Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Blueprint for Middle East Peace

Last week, I journeyed from Boston to Manhattan to attend “Time to Lead,” a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
As a leader of Israel activism on and off campus, I have been to many such discussions. And by the end of them, I tend to leave disheartened by complexities of the conflict and uncertain whether my efforts are affecting change. 
But this conversation was different. I walked out of the 92nd street Y doors more empowered and hopeful than when I entered. I believe this has a lot to do with the message of OneVoice, the organization that put on this event. Its founder, Daniel Lubetzky, said that the movement is meant “to empower ordinary Israeli and Palestinian citizens to mobilize at a grassroots level to propel politicians toward a two state solution.”
What differentiates OneVoice from other peace movements is that it defines the ambiguous word “peace.” For OneVoice, peace is human understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, combined with state lines and legislation to institutionalize it (a two state solution). The “Time to Lead” discussion reflected these ideals, incorporating panelists from different ends of society to reinforce the notion that peace comes from ordinary people, not only politicians.
This notion was well received by the panel’s audience. A few hundred students, activists, and professionals, Jewish and non-Jewish, sat in Kaufmann Hall, eager to hear from the five influential figures on stage: Daniel Lubetzky (founder of OneVoice, PeaceWorks, and Kind Bars), Daisy Khan (executive director of American Society for Muslim Advancement), Ambassador Dennis Ross (diplomat and former Middle East envoy), and Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame).
The panel’s diversity allowed the conversation to appeal to those invested in all facets of the conflict, be it political, religious, cultural, or humanitarian. And the celebrity bonus – Jason Alexander – added an element that is generally absent in these conversations: comedy.
Alexander began by sharing an anecdote from his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank. He described his apprehension before stepping out onto the streets of Ramallah. How are Palestinians going to treat an unmistakably American Jew? He braced himself for scornful glares. But as soon as he left the taxi, a street vendor pointed to him and yelled with excitement, “George!”
The audience roared with laughter as Alexander painted an odd picture in everyone’s mind: a Palestinian watching, and enjoying, Seinfeld. 
In his attempt to brighten the conversation with humor, Alexander conveyed a meaningful point: human interests and inclinations – like the need for humor – do not vary much from person to person or from culture to culture.
“[My role] in all of this is to communicate the humanity,” said Alexander after explaining his personal connection to the conflict. Humbled by Dennis Ross’s vast knowledge of the Middle East, Alexander did not answer challenging questions from a historical or political perspective, but rather drew from his personal experiences and values. The result was a more intimate, comprehensive, and positive conversation.
Even more positivity came from Daisy Khan, who assured that the source of the conflict is not rooted in religion. Proclaiming Islam as the main issue, Khan explained, is a hopeless way of viewing the conflict. She explicated Islam’s appreciation for the Jewish people, and the very real possibility for coexistence between Muslims and Jews. Ultimately, Khan underscored two key ideas: the necessity of recognizing Palestinian strife, and necessity of making peace with one’s enemies. She believes that reconciliation is needed even with Hamas, a “terrorist” organization according to the U.S, Israel, and many other nations. Though Hamas may not be a legitimate partner for negotiations, she said, we should not forgo the prospect of making peace with them.
Dennis Ross was more skeptical about peace with Hamas, but he brought to the table an “optimistic” perspective backed up with keen political analysis. Beyond being well versed in the subject, Ross contributed his experience working as an envoy to the Middle East under president Clinton. After years of failed peace talks, withdrawals from territories, and intifadas, one would expect Ross to be jaded by the ever-stalled peace process. Yet he remains optimistic, though he prefers to call it “realistic.” When it comes to affecting change for good, Ross noted, realism is optimism.
Finally, Daniel Lubetzky, the brain behind OneVoice, focused his participation on discussing progress that has occurred (and is occurring) “on the ground”.  For Lubetzky, progress is seeing “ordinary” Israelis and Palestinians grow healthy food together in cooperative business ventures through PeaceWorks. Progress is watching youth become leaders in their communities, and then using their leadership to amplify the moderate voices on both ends. Progress is bridging the gaps between grassroots organizations and politicians to inspire action toward a two state solution.
Lubetzky’s repetition of the phrase “on the ground” got me thinking. All of the above efforts are actually happening, yet most people in the world have no idea they exist.
According to one of the panelists, about 70 percent of Israeli and Palestinian citizens wish to coexist with their neighbors. Wouldn’t you, then, expect more people to be involved in—or at least aware of—these efforts?
I think what these organizations lack is meaningful public relations. Not just internal PR, but PR from people who care about the peace process. People who can spread the word, get others involved, and become “peace ambassadors” for their communities. Or at the very least, they can change the framework of the conversation, just as “Time to Lead” did.   
I left “Time to Lead” with something greater than a few business cards in my back pocket. I left with a more nuanced understanding of the peace process, a desire to carry on the message of OneVoice, and a refreshed confidence in my ability to affect change.