BERKELEY — On a journey to Israel this summer, Berkeley undergrad Shannon Thomas visited the hill where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. There, she and fellow students saw, inscribed in stone, the eight “beatitudes” from that famous talk — blessing, among others, “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn” and “the pure in heart.”
For Thomas, however, “Blessed are the peacemakers” was the “big line” — the one that spoke to her viscerally.
A third-year double major in peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern studies with a minor in Arabic, Thomas has been keenly interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since her youth in San Diego. Once she came to Berkeley, she went hunting for more information.
“I signed up for every student group that had any mention of Israel, Palestine, Islam, Judaism,” Thomas says of her freshman year. She found lectures and events aplenty, to be sure — but not, to her mind, a dedicated place for students with strong, diverse and often conflicting views to educate themselves and engage in civil dialogue.
She did learn of a group, founded at UC Irvine, that promotes “conflict analysis and resolution through experiential education” for college students. Impressed by its approach, Thomas decided to bring the Olive Tree Initiative to Berkeley, and now serves as founding president of the organization’s campus chapter.
The student group meets weekly for education and dialogue, and recruited a delegation of Berkeley students and staff — whose predispositions on the issue, by design, ran the gamut — to join Olive Tree’s summer 2012 trip to Israel and the West Bank.
A “completely life-changing experience,” the tour’s two-week itinerary “encouraged cognitive dissonance,” says Thomas, via frequent crossings of “physical and mental borders” between realities. “You have to be constantly questioning your own preconceived notions and critically thinking about the issues” — all of which leaves one with “more clarity in your own opinions, and better able to articulate what you believe in,” she posits.
In a single day, students “could be on both sides of divided Hebron,” recalls Thomas. Or one day “we’d be in Haifa, meeting a Jewish father who lost his daughter in a suicide bus bombing; the next we’d go to a West Bank refugee camp to meet a Palestinian mother in who lost her son in the Battle of Jenin,” during the second intifada. In the evenings, students met to reflect together in “really deep, personal, emotional conversations.” (The campus chapter plans to recruit Berkeley students to join a similar Olive Tree trip next summer.)
You might expect, given her interests, that Thomas is Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim. In fact, she’s “really random,” as she puts it — Christian by faith and equal parts Mexican, East Indian, Italian and German by heritage. “So everyone is really confused about why I’m passionate about this issue.”
Her family’s “four different ethnicities” serve as partial explanation — making it “very internationally focused,” she says. As a kid, “my hobby with my dad was watching CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and CBS’s 60 Minutes — incredibly dorky, but that’s my family.” She attended an “all-Persian” preschool and had both Muslim and Jewish friends growing up. She also cites “Christian values” like “empathy, understanding, tolerance, and wanting to dedicate my life to something that can make a difference in the world.”
The Berkeley junior has no interest in medicine, the career that runs in the family. Instead, she sees international diplomacy and politics as her way to make a positive impact. Besides her work with Olive Tree, Thomas is head delegate at UC Berkeley’s Model United Nations, which hosts a college conference featuring U.N. simulations. She also writes opinion pieces on the Middle East for the Cal alumni blogsite ThinkPolitic.
The summer trip to Israel and Palestine, by putting a human face to the region’s most vexing conflict, reinforced her commitment to the path of peace — on the Berkeley campus and beyond.
“It made me want to dedicate my life to resolving conflict — this one and others,” she says. “To anyone who cares about human life and human dignity, the amount of suffering on both sides of the Green Line is unpalatable.”
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