“This is a Frisbee, as you probably know,” said David Barkan, holding one up.
The CEO and co-founder of Ultimate Peace was one of four panelists at a Dec. 11 event sponsored by Invest in Peace, a coalition of Bay Area activists, business owners, elected officials and agency leaders launched in 2016 by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and communications firm BMWL. The group aims to raise funds and build awareness around work being done to foster and strengthen Israeli-Arab relations by small groups like Ultimate Peace — groups that may not get much attention in a contentious political atmosphere.
The panel this week highlighted some of that grassroots work, which creates economic and people-to-people partnerships among Palestinians and Israelis.
“People in the Bay Area don’t really know there are organizations like this,” said Jill Nelson Golub of BMWL.
Some 200 Bay Area leaders are listed as supporters on the Invest in Peace website, including the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; Lt.-Gov. Gavin Newsom; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; and Rabbi Marvin Goodman, the former executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. And the group’s reach is growing. Golub said that in the year since its founding, 60,000 people have signed up for the newsletter or joined the Facebook page.
The Dec. 11 talk, which was also livestreamed via Facebook, was the first public presentation of the nonprofits and small companies that Invest in Peace supports.
Barkan was joined by Forsan Hussein of Zaitoun Ventures, an Israeli-based investment firm that supports diversity in the startup economy, and Etai Freedman of Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, which brings Palestinian and Israeli high school students together to learn how to code. The fourth panelist was Sasha Pesci, an alumna of the Arava Institute for Environmental Sciences, which looks to solve environmental challenges through agricultural innovation.
Each of the four groups has a different focus, but all are fueled by the notion that getting Arabs and Israelis to work together is the best path to peace.
For Hussein, promoting entrepreneurship through diversity not only serves to strengthen bonds among collaborators but is also good for business. “I’ve always been a big believer in the business side of peace,” he said.
Zaitoun Ventures was founded by Hussein — an Israeli Arab and Harvard MBA — with an Israeli Jewish partner, Ami Dror. They invest capital in existing startups, which must agree to boost diversity in management and staff, and they also launch companies with Arab and Israeli staff.
Hussein said Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have the passion to succeed but don’t always have the resources. “They simply have not grown up in an ecosystem that supports their entrepreneurial ambitions,” he said.
Freedman spoke about how Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow uses tech to open the door to cooperation. The 3-year coding and entrepreneurship program for high school students, which is held in Jerusalem and Nazareth and run by MIT, is intense, but the coding is just a lure, Freedman admitted. “These are buzzwords,” he said.
The kids do learn tech — a lot of it — but in the process they also learn how to cooperate and collaborate. Then they are gradually introduced to the ideas behind peaceful coexistence. Freedman said the program, now in its 13th year, aims to produce future leaders by reaching them when they’re still young and open to change. “This is the moment to have an impact,” he said.
Pesci, a young Jew from Argentina, offered the perspective of someone who has gone through one of the immersive peacemaking programs. In addition to studying topics like sustainable agriculture at the Arava Institute, she spent three hours a week in “peace-building” with other participants, some from countries hostile to Israel, who learned to discuss and work through difficult issues.
“It was definitely a transformative experience for me,” she said.
All of the panelists spoke of successes, but they weren’t afraid to talk about challenges, as well — politics being chief among them. For Pesci, it meant learning a whole new story about Israel and the region, as oppose to the simple, one-sided story she’d heard growing up.
“It wasn’t until I got [to Arava] that I realized that narrative had a lot of holes,” she said. But she said the bonds she forged helped open her mind.
Hussein, for one, said he is ready to get away from the narratives of victimhood that are holding the region back, for Jews and Arabs alike.
Unlike many groups that shy away from taking a political stance, Invest in Peace makes its position clear, supporting “a two-state solution with an independent, autonomous and economically viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with a democratic, Jewish state of Israel,” according to its website. That vision requires vigilance and a willingness to stay focused on the endgame, the panelists agreed, even when political passions run high.
Dan Kalb, an Oakland city councilmember and Invest in Peace supporter, said he was “very impressed” with what he’d heard from the panel. “I just hope we can share this information,” he said.