MONTREAL — Two visiting young people from Israel and the Palestinian territories told Canadian university students that the great majority of their generation is fed up with the status quo and the way their elected representatives are handling the conflict.
Smadar Cohen, 24, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya that was the target of terrorists during the intifadah, and Adi Labadi, 20, (both at right) from Jenin on the West Bank, an area Israel identified as the source of many suicide bombers, were recently in Montreal, the last leg of a tour of Ontario and Quebec campuses sponsored by OneVoice.
OneVoice, launched in 2002, describes itself as a grassroots movement of Israelis and Palestinians who want an immediate end to violence and resumption of active peace talks. They think their leaders should not leave the table until they have agreed on a two-state solution.
Last October, OneVoice Canada was officially launched with a rally on Parliament Hill, where Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism, extended the Canadian government’s support for the group’s aims.
Cohen and Labadi are two of the 3,000 youth leaders OneVoice has trained in Israel and Palestinian territories, in both the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. Headquartered in New York, OneVoice has regional offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Gaza City.
Cohen and Labadi believe the great majority of Israelis and Palestinians support their organization’s basic goal of a Palestinian and an Israeli state based on the 1967 borders, living peaceably side-by-side.
OneVoice has collected more than 640,000 signatures on its mandate, including over 327,000 Israelis and 295,000 Palestinians of all ages, as well as close to 18,000 persons worldwide. Its goal is one million Israeli and Palestinian signatories by the end of this year.
This mandate also calls for “concrete confidence-building measures” by permitting freedom of movement for ordinary civilians and an ending to incitement. However, it offers no specific ideas on how to resolve where exactly the borders should be set and how to curb terrorism. Cohen said OneVoice is not a dialogue group, and that she and Labadi had no previous contact before they met at Toronto’s Pearson Airport at the start of their Canadian tour.
In Montreal, they addressed a class of about 45 students at the Université de Montréal, as well as McGill University’s Sauvé Scholars, who this year include Israeli Liran Gal, an activist with OneVoice. They were accompanied by Joel Tietolman, OneVoice Canada co-ordinator, and Laurel Rapp, from the New York office.
OneVoice’s branches work independently, appealing to the national self-interests of Palestinians and Israelis across the political spectrum.
Mobilizing a broad-based public, they hope, will demonstrate to political leaders, and to Israelis and Palestinians themselves, that there is a viable partner on the other side with whom to negotiate, she said.
They think OneVoice differs from other peace groups in that it works on the ground, trying to make people unafraid to express moderate views. Fostering dialogue and unity among Palestinians and Israelis themselves is a more immediate goal than having them reach out to each other.
“All my life people have been talking about ending the conflict and nothing happens. I feel it is in the interest of governments to keep it going. It’s easier than dealing with things like the economy and education,” Labadi said.
He and Cohen both regard one bi-national state as a dream possible only in an ideal world. “Living together is just not possible,” Cohen said. “Palestinians would like it,” Adi admits, “but they realize Israelis would never accept it.”
OneVoice has attracted high profile political and business leaders, as well as major corporations. A number of celebrities are also lending their names, among them actors Danny DeVito, Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman. Jason Alexander was the star of a private fundraising breakfast in Montreal during the Just for Laughs Festival.
Tietolman said celebrity spokespersons are a way of getting the attention
of young people. OneVoice makes full use of the modern media. In addition to its website (www.onemillionvoices.org), it has postings on such sites as YouTube.
OneVoice’s co-chairs are former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and Irish president Mary Robinson; Klaus Schwab, executive chair and founder of the World Economic Forum; former Clinton-era U.S. deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat; former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, Jordan’s Queen Noor; and Palestinian Oslo negotiator Saeb Erekat, now a cabinet minister.
The co-chairs of OneVoice Canada are Jonathan Schneiderman, a former adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin and foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew, and foreign affairs consultant Thaer Mukbel, who is of Palestinian origin. OneVoice Canada is not actively fundraising yet, because it is still awaiting its tax number, Tietolman said.
Cohen and Labadi’s itinerary also included Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, the University of Guelph and St. Paul University in Ottawa. The tour was organized with UIA Federations Canada’s National Jewish Campus Life.
Cohen is studying government at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Centre, and Labadi is attending university in Brisbane, Australia.
They found their Canadian university audiences responsive to their message. Typically, they were about evenly divided among Jews, Arab/Muslims and those not identifying with either of those two groups.
“They find it weird to see an Israeli and a Palestinian laughing together, even sharing a water bottle,” Cohen said.
However, they were surprised by the hard-line stances on the conflict of the many of the Canadians they met outside their formal engagements.
“In Israel, you go anywhere on the street and people want a two-state solution. But here they tell me we have to keep fighting, we can’t give up this or that,” Cohen said.
“They are not the ones suffering,” Labadi said, “so they are not so hungry for change. It seems they view the conflict as a kind of sport and get bored if there is not enough action.”