by the OTI, which has expanded to three other UC campuses, embarked on annual trips to the Middle East and earned national recognition as an exemplary citizen diplomacy program.

During the 17-day trip in September, students met with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian civilians, community leaders, politicians, scholars, activists, journalists and businesspeople with firsthand knowledge of the conflict. The mission is to gain understanding beyond what’s available from indirect sources and the mainstream media and to spread this to others upon returning home.

Tustin native Jason Youdeem, who recently co-founded UCLA’s chapter of the OTI, says its approach of encouraging peaceful discussion among adversaries can be applied to any conflict.

“I look at the Olive Tree Initiative as a strong model for intergroup dialogue on campus and a solution to perpetuations of ignorance, such as the ‘Compton Cookout’ at UC San Diego,” says Youdeem, who is of Persian Jewish descent.

A fourth-year political science and global studies major, he went on UCI’s OTI trip last month and hopes to organize a similar one for UCLA students next spring. UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz also have chapters. The organization’s UCI founders received the campus’s 2009 Living Our Values Student Team Award.

In November, the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy – which promotes American involvement in humanitarian and diplomatic efforts abroad – will honor the OTI as a Top Citizen Diplomacy Program at its annual U.S. Summit for Global Citizen Diplomacy, produced in partnership with the State Department.

On Thursday, Oct. 21, UCI’s OTI will host “Looking in the Mirror: Critical Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” at 6 p.m. in the Student Center’s Crystal Cove Auditorium. Members will share insights gleaned from their recent journey to the Middle East.

Maureen Atalla, a third-year political science major with a minor in conflict resolution, calls the trip a “life-changing” experience that opened her eyes to the hopes and desires of everyday Israelis and Palestinians.

“People in the Middle East just want to live their lives in peace, regardless of identity,” says Atalla, a Coptic Christian of Egyptian descent. “Of course, there are extremists on both sides who do not want to coexist, but I think a two-state solution is possible and will happen. I feel hopeful about that after this trip.”