Jamie Kessler believes most Israelis and Palestinians are moderates. She also believes most of them want peace.
That’s why the 25-year-old Pittsburgh native and program assistant for OneVoice is helping to organize a March 3 town hall meeting in Pittsburgh where young Israeli and Palestinian leaders are expected to speak in favor of the ongoing peace process directed by Secretary of State John Kerry.
J Street Pittsburgh and the National Council of Jewish Women-PA also are sponsoring the event, which will be held at 7 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
There will be an opportunity for people of all views to speak or ask questions, Kessler said.
“If we [spoke only] to people who agreed with us, we would get nowhere,” she said.
OneVoice describes itself as “an international grassroots movement that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution,” according to its website. It has chapters in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. It also operates in Great Britain and the United States.
“We were founded upon the idea that the majority of both Israelis and
Palestinians were moderate rather than extremist in their views,” Kessler said in an interview from her office in New York, “and yet their voices weren’t being heard because extremist views are the ones who get the media attention and who are constantly being amplified. And so the original aim and goal of OneVoice was to amplify those voices that are more moderate than the ones that generally get heard.”
In Israel, recent OneVoice town hall meetings have featured Justice Minister Tsipi Livni and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro. Town halls in the West Bank and Gaza also have drawn high-profile political leaders, Kessler said.
OneVoice is also launching grassroots campaigns in Israel and the Palestinian territories, which it hopes will empower young people there.
OneVoice appeals to younger Israelis and Palestinians, between the ages of 18 and 35. In fact, its Israeli chapters are located on college campuses. And according to Kessler, it is the second largest youth political movement in the Palestinian territories.
“These are youth leaders who believe in the two-state solution and [that] the only way to achieve the two-state solution is a final status agreement between the two parties,” she said.
A native Pittsburgher, Kessler, the daughter of Ellen and Jack Kessler, grew up in Squirrel Hill. She graduated from Shady Side Academy and Barnard College in New York, where she studied Arabic, and also studied abroad at the American University in Cairo.
She said she got involved in OneVoice because she came to believe the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were “much more nuanced” than what she was taught when younger.
The only way to resolve those issues, she said, is for the people most affected to make their leaders take action.
“I feel the people who understand the conflict best are the people who are living it each day,” Kessler said. “While there is certainly a role for people in the United States to play … I was attracted to One Voice because it has an office in Israel and an office in Palestine.
“We believe that the dialogue needs to be political dialogue rather than people-to-people dialogue,” she continued, “so that the leaders at the top need to be working together to achieve the solution to end the conflict, but not necessarily people to people, so the people in each society need to be pushing their leaders to do that.”
That’s easier said than done, she admitted.
“We see challenges on both sides. In Israel, the main challenge we face is apathy. One of the biggest challenges in Palestine we face is hopelessness, the belief there really is no end in sight and that they can’t do anything to change the situation because of the occupation.”
She hopes the campaigns OneVoice is starting in the region will get beyond those obstacles, showing Israelis the cost — economically and otherwise — of the status quo, while making Palestinians believe they can improve their own circumstances.
One thing OneVoice does not do, she said, is assign blame for the conflict.
“That’s not something that we talk about as an organization,” Kessler said. “We very much focus on the future as opposed to placing blame for what’s been done in the past.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)