Roza Helou, 28, of Ramallah and Dana Sender, 27, of Tel Aviv have little in common except for the land they each call home.
For the first five years of her life, Helou saw her father, jailed by the Israelis for his activities as a member of the PLO, only through the bars of an Israeli prison cell. After his release, she spent the next years living out of a suitcase, avoiding the Israeli police. He was eventually selected as a Palestinian representative to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, after which all charges against him were dropped.
Sender had a middle-class upbringing in a suburb of Tel Aviv and was used to headlines screaming about war and terrorist attacks. As a teenager, she was not allowed to go shopping with friends in the city for fear of suicide bombers. It was only when her family lived for a time in Singapore, and she saw headlines on topics she considered far more trivial, that she realized the abnormality of life lived under the constant threat of terror in Israel. She lost eight friends during their military service.
In their 20s, Helou and Sender each discovered and joined the grassroots youth organization OneVoice. Founded in 2002 by Daniel Lubetzky, an American entrepreneur who promotes coexistence through joint business ventures, its goal is to provide a forum to amplify the voices of moderate Israelis and Palestinians seeking a peaceful end to their conflict.
On Feb. 13 they appeared together at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange to present a picture of how they work together and separately for a peaceful future in the land they each call their homeland. The next evening, they addressed a gathering of students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where they were invited by Rutgers Hillel.
Helou, who works as a travel agent in Ramallah, a West Bank city six miles north of Jerusalem, volunteers for OneVoice Palestine; Sender started at OneVoice Israel in a volunteer capacity and was recently hired as young leadership program director for the organization, which maintains offices in Tel Aviv.
With international headquarters in New York, OneVoice focuses on projects intended to help people visualize a peace agreement, create programming to help promote it, and start OneVoice chapters on campuses.
The two women say they are not interested in dialogue or in finding common ground — at least not as primary goals. They look not to the past but to the future. They agree to disagree about their historical narratives.
“In my family, even though my father was a freedom fighter and spent time in an Israeli prison, we do not say there is no other side or that Israel does not exist,” said Helou in her presentation at Oheb Shalom, which drew about 50 older adults and 10 students from the congregation’s religious school. “The Israelis are there, and they are not going anywhere. We want to live separately and freely. We respect each other’s narratives, and we try to understand and ask the other side to try to understand our narrative.”
“We don’t concentrate on the past,” said Sender. “It’s what can we take from here and, pragmatically, what can we do next?”
“We’re two people living on the same piece of land that each calls its own,” said Helou. “Either we learn to share the land and live peacefully on separate parts of the land in separate states, or we can keep having this circle of violence.”
She added, “I know Dana would love to have the whole of Israel as her homeland. I would love to have the whole Palestine as my homeland. But we have to find consensus.” The alternative? “We will keep killing each other. And that’s not good.”
The synagogue was an atypical venue for a program sponsored by OneVoice, which focuses on students and young adults. But OneVoice’s international education program manager, Rachel Steinberg, grew up at Oheb Shalom, and her parents and grandparents are members. (Her mother, Alice Cohen, introduced the program.)
The education arm of OneVoice generally concentrates on addressing polarization at universities in the United States, Europe, Israel, and Palestine, as it refers to the Palestinian-held territories. Palestinians and Israelis work separately, within their own communities, toward their common larger goal.
Oheb members offered some skeptical questions, wondering whether Helou’s peers consider her “a collaborator” (“No, knowing my family history it would be difficult…but they might call us ‘normalizing’ with Israelis, and that can be strong language within Palestinian society”), and why her father had been jailed (anyone affiliated with PLO was considered a terrorist, she replied).
One audience member asked perhaps the hardest question of all: How can a conflict going back to biblical times be so easily resolved. The women’s very presence seemed to hint at an answer: through the optimism of youth.