Chancellor helps fund Olive Tree Initiative

Undergrads travel straight to the heart of Middle East conflict.

Politics major Mary "Carrie" McKee, one of two UCSC students going on a fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank as part of the Olive Tree Initiative.

Two UCSC politics majors want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they refuse to put their blind trust in TV, blogs, and newspaper coverage.

Instead, Sami Abdelhalim and Mary "Carrie" McKee want to fly more than 7,000 miles to the heart of the conflict and talk with the people of Israel and the West Bank.
Soon they will get their chance, thanks to the support of UCSC leaders, including Chancellor George Blumenthal. Abdelhalim, 19, a Palestinian-American, and McKee, 20, who calls herself "unaffiliated," received full funding for their fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank as part of a student-run peace dialogue group called the Olive Tree Initiative.

Abdelhalim and McKee will head to the Holy Land on September 1 and will be back in California on September 19.

"Many people learn about the situation second-hand or read biased sources," McKee said. "But nothing compares to seeing the conflict up close and talking to people who have lived through it."

Blumenthal, who used chancellor's discretionary funds to provide support for the trip, said that he was "very impressed by the students' serious commitment to peace work and their desire for a deeper understanding of the conflict." He also commented on their "ambitious and far-ranging" itinerary and added that he "looks forward to their sharing their experiences with students on campus after they return."

Dean of Students Alma Sifuentes and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Felicia McGinty have also agreed to provide support for the trip.

While traveling, Abdelhalim and McKee will visit a few great destinations, including Jerusalem's Old City. But they will mostly be there on business, participating in roundtable discussions, interviews, and informal meetings with dozens of luminaries in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

"It seems so obvious to me," McKee said. "Why not bring people from both sides of the conflict together for dialogue? But it isn't done very often."

Some of the people who will cross their path include the mayor of Hebron, Israeli settlers, kibbutz residents, and a photojournalist and TV producer who worked for Al Jazeera and the BBC. They will speak with Ibrahim Sarsur, the most senior Arab politician in the Knesset, and meet with Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister.

The Olive Tree Initiative is a UC Irvine-based peace organization that promotes dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Initiative, which also has a branch at UC Santa Barbara, is best known for its unique program that sends participants on all-expenses-paid trips to the Middle East.

Although they do not pay for airfare or lodging, participants would hardly call the trips free. "Nothing is free," said a student in a promotional video, who described the back-to-back meetings and dialogue sessions as grueling but rewarding.

Abdelhalim has a personal stake in the upcoming trip. He was born in San Francisco but his family moved back to the West Bank, settling in a village just outside Ramallah in 1992, when he was 18 months old. His father stayed behind, working in a family furniture business in the Virgin Islands and later returning to San Francisco to open a convenience store.

"My father really wanted us to grow up in our own culture, and we did that," Abdelhalim said. "But when the political situation became unstable during the Second Intifada, we went back to America. I had to leave Palestine because of political reasons. I was so upset about it that I wanted to do something to change it."

On campus he joined a student organization called Committee for Justice in Palestine. Because of his work on the committee, he was invited to a far-ranging discussion about the Middle East at UC Irvine, where he learned about the Olive Tree Initiative.

After returning to campus this fall, Abdelhalim and McKee will share their adventures during public presentations, with the goal of improving peace dialogue among students.

This trip will be something new for both of them. Abdelhalim has never explored Israel. McKee has never been to the Middle East. She hopes to encourage a spirit of cooperation and mutual learning among student groups at UCSC.

"People who have been living with this conflict for their entire lives know so much more than I do," McKee said. "This is a chance to learn it from both sides. A lot of people go through life learning only one side of the story."