Books, not rockets
Ohad Elhelo ’16 urges for the employment of social and political means to promote coexistence through his public speaking career and founding of Our Generation Speaks
It was July 2014 in the North End of Boston when Ohad Elhelo ’16 received devastating news from his home country of Israel. During a secretive mission part of a military operation called Operation Protective Edge, 13 soldiers and officers from his former unit in the Israel Defense Forces died in an explosion on a road planted with mines.
The death of his friends, in conjunction with his hometown Ashdod being under fire and his brother’s deployment as a soldier in Gaza, led Elhelo to a singular conclusion—his place was in Israel. He returned to Israel for two weeks to serve as a reserve officer, during which he was involved in an operation that he described as a strategically significant aspect of the anti-Hamas warfare. “The fact that I go to Brandeis, that I live in Boston, does not exempt me from my duty,” Elhelo said.
As both an active reserve officer and a student in the United States, Elhelo was at liberty to decide whether or not to return to Israel.
Upon Elhelo’s return to Boston in August, he was asked to speak at a “Stop the Terror” rally at Boston City Hall. The rally was organized by 170 Jewish organizations, and Elhelo was expected to talk about his experience in Operation Protective Edge. Two things were obvious to him, he said. One, that as a reserve officer, he was expected to deliver a straightforward message: “I am anti-Hamas, I stand with Israel.” And two, that once he was on the stage in front of 3,000 people, he would have an unprecedented opportunity to develop and share his own platform.
“These kinds of rallies are very similar to one another.” Elhelo said. “You bring the politicians, they stand on the stage, and they say: we stand with Israel, we are anti-Hamas…I didn’t feel that if I told these people I stand with Israel, it would make an impact. Of course they stand with Israel; that’s why they came to the rally.”
Elhelo spoke at the City Hall in Boston about his experience serving in a two-week special operation.
Ohad Elhelo ’16 (left) is pictured with a fellow soldier as he was serving as an itelligence officer in a special unit of the Israel Defense Forces.
Elhelo, an active Israel Defense Forces reserve officer, spoke to a crowd of 3,000 people at a pro-Israel rally in August 2014.
Instead, Elhelo told the crowd something that they perhaps did not want to hear—that Hamas will not be beaten through military means alone. His message was an urgent call to employ social and political means, in conjunction with military means, in the fight against Hamas. He stated the necessity of a “new infrastructure of hope.”
“It was not unique, but it was special because it was coming from someone who had just gotten back from the operation,” Elhelo said. “My story represents why there is always a place for students to make their voice heard and to know there is a high demand for these voices.”
Since then, Elhelo has been traveling nearly every weekend, delivering his message to temples and universities around the Northeast, such as Clark University, Temple Israel in Boston and the Israeli American Council.
Elhelo’s public speaking career is born from one clear message: Elhelo’s views align with the Israeli government’s as far as his agreement that Hamas is not a partner for negotiation. “We do not talk to Hamas. Open the newspapers. They do not want to see Israelis alive,” Elhelo said. “But I also understand this—we will not beat Hamas, we will not eliminate Hamas.”
Therein lies his most essential disagreement with the current agenda of the Israeli government. He believes that Hamas will not be eliminated, regardless of how much support is given by the United States in the form of weapons or technology and regardless of how strong the Israeli army becomes. “We will not beat them because we do not want to involve our military in killing an enormous amount of innocent people as we try to reach Hamas,” Elhelo said. “Terrorist infrastructure is hopelessness, ignorance, the lack of a political horizon, desperation.”
He gives the example of a five-year-old child seeing his house demolished in Gaza after a strike by the Israeli air force aimed at Hamas. “He will not grow up to be a peace activist,” Elhelo said. As a citizen, Elhelo says, he will be unwilling to negotiate with Israeli politicans. “If we cannot talk to him, we will have to fight him,” Elhelo said.
Israel, according to Elhelo, should have an interest in the socio-economic conditions in Palestine. Elhelo’s platform is that this interest will only be expressed when Israel engages Palestinian moderates in Gaza, where Israel currently has no place.
“Israel should have a place among the moderates [in Gaza]. If we can make sure that in the reading books of high schools in Gaza there are no incitements [against Israel], then maybe there is hope that in 25 years from today, Gaza will able to communicate with us,” Elhelo said.
“Books are cheaper than rockets and have greater implications in the long-run,” Elhelo said.
Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, according to Elhelo has a reputation for being a man of peace and discourse and is someone Elhelo believes Israel should engage with. “You can see him smiling all over the
Internet with Hamas leaders or with leaders of radical Islam. You can say, ‘he is not the perfect partner for peace,’” Elhelo said. But on the other hand, Elhelo commends the work Abbas has done to help keep peace in the West Bank, citing Abbas’ condemnation of the violent resistance against Israel.
“He is not the perfect partner, but if you know of the perfect partner, I would love to be introduced to him. If there is no perfect partner, then let’s talk to those who exist right now,” Elhelo said.
Elhelo’s point about strategic partnership defines the crux of his attitude toward Israeli affairs—that a distinction must be made between what will bring peace and what is “right.” He believes, and he is adamant about this, that the right thing to do is fight Hamas with military means. But he does not think this is the smart thing. “Enough with being right all the time. We are right when we are fighting Hamas—but let’s be smart. Let us empower the moderates while fighting Hamas in the military arena so that we have some political partner to talk to,” he said.
“In the Middle East, there is a pattern,” Elhelo said. “Every time you refuse to talk to the moderates, you end up talking to the extremists.”
Elhelo, inspired by the overwhelming responses to his message, partnered with University President Frederick Lawrence to found a nongovernmental organization called Our Generation Speaks to address the high demand for student input on Israeli politics. The NGO’s goal is to form a team of 30 talented students—Palestinians, Americans and Israelis—and give them a platform from which to express their opinions and create meaningful international discourse among students.
“Our Generation Speaks seeks to construct an infrastructure of hope for Israelis and Palestinians, by providing up-and-coming agents of change an empowering framework to share their visions for the future and act upon them,” Elhelo wrote in an email to the Justice.
Lawrence will sit on the board of Our Generation Speaks as well as the selection committee that reviews the candidates for the program. Current board members include Yuval Diskin, who served as Head of Israel Security Agency from 2005 to 2011, Alex Oliver, who is a founding partner of the global consulting firm Oliver Wyman and Linda Heller Kamm ’61. Kamm was appointed by President Carter to serve as the first female general counsel of a cabinet department, and was also the first woman to make partner at the nation’s second-oldest law firm, Foley & Lardner.
These experienced political figures will act as mentors for the student generation, sharing their experience to shape young leaders, forming an alliance between “the leaders of tomorrow and the leaders of today.”
“The goal is that 10 years from today, we will have the best leaders who are very experienced and believe in the same thing from all different sides,” Elhelo said.
Our Generation Speaks will attempt to bring to these political issues what the current student generation is good at—entrepreneurship, innovation and social media campaigning. These developing talents will be used to promote peace and coexistence in Israel and Palestine. “We want to take part in every aspect of the political and public discourse. We want people who will write weekly op-eds to act as commentators, to use social media campaigns to raise awareness,” Elhelo said.
Elhelo believes that the experience of the older generation of board members, along with the vision and modern skill-set of the younger generation of team members, will form the pillars upon which a new infrastructure of hope will be built.
“It is not right that the current generation, who [sic] makes decisions for us today, is not the one that will pay the price in 20 years,” Elhelo said.
“The current politicians in power have already lost the faith in the conflict. Our generation still believes that people can talk to one another, that it is in the best interests of both sides to work with one another.”