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Peace Through Pesto: Daniel Lubetzky Schools Us on Building Bridges and Empowering Moderates

If you don't know who Daniel Lubetzky is, you should. The founder of PeaceWorks, a hugely successful international company that promotes peace through business, and OneVoice, a movement of Israelis and Palestinians joining forces to achieve a grassroots, tangible means … Read More

By / July 11, 2008

If you don't know who Daniel Lubetzky is, you should. The founder of PeaceWorks, a hugely successful international company that promotes peace through business, and OneVoice, a movement of Israelis and Palestinians joining forces to achieve a grassroots, tangible means towards working together for peace in the region, Lubetzky is a proven master at turning theory into action. PeaceWorks offers a range of popular specialty food products and currently does business with Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Turks, Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Australians. Meanwhile, over 640,000 citizens have signed on as supporters of the OneVoice Mandate.

In this interview, Adam Neiman of No Sweat submitted eight questions to Lubetzky, Helen Jupiter submitted four, and Joey Kurtzman tacked one on at the end.

ADAM NEIMAN: Your father was a holocaust survivor. How has this informed your engagement with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the occupation? DANIEL LUBETZKY: I think everything I do is through the prism of the son of a Holocaust survivor, for both good and bad; the positive way to explain it is that I made myself a promise to do whatever is in my power not to allow what happened to my father to ever happen again to anyone else; the more neurotic explanation is that I live under a shadow of persecution and feel an enormous drive to build bridges and create better bonds on a personal basis as well as between cultures, religions, nations, and peoples. Specifically as it regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I first approached this as a progressive Zionist who felt very strongly that Israel has to be the homeland for the Jewish people, a haven for those escaping the type of persecution that my Dad was not able to avoid when he was taken to Dachau as a little kid; as I began working deeply on the issue, I also felt a strong affinity with Palestinians who were deprived of freedom and dignity in ways that did painfully remind me of stories my Dad would share about his experiences at the Kovno Ghetto (NOT AT ALL like the dehumanization and death faced in a concentration camp, but with restrictions of movement and denigrations that serve nobody but extremists who prey on despair).

Israelis and Palestinians are destined to share a future – each needs the other to achieve the full potential of freedom and security for their offspring; they can either get their act together and make the difficult but necessary historic compromises to achieve a comprehensive peace, or they can be deluded by absolutist visions that will eventually drag them to a truly intractable and eternal war. AN: I read that you wrote your master’s thesis on economic cooperation between Israelis & Palestinians. This issue seems to have called you for many years. What’s the Daniel Lubetzky genesis story that brings you to this intensely charged place and time in Jewish history? DL: It was a Senior College thesis, not a masters, but it was 268-pages, the first time I was intellectually stimulated to become a real nerd, in 1989-90; the son-of-a-holocaust-survivor experience and education certainly got me committed to forging peace between Israel and its neighbors; the concept of economic cooperation as a means for fostering peaceful relations came from combining my passions for the Middle East peace and for entrepreneurship; since childhood I had run a few businesses, from being “Houdani” (instead of Houdini) the Magician during middle school, to setting up “Da’Leky Times” and “Watch-U-Want” kiosks at shopping malls selling watches and clocks while in high school and college; when I went to Israel for my year abroad and was studying at Hebrew University and searching for a thesis topic, the idea hit me that market forces could be powerfully channeled to advance peaceful relations.

AN: You started with a for-profit venture, PeaceWorks, marketing food products created by Israeli and Palestinian partners back in the 1990s during Oslo. Now your focus seems to be largely political, with OneVoice calling for negotiations leading to a two-state solution. How did that evolution come about? DL: PeaceWorks was my effort to turn theory into practice. It evolved from my college thesis, and subsequent work in law school on how to create incentives to encourage joint ventures among neighbors striving to co-exist. When I realized the theory was making people fall asleep and going nowhere, I decided to give it a shot. Around the time that I was finalizing my research, I came across this obscure little jar of sundried tomato spread that was delicious, and when I found out the Israeli company that made it had gone out of business because they were sourcing their glass jars from Portugal and their sundried tomatoes for Italy, I realized there could be a way to prove the theory by sourcing glass jars from Egypt, sundried tomatoes from Turkey, and olives and olive oil from Palestine, etc. That is how MEDITALIA and Moshe & Ali’s started – and it is still goes on 15 years later, with relations that have withstood the test of time and the vicissitudes of the conflict.

