New York, December 15, 2011—OneVoice's Northern California tour concluded last month. Youth leaders Abigail Gottlieb and William Salameh, along with International Education Program (IEP) Associate Shaina Low, spoke at six public events, from university campuses to faith groups and high school classrooms, sharing their personal stories with about 400 people. After some much deserved time off, we caught up with them in Tel Aviv and Ramallah and asked them about their experiences on the tour.
OneVoice: What was an average day on the tour like?
Abigail: I would wake up relatively early and see Shaina in her bed with the computer on because she fell asleep in the middle of writing an email. Other than that, I don't think any day was quite like the next. We had days where we would just get in the car right away and drive to a day of meetings in the area and we had days where we had some bonding time over breakfast ... in general, though, there was a lot of driving, and a lot of meetings.
OV: Do any particularly tough questions from audience members stand out in your memory?
A: For me, it wasn't questions so much as statements from the audience that were tough. When I tell my personal story I mention that I am a Zionist. I know that word has a lot of connotations. There were a couple of times where people asked me what does it mean to be a Zionist or said that it had a negative connotation for them. I tried to do my best to make those people see that Zionism is a very broad concept and for me it means having a homeland for the Jewish people with a certain idea of what that homeland should look like, like social equality for its citizens regardless of religion, and that it should live in peace next to a Palestinian state. In short, that Zionism doesn't come at the expense of the Palestinian people.
William: This was my second tour and it was very different from the first one. It was much easier, actually, in terms of the questions I faced. I generally get harder questions from Arabs and Palestinians then from Jewish audiences, and this tour we spoke largely with Jewish groups.
OV: Was there an emotional toll,telling your personal story and listening to questions about such a political, yet intimate, subject?
A: You have a breaking point, everyone does, where it becomes emotionally difficult to keep going. And then you manage to get past it. I can only imagine it was hard for William to tell his story over and over and relive it each time. It must have been tough on him. It's that way for all Palestinians and Israelis, though. We talk about the conflict like we're diplomats but we're dealing with the future of our countries and ourselves. It is emotional and it is difficult and you don't really realize just how hard it can be until you're in the middle of it.
W: You have to repeat your story so many times. It starts off being very emotional and touching, but you can't help but lose some of the feeling part way through. For me, though, every time I tell my story I try to remember the details of what happened in Jenin. I became more emotional as the tour went on, remembering the scene over and over.
OV: Were there any challenges that came up during the tour that you weren't expecting?
A: On an emotional level, it was sometimes difficult to represent the government of Israel. People ask difficult questions and you're expected to answer on your governments behalf. And I'm thinking to myself: 'I'm not the government, I can't speak for or defend everything they do. But I want to answer the question and satisfy the people who have come to see us speak.' And in terms of representing OneVoice Israel, people would ask if I really believe that peace is possible. I do. And I answered yes every time. But the truth is, none of us really know what will happen tomorrow. We are working to make it happen but we're not sure ourselves. When you get asked that time and time again, you can start to doubt yourself. But after the tour, reflecting on everything I saw and learned, I feel more confident about the work we are doing and the peace process.
W: We spoke mostly with Jewish groups. When the people came into the events, they came with their ideas of what I will be like, what I look like, what Palestinians are like in general. And I had to deal with those ideas. After meeting me, though, I got the feeling that many people left with a deeper understanding of Palestinians.
OV: What are some of the lessons and messages you will be taking back to Israel and Palestine?
W: That American's support peace first and foremost and we need to show them that the two-state solution is the best option to achieve peace.
OV: William, this was your second IEP tour. How did it differ for you from the first?
W: My first IEP tour was an eye opener more then anything else: seeing an American audience, hearing how they think and what they are concerned about. This time recharged me. It's easy to forget that people are trying to help when you're in Palestine. My friends and family have told me that since I've come back, I speak much more passionately about the process then before.
OV: Did anything strike you about the differences between the American youth you me and your friends back home?
W: The biggest difference is how they see the conflict. Americans see it from above, from far away. For me, for my friends and all Palestinians, we live the conflict every day.
OV: What was your favorite meal on the trip?
A: William and I bonded over food. We both like doughnuts and one morning we wanted some for breakfast. We were in a rush that day and the place we were eating at didn't have any. I asked William what he was going to have and he responded pancakes, because they are the closest thing they had to doughnuts. So we both had some! I also like the Chinese food in Chinatown.
W: The ribs were my favourite!