The Olive Tree Initiative’s ‘Month of Ideas’: conflict education through humor, food, and constant debate

Posted on September 13, 2012 by

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Throughout the month of May, the Olive Tree Initiative at UCLA planned a series of events aimed at educating the campus community and offering a forum for civil discourse and debate about international conflict resolution. These events attracted students of various backgrounds, as well as non-student community members. For many of the attendees, discussing controversial, deeply personal matters of identity and conflict in a secure, respectful setting was a totally new experience.

Sultans of Satire Comedy Show

In an effort to make its programming accessible to new students, three of the five “Month of Ideas” events were held on the Hill. The first was a performance featuring a comedy troupe known as the Sultans of Satire. Comprised of an Arab, a Jew, and two Iranians, the Sultans of Satire aimed their off-color humor at targets that even the most diverse audience could unanimously enjoy.

Elham Jazab shared stories about her experiences with Persian body hair, also pointing out the “one eyebrow” shared by the Iranian section of the audience. Mike Batayeh, a Jordanian-American from Detroit, described the arranged-marriage customs in his family.

“You should see my family tree; it looks like a f#(k!n’ wreath.”

Noel Elgrably, the son of a French-Moroccan father and an Israeli-Moroccan mother, explained what the term “Sephardic” means.

“It’s like an Arab, a Latino, and a Jew all rolled into one. It’s a f#(k!n’ cultural trainwreck, right? Every time I get angry at someone, I don’t know whether I should knock up their sister and leave or bomb their f^(k!n’ house or complain about the humidity.”

Obviously, these jokes sound better in real life.

My So-Called Enemy Film Screening

Next, OTI at UCLA screened the documentary film My So-Called Enemy, which follows a group of teenage Israeli and Palestinian girls through the seven years following their participation in a program called “Building Bridges for Peace.” During their time at the camp in New Jersey and their return to their respective sides of the separation barrier, the girls get to know their “enemies” as human beings. They stay in touch, even while some pursue careers in the IDF and others are subjected to interminable delays at Israeli security checkpoints on the way to work every day. The film, to whatever degree that it is accurate in its portrayal of the girls’ relationships, exposes the reality that even the most unbalanced of political structures need not impinge on friendships between individuals; and those friendships are the foundation of whatever eventual peace the region will see.

Fruits of Discourse: a Conversation About Modern Turkish-Armenian Tensions

Students from UCLA’s Turkish Cultural Club and the Armenian Students’ Association discuss their fraught mutual history over dinner.

Also on the Hill was a discussion between Turkish and Armenian students in a private De Neve dining room. Over thirty students who had never come to an OTI event before showed up for the free meal and two hours of intense conversation. The history of what many people refer to as the “Armenian Genocide” was presented by members of each affiliation, and every time an argument was made as to whether the genocide should be recognized or reparations should be paid or a Turkish Studies department should be established at UCLA, there was always another fact offered that revealed complexities in these issues that many had not considered before. Many of the attendees had never spoken to someone from the “other side” about Turkish-Armenian relations before, and the experience was jarring. But even when the allotted two hours were up, most people stayed behind to continue talking and exploring the option of planning an educational trip to Turkey and Armenia for UCLA students. This past spring, OTI at UC Irvine sent a delegation to Ankara and Yerevan to speak to journalists, activists, and government officials about the status of Turkish-Armenian relations in each country. With all the new interest and human capital, something similar might be in store for OTI at UCLA.

Perspectives on Partition I: Ibish vs. Aslan

History Professor James Gelvin (middle) moderates the one-state vs. two-state debate between Reza Aslan (left), who predicts a one-state catastrophe, and Hussein Ibish (right), who advocates for a two-state solution.

In addition to the two Hill events, OTI at UCLA also organized a two-part debate about proposals for one-state and two-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part One was waged between Dr. Reza Aslan — an Iranian-American scholar, member of the National Security Council and author of No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam — and Hussein Ibish — a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and author of What’s Wrong With the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.

