Two young men — one Israeli, one Palestinian — sat together on stage at Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Levy Hall Monday, March 3, beseeching a generally older crowd to join them in their support for a two-state solution.
With promises of peace and tranquility, Mattan Peretz, a 26-year-old Israeli, and Obada Shtaya, a 23-year-old Palestinian, had traveled to Pittsburgh as representatives of OneVoice, an international grassroots movement working to bring people and politics together to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
OneVoice sponsored the forum with the local chapters of J Street and National Council of Jewish Women.
“Sixty percent of Israelis favor a two-state solution,” Peretz told the audience of some 100 people, “but only 4 percent believe these negotiations will achieve peace.
“Peace is possible,” he added, “and peace is urgent.”
Over the course of the evening, Peretz and Shtaya described how previous generations abandoned hopes of peace. They also detailed problems posed by settlements and the Second Intifada.
“There are three problems with settlements,” said Peretz. “We are expanding into a future Palestinian state. We are spending tax dollars in a future Palestinian state. And how can the Palestinians see us as partners if we are building on what will be their land?”
Shtaya related, “The Second Intifada was a horrible event for Palestinians. Nablus (Shtaya’s hometown) experienced a horrible situation. We were not allowed to go out of our homes to get food or go to school. We stayed in our houses for two to three months while Israeli tanks went by. We covered the windows with blankets so Israeli soldiers wouldn’t enter homes and shoot people thinking they were militants.”
Through OneVoice, Peretz and Shtaya have shared their message at home and abroad. In Israel, Peretz regularly meets with fellow Israeli law students at Hebrew University and rallies to pressure Israeli Cabinet members. In the Palestinian territories, Shtaya and others arranged a tree-planting ceremony. After bringing 500 Palestinians to Hebron and Bethlehem, OneVoice organizers handed out 300 trees and instructed participants to plant the trees with their own hands.
“Through this way, we assured the Palestinians that we can be active in a nonviolent way,” Shtaya said. “I could see the hope in their eyes.”
While enthusiasm bellowed from the boys’ hearts, it may have fallen on deaf ears.
Following the presentation, Caryl Beal a former lobbyist for the League of Women Voters on the Hill and prior participant in J Street Pittsburgh’s programs, was less hopeful.
“I’m more depressed than ever because there are a half a million Jews living on occupied territory and settlements. And they talk about swapping land; there’s no land to swap,” she said.
“And how are they going to move 100,000 settlers out of those settlements, and they’re building more every day?” she continued. “It seems impossible to me. It’s wishful thinking that we could create two states I’m afraid.”
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenstein said, “I’m more confused than anything else.”
Slightly more optimistic, Ali Masalehdan, a political scientist specializing in the Middle East, called the presentation “even-handed,” but didn’t think it shed any new light on the situation.
“For me there was not that much new except to hear somebody from there speaking to us about their own experiences,” Masalehdan said.
Shaina Low, international engagement manager of OneVoice, explained that the organization generally targets its message to younger people.
“OneVoice is mostly working with young people because they have the energy, and it’s their future that is at stake,” she said.
Jamie Kessler, a 25-year-old Pittsburgh native and a program assistant for OneVoice, said she became involved with the group as her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolved.
“I grew up in the Pittsburgh Jewish community and attended summer camp at Camp Ramah for 13 summers, so I learned always one narrative about Israel.”
However, after studying Arabic in college and attending the American University of Cairo, Kessler realized a new understanding.
“There were a lot of problems on the ground that I was not aware of,” Kessler said, “and I wanted to work to end the injustices that I saw happening.”
Rebecca Kirzner, Mid-Atlantic regional director of J Street, noted the youthfulness of the group.
“I think that it’s important that this cause resonates across generations,” she said, “and it’s very inspiring to hear from young Palestinians and young Israelis who are supportive of this moment.”
Peretz and Shtaya lauded social media’s assistance in spreading their message. Via Facebook, Israelis and Palestinians see photographs of one another participating in OneVoice programs, like the tree planting ceremony. Earlier, Kirzner asked the older attendees to continuously tweet, text, and post on Facebook throughout the event.
Still, not every one came away from the event optimistic about the peace prospects.
“I think they’re young dreamers. I’m old and I am terribly discouraged, and I don’t know what else to say,” said Beal. “I’m sorry to be so discouraged.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)