New York, October 31, 2011—Youth leaders Gabi Avner and Anas Ashqar inspired students at Penn State University to begin the process of establishing a OneVoice chapter on campus following the International Education Program (IEP) event held there two weeks ago.
As Naomi Silverman looked on at the 40 students gathered to listen to Gabi and Anas share their personal narratives, she realized that two years of her efforts had come to fruition in the hour presentation and spirited discussion it generated afterwards.
Silverman, a senior, has been working to bring OneVoice to her campus since she was a junior and traveled to Israel as part of an interfaith dialogue group where she met Tal Harris, now the executive director of OneVoice Israel. "There is a Palestinian student action group on campus and there is an Israeli group on campus," notes Silverman. "I'd like to see one group where moderates can come together and speak in one voice instead of failing to communicate with each other."
While Gabi and Anas fielded questions on the political climate in the region, prospects for negotiations and the UN bid, students also asked IEP Program Associate Shaina Low about what they could do to get involved. "This campus is huge and there is a tremendous potential for us to build a parternship here," said Low. "This is the most positive response I've gotten on tour of students demanding to get involved and help change the situation."
"The biggest takeaway from tonight is not who is here but rather who is not here," said one student during the discussion. "It's disconcerting that there are these two groups that are very involved on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides who are not here representing themselves, that it took another group to put this together. If we're going to achieve anything, it's got to be done together, not as two separate groups speaking past each other."
That sentiment has already translated into action as Rachel Steinberg, IEP Director, received an e-mail shortly after the event from four Penn State students interested in initiating a chapter on their campus to facilitate such an inclusive movement. The students involved have already begun a Facebook feed, drumming up support for the movement.
"I think a small group of determined grassroots activists can have a tremendous impact on a larger population," said Gabi, responding to a question about his motivation for working in the grassroots. "That's how these things start: every movement starts with one person who has something that doesn't sit well with them. This, though," he said gesturing to the students gathered, "feels good."
Silverman is excited as well. Although she is graduating this year and will not be around to see the growth of the chapter she helped inspire, she takes solace in the dialogue itself. "We are not a very political campus. It's almost like there is an invisible barrier when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This event broke down that barrier and brought people who don't normally talk, or even think, about the conflict together."