Traveling duo puts new face on old conflict

When Israeli Abigail Gottlieb and Palestinian William Salameh enter a room together on their U.S. tour — morning coffee in hand, all smiles, joking around with one another — it’s difficult for many attendees not to do a double take.

What about all the ugly violence between the two sides? Shouldn’t they be enemies?

But Gottlieb and Salameh are youth leaders with OneVoice, a grassroots movement of moderate Israelis and Palestinians that claims to represent majority opinion. They are the new faces of an old conflict.

William Salameh and Abigail Gottlieb photo/cathleen maclearie

“People are sometimes surprised,” acknowledged Gottlieb, a 24-year-old Israeli native and student at Tel Aviv University, of her jovial conduct with Salameh, 28, a legal adviser who grew up in the West Bank. “But that’s part of what this tour is about — demonstrating that it’s possible to work in parallel. That there are obviously differences in our experiences and in what we’re working toward in our communities, but we share a common goal.”

Gottlieb and Salameh visited the Bay Area for the first time from Nov. 11 to 18, appearing at schools and congregations to offer their perspectives on the current state of the conflict and to advocate for a peaceful two-state solution. Encouraging Americans to urge their government to help get Middle East leaders back to the negotiation table is a key part of this process, they said.

The tour is part of the OneVoice International Education Program, a 7-year-old outreach and fundraising arm of the OneVoice movement. A nonpartisan organization that helps Israelis and Palestinians organize at a grassroots level in their own communities, OneVoice also works on forums for dialogue between the two sides.

The organization was in the news recently for one of the peace-promoting delegations it brings to the Middle East — mainly because the latest one included “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander.

Salameh, who holds a law degree from Arab American University in Jenin, said he often opens his talks by speaking about his background. His family, which is Christian, was expelled from Jaffa in 1948 and has resided nearly 30 miles away, in Ramallah, ever since.

Though “right of return” issues have been personal since his birth, it was a moment in 2005, while he was at university in Jenin, that spurred him to become an activist.

“I was in my dormitory, and [Israeli] armed soldiers came in, told everyone to leave and destroyed it, because they were looking for someone,” Salameh recalled. “It was the first big thing that moved me to think about what I could do personally to put an end to the conflict.”

Salameh said he heard about OneVoice through a friend and decided to attend a town hall meeting. Three years later, he’s leading such meetings in five cities around the West Bank.

“I love it,” he said. “Because it’s a grassroots movement, there’s no one coming in and telling you what to think. When we discuss borders, for example, people are always going to have different opinions, and that’s OK. We discuss all of them.”

Gottlieb, the granddaughter of Venezuelan Zionists who made aliyah more than 50 years ago, grew up in Hod HaSharon, outside Tel Aviv. She joined up with OneVoice after traveling to Germany in 2009 to take part in a simulation of Middle East negotiations, where she met OneVoice Israel’s executive director, Tal Harris.

“[The negotiation simulation] was the first time I really got to meet Palestinians, instead of just talking about them,” said Gottlieb, who’s studying Middle Eastern history and journalism, and also writes for the Israeli news website Walla. “It was so interesting and so emotional … When I got back, I had to get involved.”

Their time in the Bay Area included stops at San Mateo’s Peninsula Temple Beth El, Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. They also visited San Francisco State University, Mills College and the University of San Francisco law school.

Dealing with groups of all ages and affiliations has been eye-opening, Salameh and Gottlieb said. Topics have ranged from Gilad Shalit’s release to what a two-state solution means.

Shaina Low, the International Education Program associate accompanying the youth leaders, said amplifying the voice of the “moderate majority” had emerged as a central goal of the tour.

“What we hear in the media are often the voices of extremists, because they tend to be the loudest,” she said. “It’s important for Americans to see that these seemingly opposing groups can come together and form coalitions.”

“In Israel,” added Gottlieb, “we hear a lot about how the Jewish community in the U.S. has lost hope regarding Israel, and how polarized a lot of communities have become over it. So for me, an important part of being here is having the chance to engage with Jewish communities and ask them to stay involved, and in a constructive way.”

Emma Silvers