One morning earlier this month, Uri Fishelson and Malaka Samara met for breakfast in the restaurant of a San Francisco hotel. They were total strangers.
He being an Israeli Jew and she a Palestinian Muslim from the West Bank, it could have been a frosty conversation over coffee. Instead, the two chatted for hours, discussing each other’s families and expressing a mutual longing for peace back home.
“We talk openly about issues on the conflict,” said Fishelson, “and you find out we’re exactly the same, with slightly different languages. We’re similar people with similar opinions, and you feel these people might as well be our neighbors.”
Fishelson and Samara represent OneVoice, a six-year-old grassroots movement of Israelis and Palestinians who want to end the conflict between their two peoples. The two were in the Bay Area for a whirlwind speaking tour at local college campuses, including Stanford, U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University.
Both found a warm reception everywhere they spoke, though they admit some audience members were surprised to see an Israeli and Palestinian on the same page for once. Skeptics wondered whether Fishelson, 25, and Malaka, 29, really believed OneVoice could make a difference after so much strife and bloodshed.
“They believed us,” said Fishelson. “They see that it’s possible. They know it will be hard work, but it can be done.”
“We are here,” added Samara, “an Israeli person and a Palestinian person. We want to tell people here in the states that we came from the region of conflict to say you must do something to support us and stop the polarization.”
Launched in 2002 by Jewish entrepreneur Daniel Lubetsky, OneVoice sought to circumvent the glacial pace of Middle East peace talks. Israeli and Palestinian organizers gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures for peace petitions. The group attended the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, two years ago.
It also had setbacks. A plan for simultaneous million-person peace concerts in Tel Aviv and Jericho in 2006 had to be scrapped due to security concerns. But the grassroots efforts go on, thanks to volunteers like Fishelson and Malaka.
A native of Tulkaram, an Arab town in the north of the Palestinian Territories, Samara earned a B.A. in English at Al-Najah University. She has taught English in Palestinian schools and worked as a translator. Though she admits she had been suspicious of Israelis most of her life, and doubted Israel’s commitment to peace, she says joining OneVoice a year ago turned her around. Now she wants to devote her life to
“Before OneVoice I didn’t trust Israeli people that they wanted to end the conflict or want peace with two states side by side,” she said. “When I met Uri, I told him I cannot see him as an enemy or feel this in my heart. So why can’t we be friends and neighbors?”
Similarly, Fishelson had limited contact with Palestinians, other than during his military service. He grew up in Tel Aviv, majoring in biology at Tel Aviv University. After signing up with OneVoice, he went through several levels of leadership training. Now he wants to drop biology and pursue a career in international relations.
For both, the hardest step is developing genuine empathy for the other side. It doesn’t mean Malaka has to like checkpoints and occupation; nor does Fishelson have to make friends with Hamas. But both had to stretch their emotional limits.
“We understand the issues they live with,” said Fishelson. “We empathize. At the same time, we try to explain our point of view, why having checkpoints is important for our security. Maybe they don’t understand us but they see where we’re coming from. Then we can have a better way to end the conflict.”
Added Malaka: “Sometimes I want to move between places and we are asked to wait for many hours at a checkpoint. I feel upset and anger, but we must solve our problem. We can’t kill them and they can’t kill us. So let us find solutions to live in peace.”
Now back in the Middle East, Fishelson and Malaka are in their communities working to convince their neighbors that peace is possible, even if it seems unlikely some days.
“We actually go out to the people, encourage them to act and voice their opinions, so that the leaders will know they have someone behind them,” said Fishelson. “We’re a movement that doesn’t go around yelling, but we do things on the ground.”