Aslan, known for his pessimism regarding the prospects for peace in the Middle East, explained his reluctant support for the one-state solution, arguing that “we are further away from peace than ever. The illusion of the peace process has become an addiction….The number of settlers is increasing. There is nothing left that could conceivably be called a Palestinian state. Israel must now either become an apartheid state or become a single, unified, binational state.”

Ibish, on the other hand, refused to accept Aslan’s predictions. To Ibish, what is and is not possible is determined by the political will of people who make decisions on either side of the conflict.

“The two-state solution is achievable because it is in everyone’s interest. Practically, legally, politically.”

Ibish cited statistics that indicate that a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians prefer a two state solution and that land swaps can ensure that 80 percent of Israeli settlers are annexed into Israel. But to enact this solution, the leadership on each side would need to behave more consistently with the wills of their constituents, and that reality remains ever-elusive.

However, there was a slight disconnect between the presenters that prevented their arguments from being relevant to one another. Aslan, rather than advocating for any solution, presented a vision of a reality that he believes will inevitably emerge from the current stalemate. But Ibish advocated for the two-state solution, giving the audience an idea of what kind of activism peace would require from politicians, diplomats, and even students.

“If you want me to be honest with you,” Aslan said, “I think that what we are going to see is a process through which the demographic balance [between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea] tips into apartheid, ethnic cleansing, until finally you have international mediation that leads to confederacy.”

“If,” Ibish responded, “I wanted to exercise a radical dystopian imaginative leap of that kind, if I wanted to be Hieronymus Bosch of Israel and the Palestinians, sure, I can arrive at your conclusion after all this horror. Well, I’m not willing to go there.

Perspectives on Partition II: Suissa, Seidler-Feller, & Saposnik

Professor Arieh Saposnik educates the group on the history of Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms.

The final event of the “Month of Ideas” could be thought of as the Jewish portion of the one-state/two-state debate. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Professor Areih Saposnik, and David Suissa came to campus to present their perspectives on a post-conflict Israel/Palestine would look. At first, there wasn’t much of a debate; all three of the presenters agreed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that partition between a Jewish and a Palestinian state is the best, most achievable option.

Rabbi Seidler-Feller, director of the UCLA Hillel, expressed his support for the peace process and identified two obstacles to it: settlements and refusal of Arabs to accept that “the Jewish people have come home.”

Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal, urged the large classroom audience that alternatives to the peace process should be considered while it remains a failed effort. He cited Dennis Ross’s complaint that a major flaw in the peace process begun at Oslo was the lack of enforcement of the “incitement law” — peace cannot be achieved while “Jew-hatred is still taught in Palestinian schools.” Until education is reformed in the region, Suissa asserted, there will be no foundation upon which the peace process can stand.

Students from UCLA and UC Berkeley continue the conversation at UCLA’s ‘sunken gardens’ after the event ends.

And Suissa went on, coming closer to advocating for a one-state solution than did the other Jewish panelists. He said that Jews have as much a claim to the West Bank as they do to Israel proper, and that land is for the Jews to voluntarily give up, but only as long as peace is guaranteed in return.

Saposnik complemented the discussion with an academic analysis of nationalism, ethnic identity, and how they affect the current conflict. He engaged with claims that there is no need for a Jewish nation-state in the modern era, pointing out that we are still nowhere near the post-national age, and if any nation is to give up its right to national self-determination, there is no reason for the Jewish people to be the first.

After the initial presentations were completed, the event heated up when the panelists accepted a series of challenging questions from Dina Sharif, a senior at UCLA of Palestinian descent, just minutes before the event was to end. When the time expired, the conversation was not nearly over, so about twenty of the students in attendance, along with Professor Saposnik, regrouped in a circle on the grass in Dickson Court to continue talking. By the end, Dina said, “I like Professor Saposnik. I may not like his opinions at all, but I respect him.”

Like all Olive Tree Initiative programs, the Month of Ideas gave the UCLA community the opportunity to learn about conflict and converse honestly in the most stimulating yet unlikely of circumstances.

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