Last summer, Ohad Elhelo received a phone call while he was home in Israel after volunteering to serve in the Protective Edge military operation in Gaza. The Israeli-American Council invited him to address a Combined Jewish Philanthropies-sponsored August 14 “Stop the Terror” rally in support of Israel that was expected to draw 3,000 people in Boston. The 25-year-old Israeli Brandeis University economics and business major wasn’t sure he wanted to accept.
“I believe in delivering productive messages — those that have added value. To go on stage and tell people ‘You must support the IDF’ didn’t seem productive because those people already supported the IDF. That’s why they attended the rally,” he explained.
“I thought, ‘If I am going to speak at this event, I want to give my own message, which is more complicated.’” And more liberal.
Elhelo believes military means alone will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must be paired with a joint Israeli- Palestinian- American effort to rebuild the broken social and economic foundation of Gaza.
He calls this an “infrastructure of hope.”
Elhelo delivered a powerful six-and-a-half minute speech at the rally that went viral almost immediately, reaching over two million viewers http://www.ohadelhelo. com/#!video-gallery/cw47.
“Every round of violence in Gaza weakens the moderates and empowers extremism.
We say Hamas does not want peace and we are right. But being right is not enough. To succeed, we must be smart,” he told the crowd.
“The terrorist infrastructure is not just Hamas. It is also poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, desperation and a lack of political horizon. It is up to all of us — Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Americans — to build an infrastructure of hope,” he said, summoning the thousands gathered to rise to the challenge of building this joint Israeli-Palestinian organization.
Hundreds of people waited to greet him offstage, many to tell him that they could relate to his words.
“I love Israel and there is no arguing that,” the IDF Special Forces veteran of three military operations said. “Even when I spoke about some sort of criticism for the Israeli government, people were supportive.”
After the rally, he realized he had been given an opportunity to pursue a unique trek.
Right after the Boston rally, Elhelo was interviewed by major TV stations and newspapers in Israel and the United States. He also received invitations to speak at such high-profile fundraising events as the International Lion of Judah Conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, where 1,400 top female contributors of the world donated $27.2 million, and the CJP Major Gifts event in Boston.
At those fundraisers, many people expressed their support for what he was saying. “I came with a message that is slightly different from what some of the peace organizations are doing,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t believe in the “kumbaya” approach of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to talk about their feelings. “That is basically asking them to do what we want instead of what they want.”
Nor does he think about the leaders when he thinks about role models who can carry a message of collaboration and coexistence. “The current leadership on both sides cannot get along. That is a fact,” he stated.
Ohad Elhelo and Lidor Cohen served in the Golan Heights, in 2011.
“I think about the entrepreneurs, the students, the young professionals. This is where I want to focus. What do young people care about? What prevents them from working together?” he asked. The answer, Elhelo believes, was they lacked a platform that interested them, one that focused on business startups, entrepreneurship and networking, rather than “coexistence.”
“My message was pragmatic and I needed to pursue this idea with pragmatic people,” he said.
He met with business executives and senior politicians, enlisting them to use their talents, experience and resources to help a younger generation make their voices heard and their constructive energy felt in the region. Brandeis’s senior administration was the first to sign on.
Elhelo explained his idea of setting up a foundation to bring outstanding Palestinian and Israeli students to American campuses to develop their leadership skills and build their own ventures with the goal of developing a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leadership that will share a powerful vision for a common future. President Lawrence was one of the first to sign on and the Brandeis venture was born.
The cost for the program of two cohorts is $5.4 million, of which Brandeis is committed to contributing $1.4 million. The planning stage is completed and fundraising is in full swing. Projected launch date is either Spring or Fall 2016.
The Board of Advisors and list of mentors includes leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the U.S.
Under the program, ten Palestinian and ten Israeli students will come to Brandeis each year for a 15-month Masters program in public policy and business that will focus on negotiations, mediation and leadership skills. Each student will have a mentor who has agreed to participate, including American, Palestinian and Israeli business executives and politicians, including parliament members, heads of security services and senior business executives.
The students will propose and establish their own ventures, up to three per year, from Brandeis and then bring those ventures back to their communities in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Elhelo gave an example of how the program is meant to work.
“If you go to a Palestinian community and ask the students, ‘What do your people care about?’ sometimes the answers will be fascinating. They might tell you, ‘We don’t really mind about the Israeli army but in our village there are no light bulbs on the road and there are many car accidents and that bothers us,’” he said.
If one of the student ventures were to equip that village with light bulbs, then the single fellow who returned to his village would be bringing change that the community wanted and needed. “That fellow will be seen as a leader. He is a change agent,” Elhelo said.
In the meantime, the recipient of the prestigious Brandeis University Slifka scholarship is a change agent in his own right. “Collaborative ventures are the answer. They are cheaper than rockets and have greater implications in the long run,” he said.
Pictured at top: Ohad Elhelo addressed the CJP Major Gifts event last fall.