Eventually my company PeaceWorks, expanded to include a venture in partnership with a women’s cooperative in Indonesia – Bali Spice – bringing Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist women together to make a line of Asian sauces. We also created a new division to market healthy snacks not made in conflict regions, but donating 5% of their profits to the PeaceWorks Foundation, which is how KIND Fruit and Nut Bars were born.

The evolution into creating the PeaceWorks Foundation’s OneVoice Movement came about as I realized that economic cooperation is a positive but not sufficient ingredient in the equation for ending the conflict. After the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations and the breakout of the second intifadah and the cycle of violence in 2000-2002, I was enormously depressed and initially did not understand where all my Palestinian business partners and all those Palestinian moderates I knew had gone. Why weren't they raising their voices? They were shocked when I confronted them with this question, and showed me that from what they saw in the Arab media, it appeared that the missing moderate voices were those of the Israelis.

We then realized the huge problem society faces: that it is in the nature of the overwhelming majority of moderates to be passive, and uninteresting, while a passionate minority of extremists – including violent extremists with absolutist visions that deny the humanity of the other side – will stop at nothing to spread their message. We also realized that traditional media magnifies the influence of this extremist minority because it’s what makes for “compelling” TV and news coverage. So we recognized that we needed to build a human infrastructure of moderates across Israel and Palestine, and to create tools that would amplify the voice of moderates to help them seize back the agenda for conflict resolution.

Today OneVoice has offices in Ramallah, Gaza City, and Tel Aviv; it has chapters in pretty much every Palestinian and Israeli University, as well as across most refugee camps, villages, and cities; over 640,000 citizens have signed on to the OneVoice Principles or OneVoice Mandate, and over 3,000 Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders have participated in OneVoice programs to organize themselves and their communities at the grassroots level to propel their elected representatives towards a two-state solution. AN: What are your thoughts about the recent economic initiatives and the Palestinian Investors Conference? DL: The day the investor conference took place coincided with our 6th Annual Board Meeting in Jerusalem, so I regretted I was not able to attend. A few of our Palestinian and International Board members attended, as did our Israeli Honorary Board member MK Ephraim Sneh. I heard good things about it, but don’t have first hand info. It's easy to be skeptical about it and paint it as a PR stunt, but it seems to me that it generated hope and interest in Palestinian economic development, both of which are very important. I was also told by several Palestinian friends that this was the first time they saw enormous effort on the part of the Israeli government to truly create a very comfortable environment for the conference attendees and the people of the region, with far less checkpoints and very courteous relations. The week to me seemed filled with energy and buzz.

I am extremely supportive of economic development at this stage, and consider it critical to building a vibrant Palestinian civic society and Palestinian State. It has to occur in tandem with political progress, but it is certainly vital. Tony Blair and Prime Minister Fayyad both seem very committed to achieving progress on the ground, which is also important to contrast this approach in the West Bank to Hamas’s apocalyptic and totalitarian governance in Gaza. AN: Recent polls say that a significant majority of Palestinians consider peace talks futile or counterproductive. Most Palestinians I know think talks are just window dressing for the occupation and that Israeli deeds–expanding settlements, checkpoints, and constraints on movement of goods and services–are all that matters. And many Israelis also believe that Palestinian talk of peace during the Oslo period was just a smokescreen for expanding “security” forces that turned into terrorists when push came to shove. Has the very word “peace” become degraded in this context? Has language lost all currency? DL: Yes, most Palestinians and Israelis have lost the ability to visualize that peace can be achieved, and the word “peace” has indeed been devalued. Everyone says they want “peace,” but they hang on to this word while hanging on to absolutist or unrealistic positions that are not consistent with peace. That's why OneVoice launched the Imagine 2018 Campaign this year: To compel people to dare to visualize what their lives could look like in 2018 if a framework agreement was achieved this year (as the Heads of State committed to) and implemented over the next year, and to deal with the problem of restoring some meaning to the word "peace." We also instituted a “Breaking the Taboos” series of Town Hall Meetings.

