Thursday, November 17, 2011 | return to: news & features, local


Traveling duo puts new face on old conflict

by emma silvers, staff writer

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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
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.”


Posted by Jack Kessler
11/17/2011  at  10:24 PM
Lovely and hopeful, except for....

It is so wonderful to see people getting together to advocate a two state solution.  The problem with feelgood programs like this is that that is all they are - feelgood programs. 

Such programs pretend away the basic problem - that Israelis and their government want a two state solution and Palestinians and their governments don’t.

Going around the country telling American Jews to force a two state solution on Israel is misleading unto dishonest. Substantially every major Israeli party advocates a two state solution.  So do almost all American Jews.

No major Palestinian constituency supports a two state solution.  They support a one state solution, and the state they advocate sure isn’t Israel.

So why come to the US to talk to American Jews to urge us to something we already agree with?

Would it be too cynical to suggest that a feelgood program that advocates something you already agree with, is really just a fundraiser?

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Posted by judex
11/18/2011  at  12:40 AM

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis know the real problems.

The inter position of the UN, assuring security, food supplies, economic developments, room for expansions,  could eventually end the conflicts.

Showing smiling faces of two People falls short, cannot bring a solution !

Both People do not seem to accept a third Party interference. So, no solution in view !

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Posted by gyuri_2
11/18/2011  at  06:46 AM
Negligeable effort

This is an interesting effort - by a movement largely unknown to Palestinians. Did the movement make any inroads to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I don’t think so. It is nice to visit the Bay Area and San Francisco and tell te American people there are peace loving Palestinians. The truth on site though is otherwise.

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Posted by Michael Harris
11/18/2011  at  09:29 PM
You are right, BUT.....

Of course those commenting above are correct that the Palestinian leadership rejects a genuine two state solution, as they have since 1947.  But these young Palestinians are working at the grassroots level in their own communities to build support for it.  And maybe that will help promote new leadership on that side.

Besides, these Palestinians put the lie to antiIsrael groups that insist that the only courses of action are those aimed at destroying Israel , whether violent jihad or “nonviolent” BDS.

Palestinians like this young man aren’t in positions where they can help bring about peace—at least not yet.

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Posted by BarryPA
11/22/2011  at  05:13 PM
To the commenters to this

To the commenters to this article…..I encourage you to go to the OneVoice website where you can see that over 300,000 Palestinians have signed OneVoices declaration of principles supporting a two state solution. Review the boards of OneVoice and see the prominent Palestinians (and Israelis) who support OneVoice. I do not deny that the Palestinians have previously never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Let’s make sure that we don’t do the same.

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Posted by admin
08/14/2012  at  12:49 AM
mr what

mr what

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