Two young leaders from Israel and the West Bank, representing the group YaLa Young Leaders, discussed their organization’s goals and efforts to pursue peace and reform in the Middle East.
On June 3, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting, “YaLa Young Leaders: A Palestinian and Israeli Discuss the Future,” with Mahdee Jaber, a Palestinian-American YaLa representative, and Nimrod BenZe’ev, YaLa Young Leaders Steering Committee Co-Coordinator. Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Jane Harman, President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, provided introductory remarks.
Harman introduced the event, saying, “The ground truth really matters,” and the youth activist perspective is needed to change the view from Washington. Adding, “I think the peace process will successfully conclude,” she welcomed the YaLa representatives and their efforts for the cause of peace.
Miller commented on the role that individually-focused organizations such as YaLa have in aiding transformative peace by allowing Middle East youth to learn the “narrative of the other” and in bringing day-to-day concerns to the policy sphere. “We don’t take younger generations seriously, as we must,” he said, arguing that governments need more input from youth segments of the population.
Jaber discussed YaLa’s history as an outgrowth of the Paris Center for Peace, centered on a Facebook page that aimed to generate dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. It is now a cross-regional movement: despite their “different backgrounds, religions, and worldviews,” the YaLa community of over 365,000 across the Middle East has shared wants and goals, especially of economic stability and educational reform. Jaber also discussed several of YaLa’s ongoing initiatives to set up meetings between Israelis and Palestinians and to provide online courses on peace and leadership. In these courses, built from members’ professional development needs, “Israelis and Palestinians have to talk to each other,” unlike with other online learning platforms. Overall, Jaber emphasized the optimism among YaLa members for change, given its wide reach and its interactive nature, which makes it more than just a page that people “like” on Facebook. He noted that YaLa has seen many new members since the start of the Arab Spring, attributing this to a feeling of freedom and less fear of joining a group of which Israelis are members: “for once, people in the Middle East are agreeing with each other.”
BenZe’ev focused on the human aspect of YaLa, asserting, “YaLa is about people in the region who take everything that comes with being a Middle Easterner,” the good and the bad, and putting a positive spin on their experiences. Further stating, “YaLa is about its members,” he discussed how members’ individual stories shape the organization and its goals. YaLa itself serves mainly as a platform to amplify what members want, sponsoring or exhibiting user-generated content; it also provides a common group identity that supersedes national, ethnic, or religious boundaries. BenZe’ev then outlined the YaLa Peace Initiative—the only one “entirely created by young people in the region”—and the range of topics members have brought up for discussion, ranging from prospects for a two-state solution to sectarian violence, human rights, higher education reform, economic development, and gender equality. Speaking on this last issue, BenZe’ev pointed out YaLa’s high representation of women in leadership positions and in the core administrative group. He also noted YaLa’s expanding on-the-ground presence in the West Bank, hoping that one day there will be a physical branch in every MENA country, with additional offices around the world to shape local policies and advocate for YaLa’s issues of interest.
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program
- Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar