Taking action on Israel-Palestinian peace without taking a side
Much of the discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine in American civil society institutions is zero-sum. Supporters on each side try to win on the advocacy battleground, which, in recent years, sometimes has meant either adopting or defeating initiatives of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) aimed against Israel.
Nowhere is this zero-sum adversarial environment experienced more sharply than on U.S. college campuses. But there is another way — an effort not to take sides, but to encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to find a path toward peace and reconciliation. Such a win-win approach is exemplified by a small but growing movement, OneVoice on Campus. Not a Jewish organization, OneVoice on Campus is open to all students regardless of their religious or ethnic identities.
“Our organization is not about creating more points of tension or engaging in a combative-type of discourse, but rather about finding points of commonality between different interest groups and learning to see that those on both sides of the debate are like us in many ways,” said Layla Malamut, a student at Princeton University and its OneVoice on Campus coordinator.
But before we go further, let me be clear: Focusing attention on this non-partisan approach is not intended to downplay our community’s important work to defeat ongoing attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel, whether through BDS resolutions or other means. In fact, I take great pride in my contribution to the creation of the Israel Action Network (IAN), a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs that has emerged in recent years as the primary vehicle for combating the delegitimization of Israel in American civil society, e.g., churches, labor unions, professional associations, and the LGBTQ community. IAN operates in partnership with Hillel International and others to address challenges on college campuses.
Getting back to the OneVoice on Campus, the campus initiative’s parent body is OneVoice. Founded in 2002, the OneVoice movement describes itself on its website as “a global initiative that supports grassroots activists in Israel, Palestine, and internationally who are working to build the human infrastructure needed to create the necessary conditions for a just and negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The organization envisions an independent and viable Palestine and a secure Israel free from conflict.
OneVoice established its campus initiative, which already has chapters at 23 U.S. colleges, two-and-a-half years ago. The stated aim of the initiative, which it seeks to achieve with educational and cultural programming, along with one-on-one outreach, is “to cultivate and train a team of engaged students throughout the country capable of harnessing the energy on campus to advocate for an end to the Israeli occupation in a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
OneVoice on Campus is in its second year at Princeton. Malamut, a senior majoring in philosophy, had been active in J Street U but decided to switch to OneVoice because of its independence. “Not being a Jewish organization like J Street U or Hillel, OneVoice enables us to appeal to a more diverse student population,” she said. “Arab students have attended our programs and have expressed interest in getting involved.”
Another advantage of OneVoice, she explained, is that “it gives us access to an international network of activists, Israelis and Palestinians, who can give insight into the most important issues to address and guide our work so that we can have an actual impact on what’s happening far away.” OneVoice connects with activists on the Israeli side through a partnership with Darkenu, and on the Palestinian side with Zimam. Both are grassroots movements that seek to build government and public support for a negotiated two-state solution, and they also have sent representatives to speak at community forums and on college campuses here in the United States.
Malamut acknowledged that the effort to jumpstart the program at Princeton has been challenging. “I think that precisely because the conflict is so polarized among different students and often viewed as a stagnant, unsolvable issue, even students who may be interested in being involved refrain from doing so because of this disillusionment.” Princeton, she observed, is a highly political campus. There have been clashes between an active chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Israel advocacy groups such as Tigers for Israel. “At OneVoice, however, we avoid BDS and other controversial issues,” she said.
At Rutgers University, Abigail Kovacs, a graduate student who is neither Jewish nor Arab, just began to recruit students for OneVoice this semester. She said she is searching for the “right student leaders” who embrace the OneVoice philosophy, and her hope is that there will be an active chapter by next fall. Kovacs is studying for her master’s degree in the United Nations and Global Studies program at Rutgers. “OneVoice is important,” she said, “because these students are our future community leaders; they will make an impact not only on campus, but, afterward, at a different level.”
OneVoice fellow Fefe Jaber is a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago majoring in political science with a focus on law and theory. Her mother is Palestinian, and she still has family members in the region. “I had a passion for Middle East politics since high school,” she told me over the phone. What attracted her to OneVoice was the opportunity to hear both narratives, Israeli and Palestinian, “not just the Palestinian one I heard at home growing up.” Jaber is the only Palestinian student at DePaul’s OneVoice chapter, and said she has received negative responses from both Arab students and non-Arab students. Still, she said, she is undaunted and resolute in her aim of building OneVoice on campus.
Jaber traveled to Israel last December — her first visit — and was exposed to a wide cross-section of Israelis and Palestinians. “I got to talk to people I never thought I would ever talk to. It reinforced my commitment to the OneVoice dual narrative approach, and now I want to make it bigger and bigger.”
DePaul’s Daniel Kamin, an adjunct professor of International Studies, is so far the only faculty adviser among OneVoice on Campus’ 23 chapters. “OneVoice is an instrument both to listen to and to respect the two sides in the conflict,” Kamin wrote to me in an email. “The truly progressive approach for college students requires a concerted effort to see and hear both sides’ legitimate positions — separating those from extremist, intolerant, one-sided ones for either side — in order to help achieve a peaceful, just, and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. OneVoice provides a forum for students to make such an effort.”
There are vehicles available for those students who wish to engage in advocacy on campus. But for those students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds who want to get involved in pursuing a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian issue without becoming embroiled in the campus controversies, OneVoice on Campus seems to offer a hospitable and constructive home.