Adnan Jaber and Israeli politician Tsipi Livni at an event in Israel, June 19, 2023.
Adnan Jaber and Israeli politician Tsipi Livni at an event in Israel, June 19, 2023.

Tech put this Palestinian activist on a path to build peace

JAFFA, ISRAEL — I met Palestinian peace activist Adnan Jaber on June 20, the same day four Jews from the West Bank settlement of Eli were killed by Palestinian gunmen. The murders were retribution for an Israeli military operation two days earlier in Jenin, which left seven Palestinians dead, and it was followed a day later by hundreds of Jewish settlers attacking the West Bank village of Turmus Ayya.

That same week, the Israeli government announced thousands of new Jewish homes slated for the West Bank. The spiral of violence seemed out of control.

I wondered whether Adnan would even meet with me. But he did, showing up all in a sweat in a parking lot in Jaffa, near the home he shares with his Jewish American girlfriend. He’d just finished shooting a video near Jericho for “Humans of the Middle East,” a new online series that launched July 1, and his bus back to Tel Aviv had been held up in traffic. He was excited, and apprehensive.

Excited because the new series would be posted on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, in Arabic, English and Hebrew versions. Apprehensive because any Palestinian involved in peace-building faces censure, or worse, from his peers — and this video series would be the most public activity in which he had yet engaged.

“I expect criticism,” he told me as he thumbed through one of the videos on his mobile phone. “I’m going to be speaking about an Israeli Jew and saying he’s a good guy. Even at the beginning of my work, when I was speaking about peace-building organizations, I was criticized. Now I’ll be criticized even more.”

Adnan is 28, a tech entrepreneur who speaks fluent English, the result of a year spent at George Mason University and a nearby community college in Virginia. Born to a Muslim family in East Jerusalem, he went to a private Christian school in the Old City where he learned English, but not Hebrew.

That, he says, was tragic. “I had this barrier in my head about the other side. The only Jews I saw were on the lightrail, at the Aroma Cafe, or in the American Eagle store in Mamilla,” an upscale shopping mall just steps from the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. “All I knew was from the news, they were occupying the land, Judaizing Jerusalem.”

When he returned from his year in America, he got a degree in information technology from the Arab American University in Jenin — but he couldn’t get a job in high-tech within Israel (he has Israeli travel documents, but like other East Jerusalem Palestinians, he carries a Jordanian passport). He interviewed with five companies, each time facing an Israeli Jew across the interview table. Neither felt comfortable with the other, he says. He spent a year unemployed.

Many young Palestinians in his position fall into despair, then turn to anger. Fortunately, in 2018 Adnan heard about Tech2Peace, a program that takes young Israelis and Palestinians to a remote place for a two-week seminar to learn tech and talk to each other. Adnan wasn’t looking to get into peace-building — he just hoped the seminar would help him find a job.

If my friends in Jenin or East Jerusalem knew I was going to a peace program, they would call me a ‘normalizer’

“I was really afraid to join the program because of the word ‘peace,’” he told me. “If my friends in Jenin or East Jerusalem knew I was going to a peace program, they would call me a ‘normalizer,’” which isn’t a good label to be slapped on a young Palestinian. “I took the risk because I needed to understand the Israelis, I needed connections, I needed a job.”

He told his friends he was going to a tech conference, and off he went to Yerucham, a development town in the Negev Desert.

It was his first time on an Egged bus. It was his first time talking, really talking, to Israelis. At the end of the two weeks, he had made his first Jewish friends, and the course of his life changed.

Let me put Adnan in context here. I’ve spent years living and reporting in Israel. I was working in Tel Aviv in the 1990s when Israel signed peace treaties with the PLO and Jordan. I was there as the Oslo Accord seemed to gain traction. Peace was in reach, and there was a giddiness in the air.

I was also there the night former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed, the suicide bus-bombings began in earnest, and the whole thing started to unravel.

Today, it’s hard to find young Israelis or Palestinians who believe peace can be achieved, much less a two-state solution. Gen Z is terribly jaded, and they have a right to be. Their leaders have let them down over and over again.

So it’s unusual and heartwarming to meet someone like Adnan, a young man with clear vision and a sharp mind who deeply, deeply believes that things can be better. His eyes shine as he tells me how over the five years since that first seminar, he joined 20 peace-building organizations.He studied at the Arava Institute and spent six months living on its host kibbutz, Ketura.

He now serves on the board of Tech2Peace, and early this year he founded PeaceTech forum, a networking initiative that brings together tech CEOs from the region to learn from each other (it’s just been absorbed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a nice coup). He speaks to American Jewish groups and members of Congress. He meets with world leaders, including in Israel — he proudly shows me the selfie he took with Israeli political leader Tzipi Livni the previous evening at an event.

Our conversation was the first time Adnan had spoken to a journalist, but he loves talking to people about Jews and Palestinians getting together to solve joint problems via tech. That’s the answer, he believes — working person-to-person, one human at a time. Looking each other in the eye.

“Why do I have hope?” he asks rhetorically. “I”ll tell you why. Look at the city of Jaffa, where you find Israelis and Palestinians living together in mixed neighborhoods. When you greet someone on the street, you don’t know whether to say ‘marhaba’ or ‘shalom.’ If it works here, then it can work in the Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem, and then hopefully in Bethlehem and in Jericho, in Ramallah,” he says.

“Is there hatred? Yes, nobody is perfect. Is there racism? Yes, like in every city around the world. But this city is proof that Palestinians and Israelis can live together, and that everything starts with education.”

Nevertheless, it’s a slog. It took Adnan five years before he had the confidence to post about his peace work. And when he did, he chose what he calls the “safest” platform: LinkedIn. That’s where the more educated folks hang out, he explains. Even when he was outed as a “normalizer” by a BDS report, which was shared by many pro-Palestinian media outlets, he says he lost only a handful of followers on social media — but gained hundreds more. Life went on, just like normal.

That, he says, is the goal.

“I want the next Palestinian who joins a Tech2Peace program to feel that it’s not a weird thing. That it’s the norm.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].