By Shaina Low*
Halfway through my first week at OneVoice, I told a friend of mine about my new position in the movement. As I explained to him OneVoice’s mission, he asked, “Wait a minute. Who’s occupying who? Are the Israelis occupying the Palestinians, or are the Palestinians occupying the Israelis?” Anthony’s lack of information, I know, is not uncommon among Americans. In talking to him further, I learned he was fearful of trying to find out more about the conflict because it is such an emotional and divisive topic.
While briefly explaining to Anthony the barebones of the 1967 War and the roots of the occupation, I experienced a moment of euphoria when I knew I had chosen the right career path in OneVoice’s International Education Program.
I’ve been passionate about informing others, particularly Americans, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2008. As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, I participated in a delegation with the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP) and forty other American and European university students.
FFIPP’s two-month program included an intensive weeklong orientation with visits to Holocaust museums, destroyed Palestinian villages, Kibbutzim, and refugee camps and countless meetings with NGOs and activists. Following this crash course on the conflict, I had the opportunity to intern for four weeks at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, and another four weeks at Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center in Haifa.
My experience that summer was life-changing, and many of my preconceived notions about the conflict were shattered. I had traveled to Israel twice in the previous year, but this was my first experience in Palestine, and I was worried of how being Jewish would affect Palestinians’ perceptions of me.
My first day of work at The Freedom Theatre, Mustafa, one of the employees sat down to introduce himself. Within minutes, he cupped his hand around his mouth, as if sharing a dark secret, and whispered to my three fellow interns and me, “Jonatan is Jewish,” (referring to the theatre’s co-founder and manager.) Unsure of how to respond, after hesitating a few seconds, I whispered back, “Me too!” For only a second, an expression of pure surprise crossed Mustafa’s face, before turning to sheepish embarrassment. Instantly, the five of us all burst out laughing. From that moment on, I was open about my religion, and it was never an issue.
American media, particularly in a post-9/11 world, tends to compartmentalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an East versus West paradigm, presenting it as a religious war, driven by unrelenting jihadists battling with “Judeo-Christian values” and conspiring to “throw the Jews into the sea.” In truth, I learned, the conflict is political—two parties arguing over the same strip of land.
Realizing that misinformation and a lack of knowledge were the greatest impediments to widespread US support for resolution, when I returned to Columbia that fall, I made it my priority to reach out and share my newfound knowledge with my peers. By drawing on my personal experience living in both Israel and the West Bank, when challenged I was able to speak authoritatively and confidently about the realities on the ground.
Upon graduating with a degree in political science in May 2010, I returned to Jenin to serve as The Freedom Theatre’s resource development coordinator. Frequent travel in the region resulted in a network of friends that spanned national, religious, and political spectrums—expanding my overall understanding of the conflict.
With the ability to move (relatively) freely between Israel and Palestine, I was consciously aware of my position as an American outsider, and frequently solicited the opinions of Israeli and Palestinian friends, acquaintances, and strangers about what—if any—role America should have in solving the conflict. The responses were varied; some felt that the US exercises too much influence in the region, while others felt that the Obama administration needs to be more forceful in demanding a return to negotiations. Although opinions differed on the amount of authority the US should have in resolving the conflict, almost everyone I spoke to felt that America does have a role.
When I returned from Jenin, nearly six months ago, I searched for a job that would not only build on my experiences in Israel and Palestine, but also allow me to reach out to American communities and inform them about the conflict. What drew me to OneVoice, specifically IEP, is the opportunity to connect average American citizens and university students with Israeli and Palestinian youth in order to hear their stories firsthand.
I know that Anthony’s question is only the first of many concerning the conflict that I’ll be fielding in my role as IEP associate, and I’m looking forward to sharing with Americans across the religious, ethnic, and political spectrum what I learned about Israel and Palestine and OneVoice’s work in the region.
*Shaina Low is the International Education Program associate. She joined the OneVoice team in mid-August and will be organizing the speaking tour with youth leaders Eyal Shapira and Obada Shtaya in Washington, DC from Sept. 16-23.