AN: Last year, OneVoice had to cancel long-planned simultaneous concerts in Jericho and Tel Aviv because of security threats on the West Bank. OneVoice’s current focus is on the latest round of peace talks, with a clock on the OneVoice site ticking down to 12/12/08–my 52nd birthday, by the way. These talks were initiated by three very weak leaders, with an outcome that at the very best cannot be implemented before the next Palestinian elections–again assuming a Fatah candidate can run and win in Gaza. Does this strategy carry a huge risk of increasing people’s cynicism and despair? Have you created a large target and sent an invitation to the extremists to blow it up? DL: The reasons for postponing the OneVoice Summit are thoroughly (and painfully but earnestly) discussed on my blog, in the entries between September and November 2007. The "clock" started ticking on 12/12/07, your 51st birthday, which coincided with the date when the Israeli and Palestinian Heads of State started their negotiations. In our OneVoice Mandate, signed by hundreds of thousands of people over the course of 18 months, we demanded that the elected representatives immediately restart negotiations, which should remain uninterrupted until the achievement of a comprehensive agreement, within a framework of no more than one year.

When we made this demand, even our Board members thought we were taking too big a risk, as negotiations had not been conducted for 7 years, and the conflict hadn’t been solved for decades. We explained that it is the role and duty of citizens to push and propel their leaders to do this, without us worrying about political repercussions, and that we would rather try and fail than not try at all. In fact, we succeeded: At Annapolis, Bush, Olmert, and Abbas all agreed not only to rekindle negotiations, but to our surprise, they even committed to a framework agreement within a year. So the Clock is an effort to hold them accountable.

That said, I sadly feel that you may be correct, as given all the internal problems Prime Minister Olmert is facing, not to mention the challenges Abbas faces in Palestine and the fact that Hamas controls Gaza, most observers feel there is no chance an agreement will come through in 2008.

We are indeed evaluating whether we should change our call to action. That said: 1) We should also take into consideration that part of the reason why “Leaders are Weak” is because we as citizens make too many excuses not to act to strengthen leaders with moderate agendas; and so instead of making excuses for why it is futile to act, if we are able to again galvanize public support, it is at least more likely that progress will be made.

2) We should bear in mind that some progress in the negotiations and political environment is critical, as we are not just at risk of giving up the upside of an agreement, but also of seeing Hamas spread its reign into the West Bank if the political track does not show that diplomacy and a two-state-solution are a better alternative to nihilistic absolutism. AN: I spent a couple of weeks in the holy land at the beginning of the 2006 war with Hezbollah, half on each side of the green line. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians were absolutely convinced that the Western media was hopelessly biased against them. Are they both right, or both wrong? How is US and European reportage informed by anti-Semitism and/or racism? Is there a feedback loop between the conflict and what could be described as the world’s longest running reality horror show? DL: The media is biased towards news that sells, and news that sells tends to be news that exacerbates conflicts, reinforces stereotypes, and plays into our primal defensive instincts. So, in a sense they are both right and they are both wrong: They are right that the media is biased, but it is not biased in the favor of the other–it is biased in the bent towards extremist views. The only way to change that is for citizens to vote with their feet and demand deeper and more nuanced coverage, which is unlikely to happen, or to generate newsworthy events about the otherwise “boring” mainstream citizenry that cherishes a resolution of the conflict. Yes, there is a dangerous feedback loop between the conflict and the “reality horror show” of this conflict. The more negative things one sees about the other, the more we adopt bad opinions about them and assume they are all “the enemy,” which leads to false polarization. We then become entrenched in a garrison mentality of Us Vs Them. The only way out of it is by forcing ourselves to think for ourselves, and to meet the other at a human level. AN: One Voice appears to be resolutely secular. Your list of “partners” doesn’t include any representatives or affiliates of the denominations of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Is this by accident or design? It has been noted that the real conflict here may be internal: Between secular elites in Israel and Palestine and a multitude of people with little education or income but a boatload of belief. Considering that religion is an enormous part of the problem in the holy land, is it realistic to think a solution can be found that doesn’t include the voice of the faithful? Do you see any positive role for people of faith in resolving this conflict? DL: Our Honorary Board actually incudes foremost religious leaders of all the Abrahamic Faiths, from Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf, to Rabbi David Rosen, to Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and on and on. Progressive Religious leaders such as the above are very much part of the solution, but they face the same problem discussed earlier: The media find it less sexy to interview sensible people than big screaming extremists. HELEN JUPITER: Through OneVoice and the Imagine: 2018 contest, you are working to engage and amplify the moderate voices on the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–voices we rarely hear. How have you inspired moderates to take effective action? DL: First, we asked Israeli and Palestinian kids ages 13-17 to share their vision for what 2018 could look like if a framework peace agreement were to be achieved. The Palestinian Ministry of Education imparted this essay campaign across the West Bank. We imparted it through our staff in Gaza. And in Israel our staff imparted it with the cooperation of the Israeli Ministry of Education and other youth movements and kids’ websites (Tapuz). Tens of thousands were exposed and participated; thousands were finalists. We will soon announce the 100 winners and publicize some of the essays in Israeli and Palestinian newspapers and on the web.

