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Jewish Journal

Middle East Speakers at UCI

by Lisa Armony, Contributing Writer

May 4, 2010 | 5:28 pm

On a campus fraught with provocative, anti-Israel activity, two voices of Middle East moderation spoke to nearly 30 students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), on their commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli actress and film producer Mika Veis and Arwa AbdelRahman, a Palestinian business consultant, shared with students their personal journeys to becoming peace activists and their efforts in Israel and the West Bank, respectively, to encourage moderates on both sides to change the current political situation.

“I thought there was nothing I could do to prevent Palestinians from being angry and violent,” said AbdelRahman, whose father was active in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A native of Beirut who lived in Syria, Hungary and Tunisia before moving to Ramallah with her family in 1996, AbdelRahman said she was drawn to activism while a student at Birzeit University, when Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank made what should have been a 10-minute drive to school take up to two hours.

“I felt frustrated with the idea that there’s nothing to do.  No one was taking the initiative to talk to the silent majority that wants peace or to show that there are compromises they can make for a just solution.”

AbdelRahman, 28, and Veis, 25, are two of 2,000 youth leaders for OneVoice, a nonpartisan, grass-roots movement centered in Israel and the West Bank that aims to empower moderates in the region to demand their leaders bring about a two-state solution. Founded in 2002, OneVoice works from a paradigm of “enlightened national self interest” that seeks a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel and an end to terrorism and incitement.

The organization’s platform is informed by issues agreed upon by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.  On contentious issues, the group seeks to build consensus through town hall forums that engage a broad spectrum of the population, including Israelis evacuated from settlements, Palestinian farmers whose land has been confiscated and Israeli victims of missile attacks.

Settlements and Palestinian claim to a Right of Return are among the most difficult issues on the group’s agenda.

“Regarding settlements, we suggest a land swap,” said AbdelRahman.  Palestinian youth leaders are also proposing that their compatriots relinquish their dream of reclaiming all of Palestine to its pre-1948 borders.

“We tell people, ‘We know you are dreaming of historic Palestine, but the status quo is killing us, leaving us in a worse situation,’ ” she said. “Enough with the dream. Everyone wants it, but it is hurting us.”

Both women expressed concern that the window for a two-state solution is closing.

“We are getting to a point of no return,” said Veis, the daughter of a former Israeli parliament member from the Meretz Party.  “The two-state solution is still a popular option, but if we wait and do nothing, nothing will be the same because everything is escalating.”

The stop at the Orange County campus was part of a seven-university tour that also brought them to California State, Northridge (CSUN), and the University of Southern California. The group’s campus initiative was started five years ago in response to the polarization of Muslims and Jews at universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The event at UCI was sponsored by the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), which brings together students of different faiths to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to engage in constructive dialogue. This was the fourth time OneVoice leaders have spoken under the auspices of the OTI.

“We have decided to come to UCI because the polarization which plagues this campus is precisely the dynamic our program is designed to redress,” said China Sajadian, international education program director of OneVoice. “By introducing OneVoice youth leaders to divided campuses, we aim to bring opposing groups together and to deliver a message of civility and mutual recognition. We hope to offer student groups a common cause and focus for their endeavors, which will enable them to create a positive and effective joint force, a force which the Olive Tree Initiative embodies. Replicating our Middle East methodology, OneVoice demonstrates to student groups that their views and goals overlap more than they realize, and that constructive dialogue can help build sustainable peace.” 

About half of the students who attended the forum were OTI participants and half were students studying conflict resolution and mediation, according to OTI facilitator Paula Garb.  Noticeably absent from the group were members of the university’s Muslim Student Union, who have been involved in protests demonizing Israel and Zionism.

“It would be helpful to bring those people who are more hardened in their views to these events,” said Sajadian, noting that the forums at CSUN and the University of California, San Diego, were sponsored by the student group Students for Justice in Palestine. “We can’t convince the extreme, hardened groups to attend, but they’re welcome to.”

“These students are speaking out of passion, not out of reason,” AbdelRahman said. “It’s not about black and white.  It’s about find a solution to keep everyone [in the Palestinian territories] fed.”

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