OneVoice youth leaders Abigail Gottlieb and William Salameh address a group of 7th grade students and their parents at Temple Sinai in San Francisco during the opening event of the Northern California tour last month.
New York, December 7, 2011—The Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides communities. This is nowhere more true than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where OneVoice wrapped up a Northern California speaking tour last month.
In a region known for its politics – the site of the free speech and anti-Vietnam war student movements in the 60s, the epicenter of feminist and queer activism in the United States, and, more recently, the location of the now infamous pepper spray incident – you wouldn't expect widespread disengagement on as contentious an issue as Israel and Palestine.
Yet while OneVoice has grown across the United States in recent years, the Bay Area remains a challenge. "We have a long way to go on campuses in the area," admitted International Education Program (IEP) Director Rachel Steinberg.
"Each region in the US is different," Shaina Low, IEP associate, told the 20 students gathered at Mills College to listen to Abigail Gottlieb and William Salameh share their personal stories last month. "The Bay area presents unique challenges for us."
The cause? Unlike other regions in the United States where inter-community polarization makes engagement a case of bringing different groups together to discuss the conflict – something the dual narratives presented by OneVoice Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders does well – the Jewish community within the Bay Area is itself plagued by political division. This internal division, Steinberg said, in turn makes wider community engagement with Muslim and Arab groups even more difficult.
"Whenever politics is brought up in the Jewish community, it's heated," said Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in San Francisco. "It becomes so heated that no one wants to talk about it. Then you start to talk only within your limited community, making it much worse."
This problem in the Bay Area Jewish community is a well diagnosed one. The Jewish Community Relations Council initiated the Year of Civil Discourse to foster dialogue about the issues that usually turn people off within the community, Israel being one of them.
"We are cautious about bringing Israel up," said Ophira Druch, associate director of education at Temple Sinai. "The division around Israel comes from a good place: it's because we really care. We care enough to have a strong opinion. But it doesn't help."
This division in the wider Jewish community has found its way into the university campuses as well. With groups such as Stand with Us, Jewish Voice for Peace and Kesher Enoshi (Progressives for Activism in Israel) all vying to represent the Jewish body on Israel, Ryan Simon, a student at San Francisco State University, describes it as "a little war on campuses. The blatantly polarized environment has turned Jewish students off from engaging in a conversation they otherwise would."
All of this makes engaging with – indeed, even talking about – the conflict difficult. "What divides the Jewish community in and of itself is a major problem with how we relate to other faith communities," said Mates-Muchin.
This challenge, while hindering wider inter-community dialogue, presented OneVoice with its greatest avenue for growth in the Bay Area. OneVoice held more events with the Jewish community than in years previously, ensuring that the internal division that hampers wider engagement is addressed.
And the next step? "Interfaith events," said Druch. "We need to really open this conversation up. My neighbors, who are not Jewish, are also talking about Israel and I want to be able to talk with them. We don't have to come to consensus, because there is no consensus. We need an understanding."
"Abigail said something to me that was so powerful," recalled Mates-Muchin. "She told me not to get emotional about it, to try and help figure out what they should do next. That's the message we need. It shakes people from the self-serving debate about who is right and who is wrong."