The next phase, which we've just started on, is to work with foremost filmmakers (from Hollywood as well as from Israel and Palestine) and ask them to select one essay that speaks to them and turn it into a 1-5 minute short film. We also have two more phases that are big surprises to be shared later in the year. HJ: Is it possible to spark galvanizing passion in moderate thinkers? DL: It is possible, but it is very difficult. It is in the nature of moderates to be less assertive, and if we are to tackle the challenges our world will face this century, it is imperative that we re-educate ourselves to understand activism is necessary.

HJ: What can Jewcy readers–largely based in the US–realistically do to have an impact? DL: The OneVoice site has a section with a list of very specific and concrete ways in which people can get involved, starting with something as simple as joining the movement, signing up to receive our updates so people hear the deeper news and not just the alarmist partisan news, forwarding the news updates to their friends and encouraging them to join, making donations in cash or in-kind, volunteering in their communities, hosting presentations about OneVoice, and/or writing to media and policy makers with this message. HJ: It seems to me that there are three major branches in your thoughts on ending the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: economic, grassroots activist, and political. With PeaceWorks, you've developed a business model that manages mutually-beneficial relationships between Israeli, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Turkish companies. With OneVoice, you've brought together over 645,000 citizens in support of a two-state agreement. Market forces and grassroots peoples' movements are important and can be effective, especially in conjunction with one another, but are they powerful enough to influence political policy-making? What progress have you seen through your campaign thus far? DL: I think that the two greatest accomplishments are: 1) Helping re-frame the conflict, from the view circa 2001 that this conflict is one of Israelis vs. Palestinians or Jews vs. Muslims, to a more nuanced understanding that the conflict is not about “us” vs. “them,” but about empowering moderate voices on both sides to help overcome absolutism and nihilism.

2) Injecting into the political arena the concept about the possibility of achieving a two-state agreement within a one-year framework – what is still missing a commitment to uninterrupted negotiations, which is the only way to guarantee getting there: You get in the negotiations room and don’t come out till you conclude an agreement. JOEY KURTZMAN: Palestinians sometimes protest that when Jewish-Americans call for “peace” in Israel/Palestine, they are actually calling for Palestinians to surrender their right to struggle. Does Peaceworks believe that Palestinians have the right to select the means by which they pursue their own national liberation? DL: PeaceWorks actually does not deal at all with these political issues – it just fosters economic cooperation; the OneVoice Movement does not deny people their “narrative,” but it focuses on bringing about working solutions that can truly pull the Israeli and Palestinian people out of the “intractable” conflict; the conflict is only “intractable” if you insist you want “peace” but you deny that peace entails some painful compromises. If either Israelis or Palestinians hang on to absolutist positions, they should at least recognize theirs are not consistent with the pursuit of “peace.” While OneVoice does not pass moral judgments, the OneVoice Principles for Engagement require a) mutual recognition (of the humanity and rights of both peoples), b) a recognition of the need for personal civic action to wrest back the agenda, and c) a recognition that civic action must be non-violent to achieve its goals.

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