OneVoice’s Youth Leaders in Washington

The following article in the Washington Jewish Week illustrates the work of two OneVoice Youth Leaders in DC, and the overall goal that they and OneVoice strive to achieve.

Spotted by Daniel Lubetzky, by Adeena Schlussel


Two guys, one voice

Obada Shtaya, a 20-year-old Palestinian, was in town with Eyal Shapira, a 25-year-old Israeli, to show that people on both sides of the conflict want peace.
Photo by Larry Luxner

Obada Shtaya, a 20-year-old Palestinian, was in town with Eyal Shapira, a 25-year-old Israeli, to show that people on both sides of the conflict want peace.
Photo by Larry Luxner

by Larry Luxner
Special to WJW

As Arabs and Jews focused their attention last week on New York – where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered drastically conflicting visions for Middle East peace – two much younger men brought their arguments to Washington.

Eyal Shapira, a 25-year-old Israeli, and Obada Shtaya, a 20-year-old Palestinian, are the unlikely youth ambassadors for OneVoice, a New York-based grassroots movement with offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and chapters throughout Israel and the West Bank. The duo were in town to demonstrate that there are parties on both sides of the green line who yearn for peace.

"We want to empower the moderate majority and bring them to support a two-state solution," said Shapira, who grew up in Mevasseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem, and now studies at Hebrew University. "We should prepare the Israeli people for the painful compromises that will have to be done once the leaders work out an agreement."

Added Shtaya, a native of Nablus: "What have we gotten out of the Intifada? Checkpoints, enclosures and so much destruction. What we need is a peaceful movement that works towards a two-state solution. It is the only achievable and pragmatic solution for both Palestinians and the Israelis." The young Arab and Jew may hail from drastically different worlds, but were united beneath OneVoice’s umbrella by Rachel Steinberg, the group’s international education programs director.

Dressed in light blue shirts, the pair sipped on bottles of Nestea Lemon as they took questions from 30 or so students at the District’s American University. It was part of a week-long speaking tour that also included stops at Georgetown University, George Washington University and Churches for Middle East Peace.

"Our focus is on building a constituency for a two-state solution," said Howard J. Sumka, CEO of OneVoice, which has organized the event every year since 2007. "We do that primarily by working on the ground in Israel and Palestine.

Sumka, who is a former director of U.S. Agency for International Development in the West Bank and Gaza, explained that OneVoice operates parallel movements – the purpose of which is to identify and train youth leaders. In turn, the new leaders organize chapters. In Israel, for instance, the chapters are organized on university campuses, such as those at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. On the Palestinian side, chapters are embedded in local communities in Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin, to name a few.

Established in 2003, OneVoice operates on an annual budget of $1.5 million, the bulk of which comes via private donors and foundations. Its International Education Program, based in New York, connects the movement’s youth network to American college students who have an interest in the conflict.

Today, said Sumka, citing recent surveys, 78 percent of Israelis and 74 percent of Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution based loosely on Israel’s pre-1967 borders. On the flip side, one binational state for both Arabs and Jews is unacceptable to 59 percent of Palestinians, and 66 percent of Israelis.

Sumka said that OneVoice is not a "dialogue organization." Rather, in a bid to lend authenticity to the movement, it operates on separate yet parallel tracks in Israel and Palestine.

"Each track speaks powerfully and authentically to the political, cultural and social needs of its own society, and appeals primarily to nationalistic self-interest," Sumka said. "This creates a real sense of proud, national identity and ownership, as Palestinians and Israelis appeal to their fellow citizens to act for the sake of their own future."

Lasting peace won’t come a moment too soon for OneVoice’s two traveling ambassadors.

"My experience with the occupation began when I was 1 year old," said Shtaya, explaining that his father has repeatedly been accused of being a member of Hamas and has been imprisoned nine times.

"This period was very tough for me," said Shtaya, a Muslim who’s pursuing a degree in English literature and spent last year as an exchange student in Turkey. "Every time the Israelis demolish houses, it reminds Palestinians that they’re still occupied and humiliated." But it’s no longer about who started the conflict, Shtaya stressed.

"Now it’s 2011, not 1948. We must try to keep the conversation on the two-state solution alive," he said. "If not, they’re going to get bored and apathetic, or they’ll revert to violence, which is not recommended."

Shapira recalled that when he was 15 the second Intifada broke out.

"I cannot say that a terrorist attack took place on a daily or weekly basis, but it was something we feared every day," Shapira explained.

On one particular day, that fear became reality.

"An attack took place at a high school, and four students were killed," he recalled. "They were the same age I was at the time, and it just happened out of the blue. Every household in Israel had the same dilemma those days: whether we should lock ourselves up at home, waiting for the storm to pass, or keep living our lives despite the danger outside."

Faced with that choice, Shapira’s family opted to keep "on living our lives."

Shapira also spent three years as a combat soldier in the West Bank, as well as serving in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The experience solidified his desire for peace.

"The experiences I had in the army, seeing how Israeli soldiers are dealing with impossible situations, just strengthened my feelings that something had to be done, and this made me join OneVoice," he said. "My friends and I realized that we cannot keep on counting the victims on both sides – we are the victims of this conflict, and we are the ones who have to take things into our own hands, because it affects all of us."

Asked about their respective heroes, Shapira quickly responded: "Yitzhak Rabin," while Shtaya answered, "Yasser Arafat."

Both men, however, are dead, and therein lies the problem for both sides, Shapira noted.

"We don’t have any leaders who can bring the two sides back to negotiations," he lamented. "Hopefully, we will have in the future."

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