A Tree Grows in Irvine

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Sometimes the bad news piles up so high you just want to yell, “Stop!”

Over the past weeks, outbreaks of gun violence have erupted, most recently the anti-government, white supremacist domestic terrorism that left two police officers and one civilian dead in Las Vegas.

So much inhumanity that in defense we sometimes take refuge behind indifference. (Our politics simply reflect this. Consider the low voter turnout in the June 3 primary: 21.6 percent of eligible Orange County voters.)

And then there are the international woes, like the seemingly insoluble problems of the Middle East. Truly, in an age where we called upon to care about so much, many of us are beset with compassion fatigue.

On June 1, I found what has become a rare commodity, good news, at a gathering at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. The Olive Tree Initiative hosted the occasion, “Grassroots Mobilization for the Facebook Generation” — and if ever an organization arose out of a sense of hopelessness, it was this one.

You may recall that over the past several years, UC Irvine’s campus has periodically roiled with unrest over Israeli-Palestinian relations. In February 2010, eleven students, several of them members of UCI’s Muslim Student Union, disrupted a speech there given by Israeli ambassador Michel Oren.

This didn’t play well in conservative Orange County. District Attorney Tony Rauckaukas prosecuted, and according to the OC Jewish Experience blog, Congressmen John Campbell (R-48th) quickly (and, in this writer’s opinion, self-righteously) “writes a letter to Chancellor Drake urging full disciplinary action be taken against the students responsible for disrupting Ambassador Oren. He also calls for an investigation into the conduct and membership of the MSU. (The students were arrested and convicted; the case is on appeal.)

None of these actions were likely to assuage the tensions on campus. There was, however, a grass-roots movement that moved to do just that, and more. The Christian, Druze, Jewish, Muslim and non-religious students that make up the Olive Tree Initiative have been meeting since 2007. Its stated purpose is to “promote conflict analysis and resolution through rigorous academic preparation, experiential education and leadership development.”

One of the key elements of the initiative is the opportunity for student leaders to spend two to three weeks of intense inter-action in such countries as Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Armenia: “Crossing physical and mental borders daily, they are constantly confronted with diverging impressions, narratives, and perspectives,” stated The Olive Tree Initiative “Grassroots Mobilization” program.

The featured speaker was Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer who lives in Tel Aviv. Edry had despaired of the politicians who run his country rattling their swords at his Middle Eastern neighbors.

In March 2012 he posted on Facebook an image of himself holding his daughter, with the message, “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We heart you.”

The image went viral. Iranians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Turks, Egyptians and others began “friending” Israelis, and vice versa. Electronic connections have been made among diverse ordinary men and women fed up with political rhetoric and who simply want to live their lives in peace.

Edry has presented a TED Talk, and continues to spread his message of peace throughout the world. Meanwhile, the olive tree planted at UC Irvine is thriving. OTI has spread to ten other campuses in California; chapters are being organized in other states and internationally.

To learn more about the Olive Tree Initiative, visit olivetreeinitiative.org, email [email protected], or phone (949) 824-9062.

Looking for more good news? It’s a click away at Edry’s PeaceFactory.org. It beats the heck out of watching the nightly news.

Jean Hastings Ardell is President of the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club

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